Internet Governance Forum 2019: Can Discussions translate into Actions?

I felt honored when I was asked to attend the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) on behalf of the World Association for Christian Communication. For a first time attendee it is hard to understand how the IGF actually works. Cars with diplomatic registration plates dropping off government officials in front of the conference center in Berlin, UN police officers guarding the site. Looking at the IGF schedule did not make it easier. Although the various tracks (Data Governance, Digital Inclusion and Safety / Security / Stability / Resilience gave some orientation, it was hard to choose a personal schedule as quite often similar topics were dealt with in parallel sessions. I tried to focus my participation on WACC-related topics.

A Word describing IGF: Multistakeholderism

As mandated by the UN, “the IGF is a global multistakeholder platform that facilitates the discussion of public policy issues pertaining to the Internet”, bringing together collective expertise from government, business, the technical community, and civil society.

“Multistakeholderism” describes what the IGF is about., bringing together the different stakeholders and engaging them in dialogue. The fundamental question is: how can the results of these discussions be translated into tangible actions and Internet governance?

It was interesting to see who was present and who was not. IGF2019 being held in Germany, obviously there was a strong German and EU presence. However, there was also – thanks to the host nation – a sizable number of participants from the global South. In various sessions, representatives of Google and Microsoft were present as panelists or participants. I did not see anybody from Facebook or Amazon. Dealing with hate speech while preserving free speech was discussed widely, Facebook’s absence from IGF is telling.

Hate Speeach and Freedom of Speech

In the session “Tackling Hate Speech: A Multi-Stakeholder Responsibility” examples were given that Facebook often does not take down illegal hate content because its community standards are not violated. On the other hand, legal content is deleted as a violation of the Facebook’s community standards. Google’s community standards are different from Facebook. A representative from Google explained that the company applies a threefold approach to moderation of YouTube video content: users can flag content, there are trusted flaggers and machine learning. Nine million videos were taken down in Q2 of 2019, 78 percent identified by machine learning.

Questions that need further discussion: how do global community standards of US companies relate to local values and laws? If AI is used to find illegal content, how can flawed decisions be avoided if most data used to train AI comes from Western countries?

Bringing together stakeholders from government, business, the technical community, and civil society means that various approaches to combat hate speech are discussed. The situation is also different in each country.

Demanding tougher laws against hate speech in Europe can be counterproductive regarding human rights in MENA countries. With reference to European laws, authoritarian regimes use regulations to censor free speech.

Does the Internet become the Splinternet?

Internet governance is becoming more complicated as some countries try to gain national control of the Internet. In the African context, cyberlegislation is often used to stiffle the freedom of expression and democratic protests. Some countries shut down the Internet before elections. Others try to gain control over ISPs and thus control Internet access. Technology often deveolops faster than human rights. Notably China and Russia impose their own geographical boundaries on the Internet by creating their own versions of the net. Interoperabilty of the networks is not part of international law, states have the normative power. Therefore the multistakerholder approach of Internet Governance Forum is more important than ever to maintain the Internet as a self-governing net, so the conclusion of the session “Splinternet: What Happens if “Network Sovereignty Prevails“.

Ethics and Human Rights

Technology, especially AI is developing fast. What are the ethical principles behind AI, machine learning and IoT? If data to train AI comes from Western contexts, how can bias and discrimination by algorithms be prevented when the data is used in a global situation? When IoT becomes prevalent and integrated in everyday life, how can human rights be guaranteed? What values are essential when developing and implementing these technologies?

It is hard to predict how the Internet will develop. Can multistakeholderism foster democratic standards of Internet Governance? Therefore it is importart that civil society will contribute their expertise and their focus on communication rights and their advocacy of human rights.

The IGF provides a setting in which represenatives of the WTO and digital activits of the South discuss how free cross-boder flow of data affects developing countries. Where else could these discussions take place?

In order to promote digital justice, WACC has joined the Just Net Coalition. I believe WACC can fulfill its mission in advocy for communication rights and make a contribution by being a voice in the IGF.