The GDC zero draft: the good, the bad, and the ugly

DFRLab Senior Resident Fellow for Global and Democratic Governance Konstantinos Komaitis takes a look at the Global Digital Compact’s zero draft

The GDC zero draft: the good, the bad, and the ugly

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BANNER: The flags alley is seen outside the United Nations building during the Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland, February 27, 2023. (Source: Reuters/Denis Balibouse)

The long-awaited Global Digital Compact (GDC) zero draft dropped on April 1, and there is a lot in it. It requires time to absorb it all; with discussions already in progress since Friday, April 5, time is an issue. Also, it is important to remember that this is the “zero draft” and, by the time this process ends at the end of May, the text will look very different. This means that there is no need to panic; at least, not yet.

The zero draft gives a good snapshot of where the mind of the United Nations–and those of its member states–is.

Here is my high-level take.

A quick reminder…

Two years ago, the UN Secretary General initiated the GDC with the aim to tackle digital issues through the lens of multilateral reform. In establishing the GDC, participating states identified some priority areas of concern, ranging from digital connectivity to internet fragmentation, from the protection and governance of data to the application of human rights online, and from the regulation of artificial intelligence (AI) to how best to promote a trustworthy internet through the introduction of accountability criteria for misleading content.

For two years, the co-facilitators of the process, Sweden and Zambia (replacing Rwanda), held informal and formal consultations with both governments and interested stakeholders. Almost 200 written submissions were made from all parts of the world on views about the future of the internet and digital technologies. Stakeholders participated in formal and informal consultations organized by the co-facilitators, and the GDC was a topic of conversation in both New York and Geneva as well as at ICANN and the Internet Governance Forum (IGF). The forthcoming NetMundial+10 has included GDC as part of its agenda.

The GDC is part of a broader UN process, the Summit for the Future, which will lead to a governmentally negotiated but not binding Pact for the Future. The Summit is scheduled for September 2024.

What does the zero draft do?

The zero draft is a serious proposal. It is action-oriented, specific, and fairly comprehensive. It focuses on the issues the community has been asked to discuss in the past two years and comes across as a real attempt to map a path forward.

What does it not do?

Problematically, the zero draft fails to acknowledge the historical and institutional context of internet governance and its link to development. Even though the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) is mentioned, the role of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and the work it has done for the past twenty years in following up and promoting the WSIS Action Lines is omitted. This leaves a big gap and creates a certain degree of duplication that is not necessary.

Moreover, the draft introduces the term “multistakeholder cooperation,” instead of the historically used terms “multistakeholder governance” or “multistakeholder approach.” I am sure this is not intentional, however, the word “cooperation” is much weaker than “governance” or “approach.” In the latter case, stakeholders are given the opportunity to steer conversations and influence outcomes. Cooperation can be much looser.

The most likely explanation for these mishaps is the fact that the New York branch of the UN is responsible for the GDC. Since the beginning of this process, the choice of centering negotiations in New York instead of Geneva was questioned, because Geneva is usually where such discussions take place. The ITU, the Human Rights Council, and the World Intellectual Property Organization–all major UN bodies–are based in Geneva. They have the expertise. Geneva is where the food is cooked.

The good

There are some good things in the draft. The reference to cross-border data flows is a pleasant surprise, as they are essential for an open internet. Expect this to be one of the things that will change: the G77+China group will almost certainly object to the language, especially the one that points to the Data Free Flow with Trust framework, which is a G7 initiative.

Recognition of the importance of open source is another good element of the draft. Digital Public Infrastructure (DPI) has become a focal point in the GDC, and it is a good sign that the zero draft acknowledges that, for DPI to be effective, it must be open, interoperable, and based on open standards and human rights protections–much like the internet. The draft commits, among other things, to the promotion of the adoption “of open standards and interoperability to facilitate the use of digital public goods across different platforms and systems.”

Finally, consistent with the consultations, human rights are also a core part in the zero draft. The language is not strong enough yet it seeks to commit states to apply international law. The draft suggests that human rights must become core part of the consideration on new technologies and can help with issues of inclusion and participation, but it does not make any attempt to recognize some of the work that has already been done on this at the Internet Engineering Task Force and elsewhere.

The bad

The section on connectivity is disappointing. The zero draft approaches connectivity in the same monolithic way that it has been approached for the past twenty years. It puts all the eggs in the private sector basket and makes industry predominantly responsible for meeting the connectivity targets.

The draft disregards the limitations and the poor results this approach has had. It also disregards the new connectivity models that have emerged. For instance, there is no mention or recognition of community-driven initiatives, like Community Networks, that have been prominent in the past years. Nor is there any mention on blended financing models that have proven effective in addressing connectivity gaps for smaller communities to which private industry rarely has a business incentive to serve.

The other worrying thing is the recommendation for new structures, offices, and processes. In total, the zero draft recommends the creation of five new “things”: (1) a UN Digital Human Rights Advisory Service; (2) a UN Commission on Science and Technology Development (CSTD)-led intergovernmental multistakeholder process; (3) a UN-led international scientific panel on AI; (4) a $100 million fund on AI; and, (5) a dedicated office for coordinating digital and emerging technology in the Secretariat. That’s a lot.

Creating new things is not always the best solution. These bodies will require energy, and there is little doubt that they will end up stretching everyone involved thin, especially civil society groups that already struggle to keep up with an increasing number of processes. These bodies will also require money that only few countries will be willing or capable to contribute. If set up hastily, such bodies can also help reassert country dominance in internet decision making. It will be interesting to see which countries will be stepping in to fund or support them.

The ugly

The section on internet governance is a massive let down. There is really no language per se that should make anyone cringe; the problem is not what the zero draft says on internet governance, but what it does not say.

The words we have historically used to describe the internet: “open,” “global,” and “interoperable” are completely left out of the document. Instead, the zero draft reads: “Promote a universal, free and secure Internet and take concrete steps to create a safe, secure and enabling online environment.” This language should raise some red flags. The words “open,” “global,” and “interoperable” are used to identify the single internet, the one that is decentralized and not subject to top-down control. Countries like China traditionally object to these norms as they advocate for “sovereign” state-controlled internets. Meanwhile, consensus on words like “universal,” “free,” and “secure” has been more broad-based. For instance, China has used these terms in all kinds of contexts. While this convergence is a strength of global agreement, listing only these “agreeable” terms while leaving out the core norms that make the shared internet what it is sends a worrying signal.

The other problem is the missed opportunity to boost the IGF. The zero draft recognizes the role of the IGF, but it does not attempt to use its space, its community, and its knowledge. For instance, the IGF could be used as part of the follow up and implementation. The GDC draft “encourages” everyone to “engage actively in its work with a view to advancing Compact commitments on Internet governance,” but beyond that there is no real attempt to assign to the IGF a more specific role.

Ultimately, the zero draft seems to be focused on centralizing discussions about digital issues within the UN–not its system, which comprises institutions like the ITU, rather the UN as an institution headquartered in New York. The move to New York points to that centralization, as does the idea for creating a bunch of new entities under the UN, the increased role of the CSTD the draft proposes, and the language about the role of governments. One would argue that, if the broader discussion is about multilateralism, this is to be expected. But the zero draft negates the last twenty years and how they have informed, shaped, and determined much of the internet’s evolution.

As representatives in New York set out to negotiate over the coming months, there are a few key messages to consider:

  • Do not reinvent the wheel. Avoid duplication, while looking to strengthen and improve processes like WSIS and fora like the IGF;
  • Separate UN reform from longstanding processes related to internet governance. The UN has an important role to play but not necessarily the leading role; and
  • Move more of the conversations to Geneva where specialized agencies and expertise exist.

Cite this op-ed:

Konstantinos Komaitis, “The GDC zero draft: the good, the bad, and the ugly,” Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab), April 9, 2024,