Open and free and what: Visions for the future of the Internet

25 Nov 2019 15:35h - 17:00h

Event report

[Read more session reports and updates from the 14th Internet Governance Forum]

Focused on the importance of the Internet in today’s societies, the discussions during this pre-event examined possible futures of a free and open Internet. Participants brought together by Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung e.V. (KAS), started by stressing that a baseline understanding that a free and open Internet coupled with a multistakeholder approach is seen as a guarantor of economic growth and development, as well as key to the perception of fundamental political rights. The speakers agreed about the importance of establishing a shared vision of a desirable future order of the Internet given the number of challenges that the Internet is faced with.

The moderator Mr Eduardo Magrani (Professor of Law and Technology and Intellectual Property at FGV Law School and Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro) began this discussion by asking the panellists about their opinions on the topic of the session – a free, open, and ‘what’ Internet. The panellists demonstrated a range of views surrounding the Internet and its most pressing issues. The speakers included in this session, Mr Fabrizio Hochschild (Under Secretary General, United Nations Special Advisor on the Preparations for the Commemoration of the 75th Anniversary of the United Nations), Mr Vincent Bagiire (Permanent Secretary Ministry of ICT and National Guidance Republic of Uganda), Ms Miranda Sissons (Director of Human Rights Policy and Engagement at Facebook Inc.), Ms Yi Ling Teo (Senior Fellow Centre of Excellence for National Security at RSIS), Mr Carlos Affonso (Director of the ITS Rio and member of the Executive Committee of the Global Network of Internet & Society Centers), were from a variety of technical, regional, and stakeholder backgrounds. The diversity of the speakers resulted in a range of views, with some seeing the necessity of a secure and resilient Internet over one in which the same rules apply online as well as offline, and others seeing a future Internet grounded in the already existing human rights framework of the UN.

Despite focusing on different areas of the Internet and different views of its future, all answers converged around a belief that cyberspace must be subjected to some form of governance. One speaker, however, pointed out that a governed space is in contradiction with a free and open Internet, and others agreed that the ideal of the Internet of past years, as understood by John Perry Barlow, is not sustainable. As one speaker put it, ‘The opposite of freedom is not governance. It’s tyranny’.

Moreover, speakers recognised the importance of creating common solutions at the global level in order to avoid the creation of grey areas due to regulatory overlaps and contradictions. Nonetheless, regional and local representatives also stressed the importance of creating local and bottom-up solutions to Internet challenges, which bears the question of how to achieve a sustainable and comprehensive regulatory framework for a singular Internet. In this regard, the session went on to highlight the work of Facebook’s human rights department and stressed that the UN human rights framework provides a proven and resilient framework.

The speakers also noted the growing limitation of online freedoms around the globe and mentioned splintering or fragmentation of a free and open Internet, and the importance of keeping up with technological developments. Speakers pointed out that policy-makers are still trying to catch up to new developments which often leads to rushed solutions, often with adverse and unforeseen effects.

In order to be able to address and solve cyber-threats, it is important to move away from traditional views that consider the Internet to be a single domain which must solely be protected by governments. Therefore, given the decentralised nature of the technology, solutions to Internet challenges must be tackled in whole-of-nation approaches, thus requiring academia and civil society to be a link between policy-makers and populations. They also have a responsibility to inform decision-makers, as well as vulgarising strategies and frameworks that have been adopted.

Speaking from a European Union perspective, Hochschild spoke about the current challenge of reconciling two opposing interests: one group, law enforcement agencies and companies with specific business models, which want more data, and the another, comprised of private citizens, that sees the right to privacy as a central European value.

Finally, the discussion concluded with a question focused on whether or not in the future, the Internet will become ubiquitous, requiring current discussions about Internet openess and freedom to shift their focus. This session concluded with an agreement that if this were the case, future discussions would need to place greater emphasis on regular societal issues all the while recognising that they all have a significant connection to the Internet.

By Cedric Amon