Angela Merkel: Digital sovereignty is important, but we have to agree on what it actually means

The 14th Internet Governance Forum opened on November 26 in Berlin, held under the auspices of the United Nations, and hosted by Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs. More than 3,000 delegates registered to take part in the event.

The forum opened with a keynote address by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who compared the impact of internet technology to the introduction of the printing press in that both facilitated the spread of information, learning and exchange of knowledge and ideas, as well as provided new means for self-expression.

Mr. Guterres highlighted three divides in today’s society that are related to the development of the internet: a digital divide, a social divide and a political divide. The digital divide arises in places where people cannot access the internet and the basic services it offers for various reasons, or in places where freedom of expression is violated or where access to information is restricted. More than 3.5 billion people are currently being deprived of affordable access to the internet. The UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development provides for initiatives to bridge the digital divide. By 2030, seven billion people are expected to have access to the internet, and by 2040 the world’s entire population must be connected to the web.

The social divide is attributable to the fact that any technology can be a force of good, as well as serve as a tool that can easily be put to nefarious use. “Given the polarizing nature of much Internet content, we cannot avoid the question of whether it is a tool to bring us together or whether it is dividing us. Artificial Intelligence applications can be used to monitor and manipulate behavior, to besiege us with ever more targeted and intrusive advertising, to manipulate voters, to track human rights defenders and to stifle expressions of dissent.”

Finally, the political divide between countries is driven by growing efforts of some states to construct ever harder borders in cyberspace, restrict access to foreign online services and introduce censorship, on the one hand, and the ever-increasing number of cross-border cyber-attacks, on the other. The growing frequency and severity of cyber-attacks are undermining trust and threatening the unity of the internet, encouraging states to adopt offensive postures for the hostile use of cyberspace.

Federal Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel also took the floor during the opening ceremony. She drew a comparison between the Berlin Wall in the context of the 30th anniversary of its fall that is marked this year and the new digital walls that humanity is currently erecting online. We often speak about online sovereignty, and it is really important. It is not uncommon for us to attach opposing meanings to this word. Sovereignty should not be about impairing rights to access content, censorship or protectionism. We have to clearly understand what freedom is, and its limits. We should not protect some people to the detriment of others, she said.

The Chancellor noted that the only way to overcome these centrifugal processes was to promote multilateral dialogue with a wide range of stakeholders. There is this notion of a network effect whereby as a community expands the value of being part of it also increases. It is for this reason that we need to draw as many stakeholders as possible into these processes. No single country can do this on its own. We need to work together to develop standards and ensure internet access to all those who currently lack it, she said.

Angela Merkel also pointed out that the international community will maintain its leading role in these developments. At the same time we have to be mindful of the fact that the possible dividing lines will not necessarily coincide with state borders. Sometimes, these divides lie between global corporations. In 2017, we agreed at a G20 meeting to identify internet development and preventing its fragmentation as a separate item on our agenda. Of course, the United Nations will play a major role in this sphere. However, we have to be aware of the fact that the forces that drive the segmentation of the internet are not only national governments but also corporations, she said.

The eventual fragmentation of the internet was also on the agenda of a session organized by ICANN on threats and prospects related to DNS. Head of external communications at Coordination Center for TLD .RU/.РФ, Mikhail Anisimov, shared his perspective on the possible consequences of using DoH (DNS over HTTPS) technology. According to the expert, contributing to devising recommendations for implementing the relevant technology is as important as developing standards to this effect. While offering new possibilities for ensuring user privacy, DoH impacts the existing information security ecosystem making it harder to block illegal content, and also violating corporate security policies and concentrating massive volumes of queries in the hands of a few major corporations. Therefore, we see the emergence of corporate online segments that, in theory, can be completely isolated from one another, for example, a Google internet, a CloudFlare internet, etc.

The many topics discussed at the forum including the development of technical standards, human rights, infrastructure development and information security. The forum will complete its work on November 29.

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