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Now is the time to act: the technical community must engage in support of multistakeholderism

This piece originally appeared in CircleID on April 22, 2024.
By Byron Holland
President and CEO

Over the next two years, several global dialogues about our shared digital future are taking place—and big changes could be in the cards.

An intensive series of negotiations will see United Nations (UN) Member States weigh in on the future of digital cooperation—and multistakeholderism finds itself under the spotlight. The multistakeholder model allows everyone who has a stake in the internet to meaningfully engage in discussions and decisions about its future on equal footing, but a number of critics are calling for change.

It seems unlikely that UN Member States will invest incredible time and energy into major, multi-year processes to simply rubberstamp the status quo. For years there’s been a growing consensus that change is needed to effectively steward the internet and its infrastructure into 2030 and beyond. As the world adapts to evolving geopolitical and technological realities, improving and strengthening multistakeholderism will need to be a key part of this transformation.

But not all UN Member States share that perspective. Certain proposals put forward in UN contexts would see a weakening of the multistakeholder model, and increased multilateral say in our digital future.

We’re at a critical juncture. Right now, governments have their fingers on a slider between multistakeholderism on the one end, and multilateralism on the other. If the technical community doesn’t get engaged soon, we could find ourselves with a diminished role in global internet governance. Now is the time to get involved.

For decades, critical internet resources like domain names have been governed by the multistakeholder model of internet governance at fora like the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).

This approach was formalized in 2005 through the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS)—a process that also sparked the creation of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF). Between now and 2025, the UN is taking WSIS back to the drawing board with the WSIS+20 Review.

In 2025, UN Member States will come together to evaluate the impact of the original WSIS outcomes and decide whether the mandate of the IGF will be renewed.

Before that happens, however, there is a key process that the internet’s technical community must engage in.

In September, UN Member States will gather in New York City at a “Summit of the Future” to endorse an intergovernmental agreement called the Pact for the Future. Led by the UN Secretary-General, the Pact for the Future is broad in scope, and aims to reinvigorate multilateral cooperation for a “better tomorrow.”

As part of this initiative, the UN Office of the Secretary-General’s Envoy on Technology is overseeing the development of a Global Digital Compact (GDC)—led by co-facilitators, the Permanent Representatives of Zambia and Sweden—that will be annexed to the Pact for the Future.

In the UN’s words, the GDC will “outline shared principles for an open, free and secure digital future for all.” The GDC—which will also be agreed to at the Summit of the Future—will frame UN Member States’ understanding of global digital cooperation going forward.

Now, navigating UN process isn’t for the faint of heart. There are a lot of moving parts; the processes are opaque.

Following a years-long series of consultations, in February, Member States took part in two informal consultations at the UN to discuss what the GDC should look like. While external stakeholders, including CIRA, had the opportunity to share their views in two accompanying UN-led virtual consultations across February and March, not all stakeholders were granted the chance to speak.

The key point here is that the GDC will have implications for the WSIS+20 Review—and negotiations about its substance are taking place right now.

The co-facilitators presented the GDC zero draft in early April—the first cut of the final product—and at first glance, there’s quite a bit to like. It recognizes both the technical community and multistakeholderism. But digging deeper, some of its provisions may point to the start of a troubling trend. For example, the draft foregrounds multistakeholder “cooperation” instead of “governance.” This may seem like a minor nuance—but the term “multistakeholder cooperation” has little to no historical bearing and suggests a weaker role for non-governmental stakeholders in decision-making.

Now is the time for the technical community to ensure its voices are heard. Even if you missed the stakeholder consultations in February and March, there’s still time to share your views with your ministry of foreign affairs to help shape the text of the GDC. There is also a recently-announced stakeholder consultation taking place on April 24. But the GDC is a multilateral process that will require negotiation with each of the UN’s Member States, so collaborating with your foreign ministry is the best way to influence the outcome.

In addition to UN and government engagement, there are opportunities to engage in support of strengthened multistakeholderism outside of formal UN processes in landmark multistakeholder events like Netmundial+10 and the WSIS+20 High-Level Event. CIRA has also been working with other technical operators like auDA, InternetNZ and Nominet to establish a technical community coalition to help drive engagement in these processes.

Alongside language that forefronts multistakeholder governance, technical operators should advocate that the GDC maintain and strengthen existing structures, such as the Internet Governance Forum, and counter alternative proposals that would centre governments in global digital cooperation at the expense of the technical community and other stakeholder groups.

For example, the GDC zero draft introduces a wide range of multilateral entities to follow up and review the GDC’s commitments, such as a “High-Level Review of the Global Digital Compact.” Bodies like these could undercut the potential for existing multistakeholder fora with institutional memory and stakeholder support, like the IGF, to play a key role in implementation.

If proposals that undercut multistakeholderism and centre multilateralism are adopted in the final GDC and subsequent processes, we could one day find ourselves with reduced influence over critical decisions about the internet’s future. This would mean that the voices of those who play a critical role in the day-to-day operation of the internet would carry less weight in discussions about how the internet can and should work.

To be clear, the same goes for the other stakeholder groups that make up the multistakeholder model alongside governments: civil society, academia and the private sector.

Thankfully, there is still time to shape these processes. As a community, we must each do our part to call for input from all stakeholder groups to be reflected in the outcomes of the GDC and related UN processes. In my view, this is the only real way to steward the enormous potential of the internet.

About the author
Byron Holland

Byron Holland (MBA, ICD.D) is the president and CEO of the Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA), the national not-for-profit best known for managing the .CA domain and developing new cybersecurity, DNS, and registry services.

Byron is an expert in internet governance and a seasoned entrepreneur. Under Byron’s leadership, CIRA has become one of the leading ccTLDs in the world, with over 3 million domains under management. Over the past decade, he has represented CIRA internationally and held numerous leadership positions within ICANN. He currently sits on the Board of Directors for TORIX, and is a member of the nominations committee for ARIN. He lives in Ottawa with his wife, two sons, and their Australian shepherd, Marley.

The views expressed in this blog are Byron’s opinions on internet-related issues, and are not necessarily those of the organization.