Geneva's push for Internet governance

As most events are now virtual, it was interesting to see the Fondation pour Genève (FPG) opt for an in-person launch of its “Internet Governance in International Geneva” report at The Graduate Institute. It is the second of the Fondation’s series on the State of Affairs in International Geneva. The first was an examination of the health “cluster”(‘Pôle santé’) published at the beginning of January 2020—one of the unfortunate reports issued on the state of health around the end of 2019 (like the Johns Hopkins’ Global Health Security Index, published in October 2019, which ironically ranked the US and the UK as numbers one and two in overall pandemic preparedness).

Written by Michael Kende, a Senior Fellow at the Center for Trade and Economic Integration and Visiting Lecturer at the IHEID, this latest FPG report does a solid lay of the land of stakeholders relating to Internet governance in Geneva. The report’s value, however, lies less in the comprehensive mapping used to posit that Geneva is a “natural home for Internet governance” than in the identification of the challenges faced by International Geneva in assuming a truly significant role in the governance of the Internet.

Former Swiss Federal Councillor Doris Leuthard appeared by video to summarize her input in the report, and in particular, what recommendations she would make for stakeholders, including but not only governments, “to help Geneva realize its potential for Internet governance.”

Many of the fundamental rights also apply in the cyberspace. But it is important to adapt and interpret them. So far, we have not a lot of internationally agreed guidelines, principles etc. but a lot of different measures. As long as the legal framework is so fragmented, the big tech giants have too much room to act. No one alone can regulate and lead Internet affairs. Data means power and the interdependency is higher and higher. Therefore governments, companies as well as societies have an interest in legal certainty, of internationally agreed values and principles of cooperation, and dialogue. Geneva is the right spot for that with the UN Organisations, NGOs, diplomats, etc. The faster, the better!”

Faster, though, might be difficult in a rather tense situation when geopolitics are changing.  As the report notes, “The role of ITU has not been without contention with regards to Internet governance. Throughout the years, some member states have pushed the ITU to have a stronger role in governance issues (…) while other countries have pushed for more of Internet governance to move to a multilateral venue. (…) A further group of countries, including the US, have sought to maintain the status quo, so far successfully.” This is all very diplomatically written, but to make it simple: China, Russia, and a few other countries are suspected of trying to exert control over “their” Internet, while the US thinks things are fine as they are. Not surprisingly, as keen observers of the struggle point out, for the net has been under American control since its creation and the US would like it to stay this way—a position that is now questioned by a newly assertive Europe.

Another “gap” in Digital Geneva is the lack of a strong Big Tech presence.  With the exception of Microsoft, whose Geneva Digital Convention about cybersecurity seems to be losing steam, Internet companies who “play a key role in many aspects of governance” aren’t here. And neither are many of the “civil society organizations specialized on Internet issues.” As the report states itself, this is “a noteworthy gap with respect to digital rights, where a number of organizations based elsewhere play a significant role in promoting digital rights and highlighting lapses.”

Also, the growing importance of other Internet governance hubs, such as the Paris Call and the Christchurch Call, and the EU’s leading role in data and AI might move the center of gravity away from Geneva. Add the fact that 2019 saw “techlash” rise to new peak levels and people demanding urgent measures against Big Tech’s dark side—think fake news, deep fakes, electoral fraud, conspiracy theories, micro-targeting, protest movements, Internet censorship, fiscal shenanigans, and monopolistic behavior—and it becomes clear that governance issues, while essential, might be relegated to the back burner.

The looming threat of a “splinternet,” the decoupling of China’s Internet from the rest of the word, with unfathomable consequences, could render even more remote Digital Geneva’s ability to play a significant role in spite of the Geneva “fundamentals” rightly lauded in the report. Put differently, Geneva’s place as the “right spot” doesn’t seem clear-cut.

Yet. That may change with the further digitalization of traditional policy fields such as e-health and intellectual property rights, or with the emergence of new areas—digital finance, for instance—where International Geneva has positioned itself early.