With the future direction of the Internet up for grabs, the European Union is ramping up efforts to maintain its de facto status as the world’s digital policy standard-setter. In March, an EU Council technical body agreed and published Brussels’ “contribution to the Global Digital Compact,” a United Nations initiative slated for official adoption in September 2024 that aims to “outline shared principles for an open, free and secure digital future for all.”
Following its GDPR and brewing AI Act, the EU’s latest foray into global Internet governance arrives at a crucial moment, as exclusion and various inequalities threaten the Internet’s founding principles of openness and inclusion. If left unchecked, these developments, including increasing national fragmentation, a widening gender digital gap and SME cost pressures, will leave many people and businesses behind, particularly in the developing world.
Invisible walls rising up
Recognising the Internet as an asset in reducing global inequalities, the EU’s governance approach emphasises avoiding fragmentation, including domestic internet shutdowns and intentional degradations, that undermines this potential.
Yet this ambition faces considerable opposition, with national regulation at an “all-time high” according to Internet policy expert Konstantinos Komaitis. Powerful governments, including in Russia, Turkey and India, are increasingly restricting Internet access and boosting censorship measures to maintain regime stability. Countries such as Russia and Iran support a state-centric governance model that would see the Internet effectively splintered into national networks.
Despite the UN’s rhetoric on a “more networked and inclusive multilateral system,” Komaitis has aptly noted that even its seemingly well-intentioned Global Digital Compact could play into the hands of countries intent on squeezing civil society out of governance bodies to consolidate state power. Indeed, Russia has a clear preference for the UN’s International Telecommunications Union (ITU) to assume a dominant role at the expense of non-governmental bodies such as ICANN.
This approach utterly violates the original model of decentralised, multi-stakeholder Internet governance, which intended for its limitless power to be wielded in a fair, democratic way rather than by a centralised authority pursuing its interests at the expense of the global community.
Gender equality progress slipping away
Abandoning multi-stakeholder, bottom-up Internet governance would likely have significant implications for online gender equality, which is particularly concerning given the state of the digital gender divide.
Globally, women are 20% less likely than men to have Internet access, with the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbating online inequalities in recent years. Esther Mwema, a Zambian digital inequalities activist, has rightly highlighted that the “pandemic amplified how much we rely on technology,” resulting in “increased exclusion” for people and communities with little or no access to digital technologies and services. The problem is particularly pronounced in the least developed countries, where only 30% of women use the Internet compared to over 90% in high-income countries.
Civil society, particularly women’s rights NGOs and activists, will thus be critical in tackling this divide, yet it would be essentially frozen out of influencing governance and policy in a state-centric, ITU-driven model. In the absence of this effective governance, the Internet’s “potential to improve the lives of women and other marginalized groups,” will go “unrealized,” as Mwema has argued, instead perpetuating real world gender inequalities.
As the UN has emphasised, governments will therefore need to actively support women’s role as “co-creators and decision-makers in the design, development and deployment of technology that meets their needs.”
High costs hitting SMEs hard
Internet governance issues are also generating inequalities and exclusion for SMEs at the heart of digital ecosystems.
Problems are emerging within the Regional Internet Registry (RIR) system, whose organisations are responsible for the registration and fair allocation of the world’s IP addresses, without which online access is impossible. Globally, there are five RIRs, each of which provides IP services to Internet Service Provider (ISP) and IP management firms in their assigned regions, which are fee-paying ‘members.’
Yet while the initial scope of RIR work was limited to these basic, yet essential functions, certain members are raising complaints that a growing number of unsolicited services are impacting their business. For example, a member of RIPE NCC – the RIR for Europe and parts of central Asia – recently decried “mission creep” within the organisation, creating a situation in which members are effectively forced to pay excessive fees for “extraneous services” that provide dubious value. Moreover, RIPE NCC allegedly does not offer its members an opt-out option that would enable both reduced charges and a more flexible, tailored service.
Unfortunately, concerns over high member fees are not exclusive to RIPE NCC, with tech entrepreneur and activist Lu Heng, from the LARUS Foundation, recently running for the Executive Committee of APNIC – the Asia-Pacific RIR – on a platform of reducing member fees. Efficiency policies that would enable this reduction are crucial, as smaller ISPs and IP firms are particularly vulnerable to unnecessarily high charges stemming from unaccountable RIR governance.
Growing North-South tech gap
Crippling digital SMEs has particularly dire implications for emerging digital regions such as Asia Pacific and Africa, whose future socioeconomic development and green transition will heavily rely on inclusive digitalisation. In Africa, SMEs comprise roughly 80% of jobs, while in Asia they account for two-thirds of private sector jobs and over 96% of all businesses, meaning that they have a vital role to play in driving growth and innovation.
Yet without widespread digital access provided by a thriving and diverse digital ecosystem, developing countries on these continents risk missing out on the massive economic and climate benefits of digital technologies and falling further behind the global North, as the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) has cautioned in a recent report. Governance policies must therefore be adapted to financially empower smaller businesses that will help fuel inclusive digitalisation in developing countries.
As the adoption of the UN’s Global Digital Compact approaches and competing superpowers vie for influence, the Internet’s founding principles of openness, inclusion and decentralisation have never been more threatened. Over the decisive coming years, digital policies must preserve the Internet’s initial promise of a more inclusive, green and prosperous world. With the stakes this high, the EU’s attempts to steer global Internet governance back on course cannot afford to fail.