Governing digital: perpetual experimentation

Far from being a state of anarchy, digital is overseen by a variety of governing bodies at global, continental and national level. Structures exist whose modus operandi and decision-making are not always consensual – far from it – and which need to reinvent themselves as the issues raised by these technologies become ever more complex. Read on for a quick rundown on the forces lined up…

“Different governance models have evolved over the years and cohabit, from self-governance, to intergovernmental organisation or multi-partner bodies. Each challenge calls for its own specific solution.”

Like any question that has a deep impact on a transformation of human society, digital calls for forms of oversight and regulation. Valérie Peugeot researcher at Orange’s social and human sciences laboratory and member of the French data protection council (CNIL) has was already talking about digital loyalty and transparency emphasizes here : “Governing digital means accepting a state of permanent political experimentation !”.

Indeed, “unlike other areas, where it was possible to develop a governing framework by gradual stages, from local to global, digital issues generally ignore borders and continually change with each new technological breakthrough” explains Valérie. “That requires us to use our imaginations more and more” … another specificity of digital world which has consequences on its governance, “Digital is an eminently young political object in the scale of human history” and is mainly characterized by “the fact that it was global right from birth” points out the researcher.

It will not be surprising, therefore, that the first clear position on a regulatory framework for Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) came from the US. In 1993, in a speech that has gone down in history, Al Gore, who at the time was Vice President of the United States, explained that the role of a federal state consisted in creating a facilitating environment for what were known back then as “information superhighways”. In his view, a government should not under any circumstances meddle in the governance of ICTs, as had been the case with telecoms and cable, because it would hamper competition and technological progress in this field.

Simultaneously, the Internet pioneers were getting organised into what the sociologists Michel Callon and Pierre Lascoumes (authors with Yannick Barthe of “Agir dans un monde incertain. Essai sur la democratie technique” Le Seuil, 2001)” call a “Technical Democracy”. In other words, they create their own self-governance structures, where people interested in a technical object will dedicate themselves to co-constructing standards. In this way, they generate “soft law”, outside the traditional framework of “delegative” democracy , at the same time as they project and promote a powerful political vision: the fundamental Internet protocols (TCP/IP) used to transfer data around the Internet and the World Wide Web (htpp) are open source, which makes them common goods.

Towards the multi-partnerships

Since that time, several governance models have cohabited. There seem to be two opposing rationales. The first is historical, based on the representation of sovereign states, and is expressed in the great global organisations such as the international telecommunications Union, while the second accords the lion’s share to the main Internet players themselves, grouped in various bodies such as the Internet Society (ISOC), the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), or the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) . To make this picture even more complex, ICANN (the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), which among other things manages domain names, is a non-profit body controlled by the US Department of Commerce. That control is gradually loosening, giving way to a multilateral structure.

Since 2003-2005, a fourth option has been emerging,” explains Valérie Peugeot, “that of multiple partnerships, under the aegis of the UN, which at that time was organising the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) via the ITU, attended not only by governments but also by companies and representatives from civil society, and which led to the creation of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF).” A multiple partnership that for the time being is widely criticised, among other things for its lack of effectiveness, and features at the heart of geopolitical tensions.

Two typology criteria

With the ceaseless development of new technologies, governance issues go way beyond the areas of the Internet and the Web and extend to all digital domains. In fact, a large number of bodies exist or have been set up within state or sometimes European Union structures to manage strategic areas such as privacy and the protection of personal data and cyber security. But little is done at global level. “If we try to outline a preliminary typology of these bodies” concludes Valérie Peugeot,” we can organise them according to two criteria. One takes account of the geographic scale of governance. The other has to do with the power distribution model – between self-governance, and an international or multi-partner system. The big challenges connected more or less closely with digital (net neutrality, the GAFA monopoly (the US Web giants) and the BATX (their Chinese counterparts) and even fake news, can be understood in light of this dual analytical framework and help us understand how they are, or are not, overseen and by whom.

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