Internet freedom and security challenges: notes from the IGF 2019

UN Secretary-General António Guterres opening the 14th UN Internet Governance Forum held under the theme "One World. One Net. One Vision". UN Photo/Tobias Hofsaess
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The Internet Governance Forum (IGF) was launched by the Secretary-General of the United Nations in 2006 and since then annual meetings have been held across the world. This year, Germany for the first time was the host country and organized the IGF in cooperation with the United Nations from 25-29 November in Berlin.

At the IGF 2019, I attended various sessions of different formats, mainly around the issues of digital democracy and identity. Here are my main learnings in short:

Blockchain technology

Blockchain technology (BC) is neither the solution to privacy nor to authentification issues: Public BCs seem to have their main advantage in providing for a high level of protection against fraud; and if they are used to serve as identity proof (e.g., for world citizens), there seems to be no way of avoiding a trusted authority, e.g. a public registry office, as a starting point. But there is obviously no privacy in a public BC, although there seem to be several ways of using a public BC with non-disclosed data, e.g. personal data that have been translated into hashes. The BC hype meanwhile seems to have been replaced by a more realistic approach in which BC offers interesting options in various software environments and for different purposes.

Democratic political regulation

Democratic political regulation of the internet has become essential, and several speakers said that a global regulation frame was required. To me this is very convincing and it is also an issue for Democracy Without Borders: inclusive and participatory global democracy will require global digital communication but this can only work with internet platforms that are protected against misuse and domination. A bottom-up approach that takes a free global internet for granted is apparently no longer realistic.

Taking a free global internet for granted is no longer realistic

Maybe the European General Data Protection Regulation is a good first step in the direction of supranational data protection regulation and a good example for others; at least this view was shared by several speakers. And there seem to be plans for an European AI regulation as well. Regarding supranational regulation, however, there is a time issue: Referring to the issue of AI regulation it was said that the UN is too slow, so multilateral agreements would be a more promising approach. This will also be true for any form of internet regulation. Even more important, however, every global approach to internet regulation will also bear the risk that governments with an anti-freedom and anti-democracy agenda will try to exert their influence on this. So, democratic political regulation of the internet is by any means a difficult task and every step in this direction needs to be considered very carefully.

Fragmentation and shutdowns

The internet gets nationally or regionally fragmented. In addition, in 2019 alone there apparently have already been 35 internet shutdowns (and counting). In Iran for instance, there has apparently been an internet shutdown by the government for five days in a row – and it was said that due to effective preparations by the government the national/regional internet during this shutdown was working just fine (and even faster sometimes). Controlling and restricting the internet has become an attractive model for dictatorships all over the world and this is a real threat to global democracy. And there seems to be no technical way to circumvent such shutdowns. When discussing satellite technology options, a speaker from Iran commented sarcastically that even if this was feasible, it would certainly come under US sanctions as well.

Influence on elections

There is a lot of influencing elections nowadays, and it is getting more. This has nothing to do with the way an election itself is being held (paper & pencil, electronic voting, etc.) but is all about fake news, targeted influencing and the like that is primarily done via online platforms and social media. It was said that maybe fact checking does not really help here when influencing works with identity issues and thereby addresses emotions that even may ignore opposing facts. However, empirical proof of the effects of influencing seems difficult or even impossible.

Conclusions

What are the conclusions for Democracy Without Borders, particularly the Global Voting Platform (GVP) initiative? In my view, the GVP’s bottom-up approach of direct world citizen participation will have to be linked stronger with a regulatory top-down-approach of enabling and securing a free global internet by supranational regulation. Initiatives such as Contract for the Web should be supported. This, however, does not mean that authentification and security issues will be less important; and the potential use of BC technology is worth a more detailed consideration. Beside its still enormous potential for free global communication the internet obviously has also developed into a means of political control, manipulation and surveillance. It is no longer a neutral platform but has become a field of global politics and internet freedom is more and more under pressure from autocratic regimes.

Michael Weidinger
Michael Weidinger is a member of Democracy Without Borders and lead contributor on e-voting
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