Digital Geneva? It still needs to earn its stripes

2021 GESDA Summit at Campus Biotech in October 2021. (Credit: GESDA)

International Geneva has long been connected with Internet governance but other cities are also stepping up to the challenge, writes Michael Kende, co-leader of the Digital Geneva Initiative.

Fifteen years ago, in the Château de Bossey not far from Geneva, tucked away in the Swiss countryside, one of the earliest definitions of Internet governance was created. It acknowledges the roles of the private sector and civil society as well as governments in governing global cyberspace and became the basis for the multi-stakeholder model that’s still in place today. But importantly, it also illustrates International Geneva’s early involvement in trying to shape what’s become a worldwide phenomenon.

At present, there are three clusters of Internet governance in Geneva: digital trust, digital rights, and digital for development. These clusters are built on the founding pillars of the United Nations – security, human rights, and development – and are composed of the traditional international organisations which have increasing digital activities, as well as NGOs, foundations, platforms, and academic institutions – all resting on a supportive Swiss host-state policy.

Today, there are three significant trends taking place within Internet governance, building on a broader digital focus in place of a narrower emphasis on the Internet. While these trends favour the growth of International Geneva as a future global hub for digital governance, its role is not guaranteed without targeted and concerted actions.

The first trend is the increasing digitalisation of traditional activities, which started with communications and entertainment and now extends broadly to include news, ride sharing, e-commerce and smart city services among others. These digital services provide significant benefits, while raising concerns related to privacy, cyberattacks, human rights, the future of work and democracy. The result will be to slowly erase the difference between traditional offline activities and digital services. In many cases, Internet governance will simply become governance. Geneva is well placed to leverage its existing expertise and institutions to help pave the way for this fundamental shift.

As these activities migrated online, the approach of governments towards digital governance has shifted. In the early days, governments broadly took a passive approach to the Internet, either because they did not understand it or because they understood its dynamism well enough to limit their role as it developed. Over time, however, shocked in part by the impact of online mis- and disinformation surrounding elections, governments took a more reactive stance. Now, with the advent of digital trends including artificial intelligence, quantum computing, lethal autonomous weapons systems, the metaverse and cyber currencies, governments are becoming proactive. Geneva, with its reputation and role in creating soft law, is ideally placed to help governments begin to anticipate and address these future challenges. Switzerland has already founded the Geneva Science and Diplomacy Anticipator (GESDA) to look into the future and address some of these trends.

Finally, regional differences are increasingly guiding differences in government actions towards emerging challenges. The US is maintaining a free-market and free-speech approach, Europe adopting a more policy-driven and regulatory approach, and China a state-driven approach towards cyber sovereignty within its borders. This can be seen in the approach to privacy, for instance, with the US maintaining a commercial stance, Europe acting to protect its citizens, and China implementing data protectionism while enabling government access to data. To the extent these and other regional differences, such as over digital trade, begin to clash, Geneva is the ideal neutral location to address them.

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Geneva is well placed to build on its current strengths as a hub for Internet governance, but not without focused efforts. Other countries and cities are taking a role in Internet governance, and the role of International Geneva is not as well known outside of Geneva as those of us inside may imagine or hope. There is also a lack of cooperation and coordination within digital Geneva that does not allow it to reach its full potential. Finally, the multi-stakeholder model is not fully represented in Geneva, which misses representation from most of the largest Internet companies, digital rights NGOs and others.

A working group has developed a Digital Geneva Initiative to address these challenges. The working group has already identified the need for a Safe Digital Humanitarian Space to host and protect data for humanitarian organisations in Geneva, a project to be led by the CyberPeace Institute, building on its unparalleled expertise and experience from its existing CyberPeace Builders programme. More general proposals include a think tank to build on the experience of the working group to address existing and new challenges, and an effort to better publicise the activities of Digital Geneva internationally. The Swiss Digital Initiative foundation is the ideal place to continue this work to develop and promote Geneva as a hub of digital governance to meet the challenges of the next 20 years.

Michael Kende is the author of the Fondation pour Genève report Internet Governance in International Geneva, published in 2020, and is a co-leader of the Digital Geneva Initiative.

This article was published as part of a special 2nd anniversary print edition of Geneva Solutions, published in collaboration with Le Temps.