RIA’s Submission on UN Secretary-General’s HLP on Digital Cooperation

Research ICT Africa

Consultation on Digital Cooperation Architecture

A) Overarching questions on a future digital cooperation structure concerning all models

1. Do you support the recommendation of a multistakeholder ‘systems’ approach for cooperation and regulation that is adaptive, agile, inclusive and fit for purpose for the fast-changing digital age? To what extent is the “multistakeholder” aspect important?

Research ICT Africa fully supports the recommendation of an adaptive, agile, inclusive and fit-for-purpose multistakeholder approach to digital cooperation. 

We believe global governance is experiencing a shift in the conceptions of public and private – including respective roles and responsibilities – in response to the limitations of both state and neoliberal ideas reflected in public governance (Best & Gheciu, 2014). International political economy is now beginning to challenge the assumption that public and private are ‘ontologically separate domains of social life, governed by different logics and association with specific sites’, which can be seen in the focus on adjusting mechanisms for digital governance (Best & Gheciu 2014:3).

This public/private notion is not the only shift in digital governance – the necessity for alternative, or adjusted forms of digital governance is also being influenced by the contextual realities seen in the digital inequality paradox (that digital inequality increases as more people connect to increasingly diverse and sophisticated technologies and services). The digital inequality paradox is arguably one of the greatest policy challenges for nations in an increasingly globalised digital economy and society underpinned by global public goods. The intractability of the policy problem of digital inequality lies in the growing complexity and adaptiveness of global and globalised communications systems over which traditional public actors, nation states (particularly developing countries) or existing multilateral systems appear to have little control (Gillwald & Van der Spuy, 2019).  

2. In what ways would a new/ improved model promote actionable outcomes? 

As we wrote in a 2019 paper (Gillwald & Van der Spuy, 2019), the governance of global public goods of the Internet in terms of issues like digital rights, cybersecurity or data governance is currently largely dealt with as distinct from the underlying infrastructure and citizens’ access to it. From a rights and public interest policy perspective, these issues need to be understood together – the protection of rights online, when the bulk of citizens are offline, cannot fulfil governments’ constitutional mandate and fails to comply with the United Nations’ recognition of access to the Internet as an enabler of sustainable development (UNGA, 2015). Discussing Internet governance narrowly in relation to the Internet’s protocol layer or the interface between infrastructure and content only risks assuming the critical infrastructure and underpinning services are universally in place to provide the ‘free, and open’ Internet’ aspired to for all. The divorcing of technical and normative communities up to this point presents a direct challenge to a reality of digital governance that can ensure just outcomes (Gillwald & Van der Spuy, 2019).

3. How can broader participation of government and business representatives, particularly from small and developing countries and SMEs, be ensured? Is there a role for the UN?

Multistakeholder collaboration can only be effective if government and private sector stakeholders – alongside other stakeholders – from all regions are able to participate meaningfully and equally. But to do so, resources are required that often are not available in especially global South contexts. A mechanism should be created to ensure more equal and meaningful, as well as sustained, participation of all stakeholders. One suggestion is using a small percentage of proceeds from data extraction processes – e.g., digital taxation of digital giants’ profits – to support more equal participation in digital governance processes. 

4. What means of implementation are required for a sustainable system?

A collection of tools for implementation are required. Most importantly, lessons should be learned from development and equality practitioners. For instance, implementation means will only be effective if designed and suitable for local contexts. Implementation should therefore ideally happen using local actors with local expertise. 

B) Internet Governance Forum Plus (IGF +)

5. What structure, membership and responsibilities could a new Advisory Group have? What are its potential benefits compared to the current MAG?

First and foremost, adjustments should only happen once the numerous previous reports and proposals for improving the MAG have been duly considered and implemented. Many stakeholders have spent too many hours and uncountable resources providing input on how the IGF and its MAG can be improved, and many of these recommendations are yet to be implemented. 

6. What are your thoughts on the following proposals? What structure, membership and responsibilities should each have? 

  • Cooperation Accelerator
  • Policy Incubator 
  • Observatory and Help Desk

Vitally, the Co-operation Accelerator means that co-operation and facilitating co-operation becomes a focal area. Co-operation requires direct facilitation in any governance environment, rather than being sought through organic participation alone. Its broad inclusivity could help to ameliorate the exclusion that may arise as necessary in different operational avenues for efficacy. Perhaps most importantly, it can facilitate the forms of co-operation that can see policy solutions being implemented in a domestic context – helping to facilitate the ‘trickle down’ of effect policy decisions, with the ‘trickle up’ being facilitated by other mechanisms.

The Policy Incubator seeks to directly address one of the key criticisms of many high-level fora, which is that outcomes do not result in implementable solutions at a domestic or local level. In addition, it provides a monitoring function (though this is not monitoring in a manner that could facilitate sanction). Again, having a specific focal area for what should be a chief output of the Forum (as with the Accelerator) is a sound operational solution to challenges already experienced.

The Observatory and Help Desk could assist directly in the generation of data identified as a challenge in the area. Given the non-binding nature of this Forum, which also does not perform formal review functions, it would be a vital partner for coordinating with human rights structures of the United Nations that have direct sanction functions. It also allows for a reactive component to the IGF’s work that then does not derail the more formal agenda setting facilitated by the Advisory Group. It is essential, however, that this proposed function works closely with local partners for more effective implementation. 

7. What are your thoughts on a new IGF Trust Fund? If considered, how should it look like, what expenses should it cover, and–accordingly–what annual budget would it need? 

The association of the IGF Plus Secretariat to the Office of the UN Secretary-General provides political backing to a true acknowledgment of the interdisciplinary nature of digital issues, which has thus far been significantly marred by institutional fragmentation, a lack of sufficient resources and staff with long-term (not just short, fixed-term) appointments, and policy overlap. Developing already existing structures – such as through the IGF+ solution – is a direct acknowledgment of the need to prevent the duplication of efforts. Importantly, there are already attempts at localising the IGF (such as in the Youth IGF and local IGF Chapters), which could form implementing structures, working closely in particular with the Policy Incubator.

C) Distributed Co-Governance Architecture (COGOV)

8. What gaps in the existing digital architecture could the COGOV model address? What are its potential benefits compared to the business-as-usual scenario? How might it interact with existing mechanisms?

Essentially on our reading, the Distributed Co-Governance Architecture (COGOV) borrows on agile development operational structures to promote self-organising networks. The COGOV seeks to leverage structures for the technical communities.

9. What structure, membership and responsibilities could the distributed co-governance mechanism take on? How might principles governing the logical and infrastructure layers be applied in economic and social layers of governance?

Emerging from the development of technical standards, the mechanisms it therefore designs are akin more to the development of technical standards – where self-organising of experts dominates – but does not readily lend itself to the development of normative standards, which require a more considered approach to ensuring inclusivity within the operational design. There is nothing in the design of the Digital Co-operation Networks, Network Support Platforms, or Network of Networks that specifically ensures broad participation, perhaps on the assumption that much of the decision-making will pre-existing shared values.

A further challenge is the lack of specific mechanism to facilitate domestic implementation of solutions (although this may be met by the “offer of implementation incentives”, relying largely on voluntary adoption, but not encouraging that adoption through any particular method. The COGOV is output focussed, with less emphasis on the inclusivity of the process of developing those outputs, in a manner which prefers an expert-driven process. This expert-driven focus will present challenges for localisation, in particular. Within these expert groupings, the equality between participants is presumed – which is why the COGOV structures do not currently account for methods for facilitating exchanges where there is little consensus, and where an inequality between participants positions may be a reality. Such a structure could, however, assist with the development of responsive solutions given the mechanics of the Digital Co-operation Networks. 

10. What existing networks, if any, fit the necessary prerequisites of transparency, inclusion, multistakeholderism, to serve as pilots for COGOV?


11. How would the COGOV Architecture contribute to the development of digital norms?


D) Digital Commons Architecture

12. What gaps in the existing digital architecture would the Digital Commons model address?

The Digital Commons Architecture is founded on a concept of the Internet as a public good, which should notionally inform much of a co-operative governance structure. The model could therefore address many of the jurisdictional and other ‘polluting of the commons’ that currently exist. 

13. Which aspects/features of the proposed architecture should be further considered? 

In the design of its agenda, it focuses on streamlining in discussions from existing fora, which is meant to ensure the political buy-in for the agenda. A weakness from such an approach is that any challenges in the composition and inclusivity of those processes then influences the agenda that is set within the Digital Commons Architecture. Similarly to the COGOV structure, but again it may be a consequence of the brevity of the outlines, there is no focus in the architecture to facilitate the domestic implementation of solutions, even through soft influences like incentives. This is often the result of a global commons vision that may at times overlook the opportunities present in domestic law-making.

E) Other Ideas

14. Do you see scope for combining the three models and if yes, how could this be operationalized?

Appreciating the regulation of ICTs as a public good, or the digital commons as regulatory space, demands solutions that do not just negotiate debates between the regulatory powers of the private versus public sectors. Instead, these environments require digital co-operation, which must be incorporated into the design of the architecture for governance, rather than merely acknowledged as a priority.

Within the digital governance frameworks, an additional requirement must be an understanding that there will be normative, as well as technical, governance challenges that require addressing. These normative challenges require inclusivity in the governance process for legitimacy, and for the design of locally applicable policy solutions.

The adaptations proposed to the IGF+ incorporate many of these concerns, which can be combined with aspects of the other proposed architectures. For instance, the ‘Network of Networks’ voluntary peer coordination function directly connects to recommendations for the annual forum – and highlights the need for a direct collaboration between the MAG functions and Co-operation Accelerator functions of the IGF+. 

15. What are key shared values, principles, understanding and objectives for a global digital cooperation architecture that should be included in any possible global document on Digital Cooperation?

It is worth noting as an extension of Elinor Ostrom’s (1991) work on governing the commons, that in seeking to regulate the digital commons, ultimate success would rely on (amongst other areas largely addressed by the options, especially by the broad participation sought to be implemented within the Policy Incubator) ensuring that those affected by the rules and norms generated could participate in their modification and using graduated sanctions. At domestic level, this requires the policy solutions to be developed to ensure a considered focus on these mechanisms domestically.

At the level of international digital co-operation, however, the soft law focus required of such a fora will also necessitate a specific, and considered, mechanism for streamlining its policy recommendations in international hard law mechanisms. A key method for facilitating this is ensuring that strong associations to existing human rights norms are made a priority. 

16. What role do you see for the UN in the future of global digital cooperation? What would the profile, responsibilities and role of a Technology Envoy (to be appointed by the UN Secretary-General) be?

The UN’s foundation in human rights, and the mechanisms designed to give realisation to those rights, form an important avenue for assisting to realise just outcomes that will additionally be improved by digital cooperation. The UN’s spearheading of the Sustainable Development Goals helps create normative considerations that include sustainable economic considerations – a vital source of multidisciplinary targets for the development of digital policy

Importantly, the role of the UN as a data collector and provider should be centred as a partnership within any selected digital co-operation solution that directly addresses a key challenge in the sector.

Specifically in relation to the development of a Tech Envoy, the hope is that instead a Digital, rather than technology, centred Envoy serving from within the Office of the UN Secretary General could help support the political prioritisation of digital issues identified in the background document.

17. Which other ideas, mechanisms and features are worth considering?