Is the future of internet governance in Geneva?

Source: Fondation pour Genève/The Graduate Institute

The Covid-19 pandemic led to a global crisis, with severe health and economic consequences. What emerged in response to it was the importance of the internet and its governance in mitigating its impact. And in the process, Geneva played its role.

International Geneva is not only a historical hub for internet governance but can position itself as a major contributor to future issues, states the report published last week by the Fondation pour Genève and the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, led by Dr. Michael Kende. But to maintain its place and become a leading actor, Geneva needs to adapt and continue to move forward.

The COVID-19 revealing the existing. Internet became an essential ally in the response to the pandemic. Work from home, online courses and shopping, communication with friends and family, or entertainment, the strain on the internet was big. If the internet was able to resist the growing demand, it also revealed issues such as the digital divide, digital rights, and an increase in cyberattacks.

Geneva faced an emergency and reacted quickly. The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) for example developed a Global Network Resiliency Platform (#REG4COFID) to help countries share information and learn from each other’s regulatory responses. The Cyberpeace Institute offered a series of online events to counteract the « infodemic » on which cyberattackers were feeding. The Geneva internet platform provided information about digital policy issues and the WHO developed a health alert system using WhatsApp. These are only some of the many expressions of the clusters around which International Geneva built its role as the main venue for internet governance.

Why Geneva is a hub of importance. The issues highlighted by internet governance rest upon three founding pillars of the UN: peace and security, human rights, and development. Through activities in digital trust, development and rights, United Nations agencies, permanent missions, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and academic and research institutes have played an essential part and continue to contribute to policy discussions in Geneva. Doris Leuthard, Chair of the Swiss Digital Initiative Foundation and former President and Federal Councillor of the Swiss Confederation explains :

« Since 100 years Geneva is a center for international diplomacy. The priority was always human rights, human values, peace, transparency, cooperation. Values which count not only in the old analogue world, but even more in the digital world. The role to serve as a international hub for Internet governance is therefore in the
DNA of Geneva. »

According to the Geneva Internet Platform, 50 per cent of the digital policy issues they have mapped are addressed in Geneva. Moreover, the Trust Valley uniting Geneva to Vaud in promoting knowledge and technologies related to digital trust and cybersecurity, proves the will to capitalize on the local resources to develop the ecosystem for a stronger impact.

Efforts to be made. Geneva is not alone as an internet governance hub of importance. Although it is perceived as a neutral location with a significant base of expertise, Washington DC, Brussels or Paris also contribute to the process. Moreover, Geneva is missing some key players in its multi-stakeholder approach: internet companies and civil society organizations specialized in internet issues are mostly based elsewhere. The power of attraction is strong, however, as Microsoft senior director Jean-Yves Art explains:

« With thought leadership on global societal issues in cyberspace, Geneva can attract companies to contribute to technology governance solutions. »

Geneva must act to make a difference as it has in the past, says the report. Attracting new stakeholders, initiatives and institutions is possible with the right developments. Lowering or constraining costs of accommodation, creating office spaces for visiting stakeholders, or highlighting existing initiatives through marketing campaigns could favor international Geneva.

It is furthermore essential to increase cooperation between organizations in Geneva, as underlined by State Councillor in charge of the Department of Security and the Economy of the Republic and Canton of Geneva, Pierre Maudet :

« My main recommendation is to work as a network and abandon silo thinking. The most important innovations, including in relation to governance, require a new approach, which is both multidimensional and multidisciplinary. »

The future of internet governance in international Geneva. The amount of activity taking place in Geneva can explain the shortcomings. Identifying which organizations do what and highlighting the data on digital issues gathered in Geneva could feed cooperation and place Geneva at the forefront of internet governance. As revealed during the COVID-19 pandemic, there is an urgency to promote digital trust and ensure digital rights. By building on its current strengths, international Geneva can create an inclusive broader strategy and take on the role it seems destined to play.

« Looking forward, a particular focus of new initiatives in Geneva relates to future issues, such as questions about artificial intelligence ethics and policy. As a neutral location, Geneva can help to bridge divides between countries and blocs when interests are fragmented. »

The future described by the lead author of the report, Kende, is more than promising. It is now up to international Geneva to embrace its mission and move forward.