The challenges in the digital sphere are met with a multitude of calls for action and declarations worldwide. In this spirit, EuroDIG 2019 has sent a strong signal on the need for stakeholders to strengthen their co-operation within the digital ecosystem. Now that EuroDIG 2019 is over, here are the most important updates, trends, and discussions from the annual conference.
Co-operation is key
This year’s theme, ‘Co-operating in the Digital Age’, featured across many workshops. Be it in relationship to the improvement of private sector operations through the involvement of civil society and the scientific community or the relationship between the members of the technical community and policymakers, the discussions emphasised the need to further address topics such as ‘universal acceptance’, to make software accept all valid domain names and email addresses, or the fight against online disinformation.
European regulatory frameworks: a regulatory minefield
The Council of Europe (CoE) promoted its regulatory frameworks such as the Budapest Convention and the discussion about the Second Additional Protocol to the Budapest Convention on Cybercrime. The Council representatives expressed concern regarding the risk of deepening discrimination, particularly through the increased reliance on artificial intelligence. In its report, the Council identifies different sources of biases which include the collection of data as well as the training of the algorithms with discriminatory data or biased data samples. The report also identifies different fields in which these biases can have serious impacts on decision-making such as law enforcement agencies, price discrimination and gender equality through the reproduction of gender inequality in automated translation tools.
Another concern of the CoE was the deepening of digital gaps among people in different social classes but also among nations, given that digital technologies still strongly favour developed countries. The loss of human oversight over new technologies was also brought up as a worrisome trend. To address this issue, the CoE has started aligning ethics frameworks to create a more coherent framework across its member states.
The European Commission (EC) highlighted that with a wider acceptance of the multistakeholder model, tensions between the latter and multilateral approach, between bottom-up and top-down approaches, and between a purely market-based approach and state intervention should be overcome in order to focus on pressing challenges for the EU and its citizens. These include the centralisation of data, privacy issues, and the lack of trust, as well as new means of governance for new technologies.
The EC acknowledged its responsibility in contributing to solution finding of these issues and to finding regulatory approaches which will guarantee the openness and fairness of the Internet. The collaborative aspect is thus a priority for the European Commission as well.
The first regulatory steps such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) were well received and lauded for its consequent stance on ensuring privacy protection. Panellists highlighted the success of the European Commission for adopting a regulatory approach which reflected the will of a small group of states with common values. In general, the debate around norms and how to implement them was a preoccupation for many participants and so the upscaling of regional approaches, such as the one of the EC, was seen as a promising avenue for the finding of global solutions.
However, some of the EC regulations and directives such as the European Copyright Reform or the e-Evidence Proposal were heavily criticised by a number of panellists. The Directive on Copyright in the Digital Single Market came under fire for having sided too strongly with the interests of rights holders such as publishers and record labels and thereby accepted the risks of over-blocking online content.
Similarly, the EC e-Evidence Proposal was contested for exposing platform providers to requests from all European member states as opposed to complying with orders from the national authorities where the companies are located. The proposal consists of a regulation as well as a directive and aims to provide a binding legal framework that would enable EU law enforcement authorities to obtain data from service providers located in other countries. Participants feared that this could lead to companies and businesses proceeding to implement stronger filtering and blocking mechanisms in order to avoid sanctions or reputational damages.
How should IoT and AI be governed?
Debates on new technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and the Internet of Things (IoT) revolved mainly around the need to find new ways to govern them without hampering innovation. Emerging challenges needed to be addressed through ethics implementation, the elaboration of guiding principles and ‘by design’ measures. Ethics and trust ‘by design’ measures seem to gradually become viewed as the most promising way to ensure privacy and data protection.
While generally, the discussions around the need for more regulations and norms about the Internet were much divided, opinions converged around the need for norms and frameworks regulating the development and application of new technologies. Their high reliance on data and often personal information makes it critical for them to be placed under accountability mechanisms, a view shared by the Report of the UN High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation.
EuroDIG and the UN High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation
The High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation engaged extensive multistakeholder consultations in its process. In the two sessions dedicated to the recently launched report, participants highlighted that multistakeholderism and multilateralism should not be viewed as fundamentally opposed approaches to Internet governance but rather to see them as complementary in order to take advantage of the benefits of both approaches.
Co-operation should therefore not be viewed as something to be imposed on different processes, but rather as a way to ‘connect the dots’ and exchange information and views about the existing processes and initiatives.
The discussions found that the many challenges originating from mis/disinformation require a wide range of responses such as making online platforms responsible for the management of online content, as well as ensuring the financial and political independence of news outlets.
Other ways of avoiding misinformation included privately-owned fact-checking tools or the creation of public support teams for specific types of journalism (such as investigative journalism) and redistribution mechanisms for online platforms to finance the production of quality media content.
All-rounded discussion on digital literacy
A topic which transcended most of EuroDIG sessions was the importance of digital literacy. The subject was discussed from various angles, namely through providing personal cybersecurity, reducing information asymmetries which are very significant in the field of new technologies, to protecting children from online harms. Similarly to ethics ‘by design’ protection measures, digital literacy was recognised as one of the most effective ways to strengthen cybersecurity.
Evolving IGF – a stronger role for digital policy?
The debate around the need for increased regulation and more norms in the digital fields such as cybersecurity, content regulation, as well as the creation and circulation of misinformation remained contested. While many discussants argued that there are already many norms and declarations in the field of cybersecurity, others argued that the application of soft law and non-binding regulations is not enough to tackle the challenges in the digital sphere.
The Internet Governance Forum (IGF) was regarded as an ideal venue to discuss and further advance norms at the global level in a number of sessions. In line with the proposal of French President Emmanuel Macron, for the elaboration of more tangible solutions at the IGF, participants cautiously raised the possibility of allocating the forum with greater norm-proposing powers. Particularly in the cybersecurity domain, the panellists favouring binding approaches argued that an updated IGF would be a good way to shape the future of the global cybersecurity architecture through the elaboration of norms in a multistakeholder fashion. The IGF was also identified as one of the best-suited forums to discuss future challenges posed by AI and IoT.
This discussion was well reflected by the recommendations of the UN High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation which proposed three updated mechanisms for global digital cooperation. The aim of the IGF Plus (IGF+) model would be to build on the strengths of the existing IGF and to address its shortcomings including those related to norm-making and state participation.