Dr. Julia Pohle researches global and national Internet regulation at the WZB Berlin Social Science Center.

Dr. Julia Pohle researches global and national Internet regulation at the WZB Berlin Social Science Center. She was a member of the Global Internet Governance Academic Network (GigaNet) steering committee, and is Co-Chair for Civil Society and Academia at the Internet Governance Forum Germany (IGF-D).

© M. Erfurt

How do you understand the term “Internet Governance”?

I understand Internet governance to encompass all the negotiation and coordination processes concerning global Internet policies that have emerged over the past few decades.

What makes it special is that it doesn’t just involve state actors, but includes all affected stakeholder groups. Some of these are states, represented by governments and international organisations; while others are non-state actors such as the private sector, civil society, academia, the technical community and representatives of Internet users.

Internet governance processes fundamentally affect all standards, rules and mechanisms that contribute to the use and further development of the Internet and digital connectivity. Initially, these tended to relate mostly to technical concerns, but today they clearly also encompass political and ethical issues.

In which fields can we see this?

In the area of artificial intelligence development, for example. Ethical standards are discussed alongside technical aspects, at an international level: What do we want? What don’t we want? How far are we prepared to go? Political considerations also need to be addressed: What sort of regulatory approaches are needed? What should governments do to encourage certain developments and to perhaps block others?

As a researcher, what sort of development trends do you see in internet governance?

Since the turn of the century, a powerful community has evolved at international level, promoted by the UN World Summit on the Information Society in 2003 and 2005. That was also where the idea of a multi-stakeholder approach to Internet governance emerged: various groups of interested parties coming together to hold an open and transparent debate on an equal footing. The annual Internet Governance Forum, as well as discussions in other bodies, have fostered a sense that it is important to maintain dialogue about matters relating to the global Internet.

Likewise, it is clear that participants have subsequently started to discuss similar questions at the national level. New policy fields related to digital issues have emerged at this level, which are accompanied by more stringent regulation. However, it’s not uncommon for digital policies by nation states to conflict with international processes, or for the two areas to remain unconnected. People involved at a national level are not always active internationally; the outcomes of international discussions are not necessarily implemented nationally.

At the moment there is a trend towards increased national regulation of Internet-related issues. For many years, the prevailing wisdom was that problems should be resolved at a global level and without stringent state regulation. Today it is clear that stringent regulatory mechanisms are emerging in many countries, even democracies, and also that demands for such mechanisms are gaining voice.

Can you give an example?

Consider the treatment of disinformation online, or “fake news”. We are no longer expecting private platform operators to find solutions to this problem alone. Following recent elections in Europe, Brazil and the USA, as well as the Brexit referendum, there are increasingly strong demands for effective regulatory approaches, and for national governments to be responsible for them. Laws to achieve this are now in place in France, and in Germany, and the EU has also developed an action plan.

In Europe there has been a clear crackdown by national governments, which is also evident in other areas. For example, at the technical level, there have been frequent demands in recent years that user and communication data should be stored in certain territories, and some countries have introduced legislative proposals to this effect.

But these trends have a tendency to pose a serious risk that Internet norms and regulation will fragment further in the future. This is precisely why international agreement is important – as is the attempt to find overarching solutions. This is difficult to do, of course, because each country has its own ideas about what should be achievable.

What is special about the multi-stakeholder approach, what makes it different from other models?

I regard the multi-stakeholder approach as being a middle ground between the various governance models. On the one hand there is the multi-lateral approach—very prevalent at the international level—where decisions are primarily taken by governments and international organisations. On the other hand, there was a strong tendency in the early days of the Internet to leave all decisions to the private sector and technicians. But that approach was criticised by governments.

The idea of a multi-stakeholder approach emerged at the UN World Information Summit in 2003 and 2005. In the context of Internet governance, this means bringing all involved actors and stakeholder groups on board and allowing them to take part on an equal footing. This involves a lot of energy being spent determining how certain decisions will be reached and who may take part in which processes.

How has the Internet Governance Forum developed since those early days?

Immediately following the summit in 2005 there seemed to me to be a lot of enthusiasm, because Internet governance had become relevant and governments had approved the creation of a UN-supported forum. Over several years, more and more participants have become involved in discussing solutions for current problems.

About seven years ago the mood shifted a little, for various reasons. Questions became increasingly complex and there were more and more issues to discuss; the venues for discussion also multiplied. In the meantime, China organises its own annual World Internet Conference. The UN and the EU have also established several additional commissions and expert groups.

What do you expect from the Internet Governance Forum in the future?

I think that something has to change. An interesting trend started to emerge at the forum held in Paris in late 2018: governments started to take the IGF more seriously. Both the UN Secretary General, António Guterres, and the French President, Emmanuel Macron, delivered speeches. This development may strengthen the IGF and bring about a new impetus. It was an involvement that prompted criticism from civil society, particularly in respect of Macron’s speech calling for state regulation. My own view is that this dynamic of movement and counter-movement is healthy, as it represents the realisation by stakeholders that there is still plenty to play for and that they have to get involved. Change is forthcoming.