We need strong governance to make sure the internet is available, secure, and safe for all

Data centre in Zurich (KEYSTONE/Christian Beutler)

International Geneva has long been a hub for internet governance. Back in 2003, Geneva hosted the first international conference that addressed the topic, the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS). Since then, the internet has grown exponentially in size and importance, as has been shown vividly during the COVID-19 crisis.

Internet governance is increasingly important, to bridge the digital divide, address cybersecurity, and establish online rights. It requires cooperation and coordination between a variety of stakeholders and thus is well suited to the strengths of International Geneva.

The Fondation pour Genève has released a report this week that I authored as part of a new series focusing on centres of expertise in International Geneva. Recent events have proved the series to be somewhat prophetic. The first report, released right before the Covid-19 pandemic, covered the role of Geneva as a centre for global health. This second report focuses on the role of Geneva as a centre for governance of the internet and is being released as the internet has proven central to societies’ responses to the crisis.

International Geneva is built around the three founding pillars of the United Nations: Development, Peace and Security, and Human Rights. These pillars now all include important online issues and correspond well with many of the key internet governance questions. As a result, there are three corresponding clusters of internet governance in Geneva:

Digital for Development. The digital divide drove the emergence of internet governance in Geneva, beginning with the WSIS. While it is important to bring people online, it is also important to recognise that Internet access is a means to achieving broader development goals. Geneva has been at the forefront of these efforts, including developing e-commerce, the rules for the resulting digital trade, and planning the future of work in a global digital world.

Digital Trust. The vulnerability of online activities is increasingly apparent. Enhancing cybersecurity and promoting cyberpeace is a vital issue being addressed by a number of organisations across the Lake Geneva region. These initiatives are not just trying to prevent harms, but have begun to promote digital trust, to develop confidence in sensitive online services.

Digital Rights. Human rights issues are firmly centred in Geneva, encompassing humanitarian issues as well. A significant amount of work has focused on how to apply human rights in the online sphere, including privacy and freedom of expression. In addition, work has been undertaken on how to leverage technology to deliver humanitarian aid, while also mitigating the downsides of technology. Geneva is the natural home for this work to take place.

These clusters are driven by internet policy expertise within the UN agencies, Permanent Missions, and non-governmental organisations.  The clusters are strengthened by academic and research institutions and venues for capacity building, all in turn supported by active Swiss policy. The report covers the range of activities in Geneva, including how the internet governance clusters have helped address online issues arising from the Covid-19 crisis.

International Geneva continues to grow its role as a centre for internet governance, with new initiatives arriving that bolster the existing clusters, such as the Swiss Digital Initiative and the CyberPeace Institute. Geneva also plays host to a number of conferences and events – large and small – focused on a wide variety of digital issues.

While International Geneva is a natural home for internet governance, it is not the designated home. The digital landscape is changing quickly – new technologies are raising new questions; governments are beginning to take a more pro-active role; and there is a risk that the internet is fragmenting across countries. International Geneva is an ideal location to address these issues. It is a neutral space for different blocs of countries to discuss issues of common concern, and for discussion of government approaches. Indeed, policy questions surrounding artificial intelligence are emerging and being addressed in a transversal way in Geneva.

The pandemic has provided an important – if unwanted – reminder how central the internet has become to economies, societies, and our personal lives where it is available, secure, and safe. All stakeholders should build on the current clusters to ensure that the future of internet governance in Geneva is realised, to progress an inclusive digital for development, promote digital trust, and ensure digital rights for everyone, everywhere.

Michael Kende is a senior fellow and visiting lecturer at the Graduate Institute, Geneva, a digital development expert at the World Bank Group, and senior adviser to Analysys Mason. He is the former chief economist at the Internet Society.