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Making sense of our connected world

DIGITAL SOCIETY BLOG

Making sense of our connected world

Internet in Danger | HIIG

Let‘s build a better internet. An Internet powered by the people and for the people.

16 January 2020

How the world can band together to tackle the big questions of the age of digital interdependence, argue Matthias C. Kettemann, Wolfgang Kleinwächter and Max Senges.


UN Secretary-General António Guterres found clear words to describe the powerful impact of the Internet on society. At the opening of this year’s Internet Governance Forum in Berlin, in late November, he confirmed that the future of the Internet is a matter that an organization with a global mandate, like the UN, is deeply interested in. “Digital technology is shaping history”, he reminded four thousand listeners in Berlin and at computers worldwide, “but there is also the sense that it is running away with us”. The UN’s chief representative asked key questions about the Internet: “Where will it take us? Will our dignity and rights be enhanced or diminished? Will our societies become more equal or less equal? Will we become more or less secure and safe?”

These are questions we have to answer. And quickly. 

Technology is neither good nor bad. It is what we make of it. Or as Admiral Rickover, the man who was responsible to build america‘s nuclear navy operations, put it in 1969 “Humanistically viewed, technology is not an end in itself but a means to an end, the end being to benefit man in general.”  This humanistic conception of technology holds true particularly for the Internet, which is equally a profoundly human medium, and arguably the most transformative technology in the history of mankind. And as digital technologies have become in many respects operating systems of our societies and economies, critical risks and unintended side-effects have become apparent. Yet, the way our societies have reacted, threatens the universal socio-economic innovation machine we built. 

The splinternet is real – and with it growing risks for a fragmentation of the Internet, the militarization of cyberspace, digital trade wars and massive conflicts around human rights. A variety of efforts to exert digital control have spread far beyond authoritarian regimes. In many “liberal” societies, it comes in the disguise of digital nationalism or “network sovereignty”, with national policy-makers unilaterally legislating – often well intended but nevertheless detrimental – policies e.g. on content, privacy, and copyrights.

We believe these developments not only run counter to the very cosmopolitan philosophy the web was founded upon, but threaten to deprive future generations of the opportunities an open, free and safe internet has to offer. 

They also show that we must move beyond analysis and political promises. It is time to act. It’s time for all stakeholders to embrace their responsibilities and collaborate transnationally and across governments, private sector and civil society.  

The current debates about data governance, privacy, and even the future of capitalism, while not always constructive, show that care about #ourinternet. Yet they sometimes make it feel as if things could only get worse. We are convinced: It does not have to be like that. However, we cannot simply return to a previous state, to the largely unregulated internet of the 1990s. And we shouldn’t. Because we can build something better together.

Now it is time to reimagine #ourinternet. 

Reimagining the internet starts with asking – and deliberating on – the right questions. In a 2018 interview with David Letterman, Barack Obama put forward one of these questions: How can we make an economy, in this globalized technological environment, that is working for everybody? Another one we believe is central: How do we enable fair democratic elections and governance from the small community to the global level? If the internet eats the world, governing the internet is a blueprint for how to govern the world. Or how about this one: How do we design our online identity architecture to allow us to be who we want to be online? And then there is one that Kant famously asked: What can we know and use as common understanding of humanity (facts)? And subsequently how do we deliberate across cultures and communities? In this case we might already have a lead: Wikipedia is an incredible example for a tool that might hold an important piece of that puzzle.

But where is the right institutional context to get organized?

If we want to shape the next social and technological evolution of the internet, rather than being shaped by it, we need to reform existing policy frameworks in ways that reflect its growing significance and complexity. 

We are at a critical juncture. We know from history that – while they rarely last forever – once built it takes a long time to tear walls down. To preserve the qualities that the internet’s creation was based on, the 2020ies must bring the next generation of Internet Governance (#NextGenIG). This process towards a future-proof, holistic and resilient governance framework for #ourinternet started. with the IGF 2019. Further milestones until 2030 will be, inter alia, the 75th Anniversary of the foundation of the United Nations (October 2020), the UN World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS+20) in 2025 and the “goal year” of the UN SDG Agenda in 2030.

#NextGenIG ought to be based on a holistic approach and the multistakeholder model by building on the web’s trans-national, decentralized architecture, which has been the very precondition for its empowering effects for people and innovation world-wide, while complementing it with effective governance mechanisms that match the impact of the negative externalities it has brought about.

Governments at local, state, and national levels, industry, academia, and NGOs all have a role to play. And so should the citizens. The present situation is unique in that it affects and involves everyone. Above all, it must promote hope. A believe that we can realize the vision of a global village, that we can reach cosmopolitan, free lives, cultural coexistence even when all tastes and opinions are just one click away. 

We conceive of this #NextGenIG to be comprised of interlinked parts, among them:

First, a Digital Peace Plan including norms for good behaviour of state and non-state actors in cyberspace and confidence-building measures to counter (neo)nationalist policies that endanger the stability and functionality of the global Internet and its infrastructure, and encompass multilateral and multistakeholder approaches to (1) international security (including military aspects and confidence-building measures), (2) the fight against cybercrime and (3) technical security and network resilience; 

Second, a Digital Marshal Plan to promote sustainable (digital) economies based on innovation with freely flowing data and trusted identities, while ensuring decent work and the next billion Internet users are brought online. The UN Sustainable Development Goals which are set to be reached by 2030 are excellent metrics to see if we are on the right path. 

Third, a Digital Human Rights Agenda providing norms and policies to respect, protect and implement human rights on the Internet, based on existing norms, targeted at all relevant stakeholders, in their respective roles.

As Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, reminded participants at the IGF the key underlying value to protect must be human dignity: “technical innovations have to serve the person, the individual, and not the other way around.” This only works by ensuring “digital sovereignty” for individuals and states. As Merkel rightly said, we need individuals and societies capable of “determining the digital development”. All actors have to involved and states have to understand that it is, as Merkel said, an “expression of sovereignty if we stand up for a free, open, and safe global Internet when we are convinced that isolation is not an expression of sovereignty.  But that we all of us together share a treasure of values.” These values need to be protected. 

The whole stakeholder community and everybody who wants to drive us towards a humanistic conception of technology has to band together and collaborate on the Next Generation Internet. We want an Internet that works for everyone. An internet that protects and promotes dignity and human rights and that fully realizes its potential for empowerment, innovation and entrepreneurship in fair (digital) markets. In short: A better internet. An Internet powered by the people and for the people.


Matthias C. Kettemann is Head of Research at the Leibniz Institute for Media Research | Hans-Bredow-Institut (HBI), Hamburg. Max Senges is a Visiting Scholar at Stanford’s Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law (CDDRL). He also works on Internet Governance for Google. This text represents his personal views. Wolfgang Kleinwächter is a member of the Global Commission on Stability in Cyberspace, was a member of the ICANN Board and served as Special Ambassador for the NetMundial Initiative.


Dieser Artikel ist eine ergänzte und leicht veränderte Version. Die Änderung des Artikels erfolgte am 29.1.2020.

This post represents the view of the author and does not necessarily represent the view of the institute itself. For more information about the topics of these articles and associated research projects, please contact info@hiig.de.

Matthias C. Kettemann, PD, Mag., Dr., LL.M.

Assoziierter Forscher: Leibniz-Institut für Medienforschung | Hans-Bredow-Institut

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