Guy Berger
Dec 5, 2018 · 5 min read

“Over-estimating Technological Solutions and Underestimating the Political Moment?” by Guy Berger

We all, and especially the private sector, should appreciate the uniqueness of the Global Network Initiative (GNI) for its multistakeholder work. In fact, GNI appears increasingly to be a metaphorical oasis in an apparent creeping desertification of unilateral decision making on Internet governance issues.

Yet, without broad multistakeholder engagement, the risk of polarization rises. On the one side, we see individual companies acting (or failing to act) in isolation of other stakeholder concerns. On the other side, there is the spectre of heavy-handed regulatory impulses by national states.

The result is unnecessary tension and misunderstanding, and a failure to tap the wisdom and consensus-building benefits of multistakeholder practice.

In this context, GNI’s contribution is twofold. First, in its internal practice of bringing companies and civil society to dialogue. Second, in its external role representing the common ground between these two constituencies to governments around the world.

The term “meaningful engagement” was used by a corporate tech leader earlier this year to speak about the aim of his company’s services. To repurpose the phrase in the context of multistakeholder governance, “meaningful engagement” was what characterised ties between big Internet companies with UN actors and civil society in earlier times.

But, as surfaced in discussions at conferences around a new UNESCO study of the multistakeholder modality, there has been marked drop in this kind of meaningful connection by many of the key corporate actors in recent years.

The reasons for this perceived decline are probably diverse. But the result is singular: it damages the credibility of the multistakeholder model of digital governance, and this cascades into damage to companies themselves… and to other stakeholders.

The absence of meaningful engagement also impairs the prospect of a free and open Internet contributing to the Sustainable Development Goals — which are in the interests of everyone.

In this context, GNI has an especially important role to renew the lesson that multistakeholder engagement is effective and in the interest of all. Especially nowadays, as Internet companies are wrestling with human rights issues but doing so largely on an individual basis without a unifying framework based upon multistakeholder practice.

Across the Internet industry, a bricolage of measures is being cobbled together — many of which over-estimate technological solutions or under-estimate the political moment. Common to most of these efforts is apparent ignorance of what Rebecca MacKinnon and others have pointed out in a 2014 UNESCO publication: the value of universal human rights standards.

For U.S. companies, the First Amendment seems the starting point for expression standards — but this continues to meet obstacles in many other jurisdictions. For these entities, as well as other countries’ companies, some steps are being taken to protect privacy or to end gender discrimination — but again these are also still being developed via narrowly national, rather than global, standards.

As a result, companies’ terms of service and content-management rules are proving ineffective in the face of varying national jurisdictions. There is no strong international normative basis being built that can help businesses effectively navigate different national legal systems (let alone deal with informal pressures, rather than legally mandated ones).

Uneven, fragmentary and sometimes even frantic actions by the most powerful entities in the ICT ecosystem highlight the raison d’être of GNI, and indeed its challenge to further sensitize its corporate members.

Arguably, it is the companies’ lack of reference to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights that underlies many contemporary problems. Multistakeholder elaboration of these standards for the digital age could fill a major gap in today’s world.

Meaningful Engagement in Digital Governance

The existence of universal human rights standards — to which all states have signed up — provides a formidable benchmark in terms of which every multinational’s individual global policy can be defensibly elaborated and interpreted — and in a multistakeholder fashion. It is points like these which UN bodies and civil society seek to promote through dialogue with Internet companies. But this requires that corporate actors admit the value of such engagement beyond public relations.

All this is why on its 10th birthday, the GNI and its continuing existence constitute a real achievement as well as great promise for current and future challenges.

Photo from the February 2018 GNI-UNESCO Colloquium in Paris: “Improving the Communications and Information Ecosystem to Protect the Integrity of Elections”

As an example of the Initiative’s value-add, in February this year the organization co-hosted with UNESCO a colloquium on the key issue of elections integrity in digital times. The occasion provided a civil discussion between states, companies, civil society and academia, as well as UNESCO and the GNI secretariat. It was the kind of sharing of perspectives and identifying of common ground that’s so very much needed in times of global divergence and the explosion of disinformation.

Human rights are one of the pillars of UNESCO’s new indicators for assessing the Internet, and the organization looks forward to possible collaboration with GNI and its members in terms of applying this research instrument at country level.

In this way, evidence-based Internet policy — aligned to international human rights standards — can be advanced. GNI constituencies have a key interest in this.

The recent report by the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Opinion, David Kaye signals a further opportunity which Internet companies could pursue via the GNI.

Kaye’s document states: “companies could work with one another and civil society to explore scalable solutions such as company-specific or industry-wide ombudsman programs. Among the best ideas for such programs is an independent ‘social media council,’ modelled on the press councils that enable industry-wide complaint mechanisms and the promotion of remedies for violations.”

If the Internet private sector is to have “meaningful engagement” with this idea, GNI could offer its constituents an enriching dialogue with the traditional media.

Looking ahead, technologies linked to artificial intelligence will likely be a major area for engagement wherein GNI can also play a part in advancing dialogue and knowledge about human rights in digital developments.

We should all wish GNI strength in its work over the next decade. And hope too that its corporate members will step up their involvement in this key institution as well as within other major multistakeholder fora.

* Guy Berger works as Director for Freedom of Expression and Media Development at UNESCO. He writes here in his individual capacity, and the ideas and opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of UNESCO and do not commit the organization.

The GNI Blog

Missives, ruminations, and explainers from the GNI network — members and outside experts with a shared interest in freedom of expression and privacy in the ICT sector.

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