Internet governance interrupted 

A readout of the events of NetMundial+10

Internet governance interrupted 

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BANNER: Lanyards on display at the NetMundial+10 conference in São Paulo, Brazil. (Source: netmundial10/archive)

“Nothing can happen for decades, and decades can happen in weeks.” A quote often attributed to Vladimir Lenin seems most apt these days for the fast-moving world of internet governance. As the UN carries forward its “Summit for the Future” seeking to update its approach to a changing world, some countries are using the opportunity to reopen debates about how the internet is managed. A perfect storm of unclear process and intention, genuine frustrations with the status quo from the bulk of the “G77” block, and a global rush to figure out artificial intelligence (AI) is converging in ways that could upend the open internet.

And while the Summit for the Future process has been underway now for close to a year, in the last few weeks it’s taken some wild turns.

On April 29 and 30 of this year, I traveled to Brazil for the ten-year anniversary of its major multistakeholder gathering on internet governance, “NetMundial.” Following in the footsteps of the first conference, the intention for this year’s gathering was to bring together a diverse group of people from government, civil society, industry, and academia from around the world and attempt to reach consensus on how to strengthen internet governance and digital policy processes.

Both the circumstances and the timing (around the Edward Snowden revelations) of the first meeting in 2014 made it groundbreaking, marking both a high and proof point of the massive potential of multistakeholder governance. In 2014, those at NetMundial affirmed the need for human rights protections on the internet, the importance of a limited role for the state in managing the internet, the requirement for affordable and high-quality access to the internet, the value of open and interoperable standards, and urgency to close the digital divide. NetMundial also set in motion the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) transition, the last trace of US governmental control over the technical functions of the internet. Collaboration and multistakeholder participation were identified as the only way to address these issues.

Now ten years later, amidst all the geopolitical posturing around digital issues, there was great pressure for this non-Western-led gathering to come together and matter. This year was certainly lower profile than the first one – in 2014, President Dilma Roussef helped to organize the gathering – and had less robust representation from the Asian Pacific and African regions. China was also noticeably absent, though it was present as part of a G20 side event on information integrity. But Latin American civil society showed up in force, with representation from standards-setting bodies, governments, and companies at the table. Despite a far more complicated and contested geopolitical landscape than in 2014, over the course of two days, this year’s NETMundial+10 participants, both in person, online, and through 154 written submissions, agreed to and released a consensus-based outcomes document reaffirming much of the same principles as ten years before. In it the group stated:

NETmundial+10 reaffirms the 2014 NETmundial principles to guide Internet governance and digital policy processes, proposes procedures to implement them effectively, and deliver messages to shape intergovernmental, national and regional dialogues and decisions on the future of Internet governance and digital policy processes. NETmundial+10 reaffirms the need to build an effective and functioning multistakeholder governance architecture that facilitates an informed, participatory and transparent engagement between sectors, in a multistakeholder model. This is the best way to contribute to the construction of a digital future that respects human rights and fundamental freedoms and fosters progress toward the attainment of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the development of inclusive societies that promote peace, prosperity and environmental sustainability for all.

When the Steering Committee read the document to the São Paulo hotel conference room, the crowd was abuzz, and rightly so. The fact that, in two days, so many different voices from so many different backgrounds managed to agree on the text reminded those present what shared and collaborative governance can achieve. Something remarkable happens when you put more than 700 people in one room and ask them to work toward a shared goal. People put politics aside, roll up their sleeves, and collaborate. This is how I would describe last week’s intense two days in São Paulo for NetMundial+10. Not only did people show up, but the internet community on the ground and online showed why multistakeholder participation is exactly what the internet needs.

Those present were understandably buoyed. After months of questions about the relevance of the gathering, the ability for anyone to agree on anything, and the potential to distract from the UN proceedings, there was a palpable sense of pride and relief. The success of NetMundial+10 should be measured in the collaboration I witnessed, in the interest of young people to participate and have a say in how the internet evolves, and in the ability of everyone to put differences aside and reach consensus. It felt like the early internet governance discussions in the mid 2000s, when that sense of collaboration was palpable.

Member states respond to the GDC zero draft

But the excitement coming out of NetMundial+10 was short-lived. A few hours after the finalization of the outcomes document, a copy of member state formal responses to the Global Digital Compact (GDC) zero draft started making its way around the crowd. Unbeknownst to many in the room, the G77+China had spent more than a week coordinating their responses in New York, remarkably choosing to submit a collective response, instead of as individual countries.

While the first round of GDC interventions and the resulting “zero draft” seemed to take a light touch on the existing system of multistakeholder governance, the leaked document showed the G77+China to have taken a stance amounting to an alarming encroachment on the technical architecture of the internet, catching everyone in the internet governance community off guard. While the G77 submission is not yet public, I was able to view a copy and noted a few particularly concerning elements.

The G77+China group rewrote the entire section on internet governance endorsing the idea of placing the internet under UN and state-led control. Specifically, while the document recognizes that the internet is a critical global resource, it went on to say that “ensuring the right of States to equally participate in the management and distribution of basic international Internet resources is crucial.” This is a significant departure from the historically agreed-upon notion that the management of the technical aspects of the internet should be done through a multistakeholder model of governance with competent technical organizations, like the Regional Internet Registries (RIRs) or the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).

The document also includes language on the need for coordination of the internet governance institutions, explicitly calling out the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), and ICANN. This language was similar to that which the Secretary-General released in May 2023 that was the subject of much debate within the internet community. In it, the Secretary-General recommended the creation of a Digital Cooperation Forum (DCF) to “…help to promote communication and alignment among [existing forums and initiatives] and focus collaboration around the priority areas in the [Global Digital] Compact.” While on its face, there is nothing wrong with the idea of coordination, centralizing it through a multilateral body risks undermining the multistakeholder model and weakening the power of existing fora. The document further articulates support for the Secretary-General’s proposal to make the tech envoy’s office permanent, which some are concerned will advance the trend of centralizing control within the UN secretariat as opposed even to member states, let alone industry or civil society.

While each edit in the document is credited to a specific country, China’s influence can be seen throughout, even just in the language it traditionally uses in international negotiations, such as “the advancement of social wellbeing” or “national sovereignty.” The document also includes policies China has advocated for, for years, that are designed to undercut human rights in the global system. This includes refuting the importance of human rights by arguing that development trumps all or is the supreme human right itself, as well as for internet governance to be centralized within the UN system, which would de facto mean a multilateral, state-controlled set of mechanisms. In the document, specific language advocating for this UN ownership “through the extensive participation of all states” and the need “for equal access to all countries, especially developing countries to […] networks” is all language that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has used to describe its various state-led digital initiatives and included in contributions to global standard-setting bodies. Many of these proposed standards are developed by domestic Chinese companies whose ultimate aim is to ensure the CCP’s continued political security. Thus, the standards endorsed and driven by China in the UN are by design tailored to the end use goals of a political party that has made surveillance, censorship, and control of online spaces a cornerstone of its approach to social governance.

While the document includes comments from across the G77, Mexico surprisingly put forward some of the most controversial language on internet governance, mirroring longstanding Chinese proposals for alternative models. Mexico has traditionally been a strong proponent of the multistakeholder system; it hosted the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in 2016 and is a member of the Freedom Online Coalition. Its position on the GDC caught most of the diplomatic community off-guard and underscored just how dynamic and unpredictable this process is becoming.

We can’t be sure what is currently driving Mexico’s extreme position; it may be economic factors or it may just be out of ideology. In any case, this language presents us with a whole new reality of how some member states view internet governance. Just like the open and global internet, we should not take for granted the multistakeholder internet governance model.

The beginning of something new? 

Back in March 2023, I suggested that the UN was taking quite a big gamble by introducing such a process in the midst of significantly heightened geopolitical tensions. It was clear that the Secretary-General’s “Our Common Agenda” had opened a Pandora’s Box for governments to discuss digital issues, and it was clear that the discussions would be highly political given the choice of New York for negotiations instead of Geneva’s technical offices. The Office of the Tech Envoy that was established could have been strategic for promoting the need for multistakeholder internet governance, but instead it saw this process as predominantly intergovernmental.

So here we are. 

Overall, it is hard to assess where the GDC will end up going or what it may become. The G77+China group are coming into this process more aggressively than anticipated and with the intention to reopen the World Summit on the Information Society’s (WSIS) Tunis Agenda, the founding document that established the multistakeholder model for internet governance and created the Internet Governance Forum.

This is notable because the twenty-year review of that founding document and the system it gave birth to will take place next year. So, while the United States, the European Union, and countries that support the multistakeholder model will fight back on any major changes pushed through the GDC, the debate will be just as present and perhaps more important through 2025. The G77+China group has just made very clear that it will not necessarily enter that “WSIS” negotiation process with the goal of preserving the multistakeholder model.

The events of NETmundial+10 bring home the dynamics at play; as countries debate the management of the internet, their equities and efforts to shape the world toward their interests are playing out in a number of places at once. Addressing each fora and conversation as distinct will miss the mark. Team multistakeholder took important steps at NETmundial+10. Team state-control escalated through the GDC submission. With more rounds of negotiation, the WSIS Forum and AI4Good Summit in Geneva at the end of May, and the Pact for the Future all still to come, we’ll be watching each closely.

Kenton Thibaut contributed to this op-ed. Rose Jackson served as editor.

Cite this op-ed:

Konstantinos Komaitis, “Internet governance interrupted,” Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab), May 17, 2024,