Digital governance must not marginalize smaller states

For effective and inclusive digital governance, multi-stakeholderism must raise its game.

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Kate Jones

Associate Fellow, International Law Programme

Last month, the G7 announced it is to work towards a trusted, values-driven digital ecosystem. While this is commendable, the G7 must recognize that key international digital governance decisions should involve all states whose populations will be affected. Not doing so is to deny the legitimate interests of those populations and may cause a lack of trust in international digital governance that embeds longer-term instability.

While a multi-stakeholder approach to digital governance is important, it must be structured in a way that allows for meaningful representation of states’ interests and ensures their representatives have the opportunity and capacity to take part. As the internet becomes fundamental to life in every country of the world, international digital governance is increasingly important to all governments and excluding some states’ perspectives may engender wider risks to international security and governance.

The ‘glitter ball’ of digital governance

International digital governance is playing catch-up with the digital sphere it needs to govern.

International digital governance is playing catch-up with the digital sphere it needs to govern. Its starting point is a ‘glitter ball’ of governance initiatives: a large number of complex facets with overlapping impacts – and an almost impenetrable core. Governance initiatives (see infographic) include governance of the internet itself and its uses, international cybersecurity, international human rights, data management, as well as the impact of digital developments in areas such as armed conflict, trade and health.

Many of the bodies involved – such as the Internet Governance Forum, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) and technical standards bodies – include a wide range of stakeholders, yet there is no one accessible, central body. Furthermore, certain key issues, such as the role and responsibilities of tech platforms, are barely touched upon by international governance mechanisms. There is also currently only a limited role for traditional UN multilateral decision-making, a process which builds in a role for smaller states.

The sheer number of forums involved, each with a different set of working methods and rules on participation, makes it difficult to fully grasp what digital governance looks like as a whole. The UN secretary-general’s High-level Panel on Digital Cooperation recognized the complexity of digital cooperation arrangements and the barriers to inclusion facing small and developing countries as well as under-represented groups. In response, the June 2020 UN Roadmap on Digital Cooperation accepts the need to streamline digital governance while ensuring marginalized voices are heard.

The sheer number of forums involved, each with a different set of working methods and rules on participation, makes it difficult to fully grasp what digital governance looks like as a whole.

The UN is considering potential models for future governance, each of which would – reassuringly – involve multi-stakeholder participation, dedicated funds to boost participation, consolidation of discussions currently split between different forums and a minor coordinating role for the UN.  

Building in roles for smaller states

As the UN designs new digital governance architecture, it is particularly important to build in roles for small and medium states. Core constituencies affected by decisions should be at the centre and governments – as guardians of public interest – should have a key say in the decision-making process. The distrust generated by built-in power imbalances needs to be addressed, as does the dominance of voices from the Global North in bodies such as ICANN.   

There has been some progress made to increase participation. For example, the Freedom Online Coalition includes a number of developing countries and the 2020 Internet Governance Forum included input from 175 states.

Multi-stakeholderism needs to raise its game.

However, participation is not only a matter of having a seat at the table. As discussed at the March 2021 UN Open-ended Working Group on ICTs in the context of international security, capacity-building is vital. The group’s conclusions include the suggested development of a global cyber capacity-building agenda with information sharing and norms guidance under the auspices of the UN. Representatives of small and medium states need a roadmap to understand in which forums they can defend and pursue their interests, and the financial help to do so if necessary.

Managing multi-stakeholder participation

A multi-stakeholder approach has been fundamental to digital governance from the start and has played a vital role in helping to secure the openness and universality of the internet. This approach is rightly seen as essential to effective governance because it introduces diverse expertise, allows the interests of all impacted sectors to be taken into account and helps ensure decisions are accepted by those affected.

There is a perennial risk of debate and decision-making being captured by the wealthiest companies or the most powerful states.

However, as identified in a Chatham House report on inclusive global governance, multi-stakeholderism needs to raise its game. One of its downsides is that in the cacophony some important voices may not be heard because they lack resource or capacity to speak up. There is a perennial risk of debate and decision-making being captured by the wealthiest companies or the most powerful states. At present, small and medium states are under-represented in multi-stakeholder forums and it is important that those managing such forums seek to identify and include previously excluded voices.

Multi-stakeholderism should not come at the expense of efficiency. While it does not have to mean huge, inefficient meetings or endless discussion, it should also not mean that smaller, less well-funded voices are not heard. Instead, such processes should enable representation of appropriate interest groups, complemented by wider meetings (such as regional meetings, or sector-specific meetings) as needed. While inclusivity and transparency are key, synergies between regional and global forums can work well –  for example, some countries have adopted national versions of the Internet Governance Forum –  and so too can hybrid models such as the Freedom Online Coalition, which meets both as government members and for regular multi-stakeholder dialogue.

A multi-stakeholder approach should also not lose sight of the key role of states – and where mandated, sub-state entities – in making public policy decisions.

An important role for the UN

For 75 years, the UN has acted as a bulwark of international security and shared values, and a promoter of economic and social development. If misused, technology has the potential to undermine this bulwark, to facilitate conflict, erode rights and undermine development. The UN must encourage the harnessing of technology for society’s benefit, while leading a collective effort to guard against the risks through the retention and growth of a universal, open internet – particularly in the face of growing digital authoritarianism exacerbated by COVID-19.

The UN can also help protect against a commercial culture that threatens to trample fundamental freedoms of privacy and autonomy in its pursuit of wealth and to widen economic and social gulfs by leaving large swathes of the world behind. If the UN is to play this role effectively – and for the benefit of all its members ­– it requires the active participation of all states, large and small.