Exciting times ahead on internet governance: UN Committee on Science, Technology and Innovation 2023
05 April 2023
The coming two years will be important ones in the history of international internet governance, providing a number of key opportunities to underline what libraries need in order to fulfil their missions. The 2023 UN Committee on Science and Technology for Development provided an opportunity to set out next steps.
Efforts to develop some sort of governance of the internet date back to early in the millennium, recognising how influential the technology was going to be. The goal – right from the beginning – was to promote a people-centred approach that supported development.
Since then, the internet has, if anything, gone faster than original planners expected, and has become an essential part of infrastructure, not just in physical terms, but also in enabling the economy, education, health and beyond.
In the light of this, there has been a drive from the UN Secretary General to look again at the rules and principles in place, as well as to strengthen the structures and processes available for governing the internet.
The Committee on Science and Technology for Development (CSTD) is one of the sub-commissions of the UN’s Economic and Social Committee. At its meeting on 26-30 March in Geneva, Switzerland, it looked at the next steps in this space.
Global Digital Compact
A presentation from the United Nations Tech Envoy – Amandeep Singh Gill – set out the process, in particular around the Global Digital Compact, an initiative of the UN Secretary General, that will set out principles on internet governance. Crucially, he underlined the need for a positive approach to internet decision-making, looking to make the most of the potential positives of connectivity and access, rather than just the downsides.
The public call for inputs on the Compact is still open until the end of the month (IFLA submitted in October), and we will then see a briefing on the issues it will cover. These are likely to include key points around connectivity and inclusion. The goal is for this to be finalised by the Summit of the Future due in September 2024.
In parallel with this, we are heading towards the 20th anniversary of the conclusion of the first World Summit on the Information Society process in 2025, with plans already underway for WSIS+20. CSTD has a particular role here, as the UN body overseeing this work. The Committee will run stakeholder consultations this year and next, involving actors at all levels, and including civil society organisations like IFLA of course.
CSTD was also the opportunity to present the UN Secretary-General’s report on progress towards delivering on the Action Lines established at the World Summit on the Information Society. This includes the inputs provided by IFLA.
Overall conclusions highlight the changing context of digital cooperation (including the need to bridge connectivity, and increasingly, data divides), the impacts of conflict and the risk of cyberconflict, differing approaches to content regulation online, and developments in media.
Internet Governance Forum
This work will also bring in UNESCO and the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), which meets in October in Kyoto, Japan. This too will have a strong future focus, looking at ‘The internet we want – empowering all people’. As the main multistakeholder forum for discussing the internet, providing contributions to these ongoing processes is likely to be high on the agenda. Key aspects of the programme of this year’s IGF were presented.
IFLA will be there, both underlining library contributions, and setting out what values and priorities the internet of tomorrow should operate by.
Finally, a helpful overview of key trends was presented by David Soutter, of ICT Development Associates. He stressed that the growing role of ICTs in all parts of the economy, society and governance meant that there was a need for multi-sectoral approaches, i.e. not just treating tech in isolation.
Furthermore, he argued for the Sustainable Development Goals to be placed at the heart of this work, ensuring a continued focus in decision-making on what was best for people and planet.
He noted key themes that would run through the work over the coming years – a faster pace of change than had been expected, raising questions about our fundamental vision of the internet; the need to look at the internet not just through the eyes of the tech sector; the continued importance of inclusion and equality (but also new awareness of vulnerable groups); the complexity of achieving the original WSIS vision of a people-centred internet; and the need to gather evidence about experience.
IFLA will continue to follow and engage in this work, as well as highlighting opportunities for interested members and librarians around the world to do the same.