09 May 2024

NETmundial +10: inspiration for multistakeholder digital governance, but is it enough?

Last week (29-30 April), GPD joined other civil society groups, business actors, the technical community and governments in São Paulo, Brazil for NETmundial+10: the ten year follow up to the landmark NETmundial process in 2014, which set out principles for multistakeholder approaches to Internet governance. 

In the intervening decade, the policy landscape has been transformed by an increase in policy and normative frameworks related to digital technologies, as well the advent of new technologies—particularly AI—and their attendant opportunities and challenges. A key aim of the revived NETmundial was, accordingly, to produce updated guidelines, tailored to meet the needs of the present moment, as well as reaffirming commitments to the multistakeholder model within the field.

Did it meet these aims? On the surface, it did feel like there was a strong consensus around the value of multistakeholder approaches to the governance of digital technologies, which was consolidated in the outcome document (the NETmundial+10 Multistakeholder Statement). As noted by Jovan Kurbalija in Circle ID, the document helpfully addresses discussions on the use of the terms Internet governance vs digital policy governance by combining both terms and clarifying that multistakeholder approaches can strengthen “internet governance and digital policy processes”. It also addresses the false dichotomy between multilateral and multistakeholder processes, and emphasises that multilateral processes can be improved by integrating multistakeholder characteristics throughout. It subsequently offers a useful set of guidelines to operationalise the approach in a flexible manner, an area that GPD has done a lot of work on (such as through our framework for multistakeholder policy development and our more recent inclusive cyber norms toolkit.) And, importantly, the document offers a concrete vision for a strengthened Internet Governance Forum (IGF). 

These advances are particularly relevant considering the present inflection point that we’re in for digital technology governance. With the Global Digital Compact currently being negotiated (with expected adoption in September) and the WSIS+20 review process culminating in 2025, multistakeholder engagement in those processes will be critical, and the NETmundial+10 outcome document can provide concrete recommendations to strengthen that engagement. It can also provide ways to advance the approach in the broader context of multilateral reform as part of discussions on the Pact for the Future. 

Given the high stakes in the wider field, civil society had made engagement in NETmundial+10 a priority. Accordingly at the event, groups quickly mobilised, working together productively and energetically: and the coordinated interventions during sessions resulted in much of our input being incorporated into the outcome document, including an explicit reference to the need for a process of selection of IGF host countries that is transparent and rooted in human rights, inclusivity, accessibility, and equitable conditions for attendance.

A further positive observation is the extent to which NETmundial+10 implemented stakeholder engagement modalities in its own efforts to reach consensus—through, for example, seeking input through online consultations to inform the outcome document, as well as featuring working sessions throughout the conference where stakeholders from different stakeholder groups could take the mic and make interventions on a rolling basis. This was a conference that both talked about multistakeholderism and put it into practice. There is much to be learned from this.

However, these apparent wins were clouded by the visible absence and non-engagement of one stakeholder group: governments. As highlighted in this DNS Research Federation piece, government responses to the open consultation that informed the outcome document represented just 6.49% of all responses: a stark contrast to the civil society responses, which amounted to 40.26%. Similarly, government attendance at the meeting was limited: only 15 countries were represented, with the majority of interventions on the ground coming from Brazil, Canada, Germany, Switzerland, the UK, the US, and the EU Commission. This somewhat lopsided composition contrasts with the original NETmundial, which garnered more governmental engagement and support. 

What explains the lack of government engagement this time? There are several possible factors. The 2014 edition of NM was co-hosted by the Brazilian Government, whereas this edition was hosted by CGI.br only, which might have made it more difficult to secure government buy-in. The short timeframe in which the conference was organised is another potential factor. At the same time, the radically changed policy landscape in 2024 likely also played a role. The 2014 NETmundial conference, organised at a moment of great political momentum following the Snowden revelations, offered a unique space for governments to make their stance heard in an international setting. Fast forward ten years, there are now plenty of spaces where governments can discuss these issues—potentially making the specific value of engaging at NETmundial less self-evident to a government actor.

Whatever the reason, the lack of engagement from governments this time around is particularly disappointing, given the value that the outcome document could provide towards improving and strengthening stakeholder engagement in ongoing multilateral processes like the GDC and the WSIS+20 review. This will be difficult to achieve in the absence of broad government buy-in and support for the NETmundial+10 document: especially since the document is non-binding, with the adoption of its guidelines therefore contingent on the voluntary energies of states. 

Still, NETmundial+10 has provided the field with concrete guidance to improve processes, something that’s particularly needed given the increasing preeminence of multilateral spaces—as well as a sense of momentum, which can be carried through in other global spaces where policy impact is likely to be greater. And the outcome document is certainly timely, with several key milestones for IG coming up in the 18 months ahead: such as the ongoing GDC negotiations, the WSIS+20 High Level Event in Geneva at the end of the month, and the Summit for the Future in September, and will serve as a useful tool for civil society’s advocacy in those spaces. In an optimistic view, the conclusions of the outcome document could be something of a ‘slow burn’, percolating within discussions and processes. In other words—it’s not too late for governments to jump on board.