IGF 2021 WS #130 The risks of pursuing digital autonomy

Tuesday, 7th December, 2021 (13:30 UTC) - Tuesday, 7th December, 2021 (14:30 UTC)
Conference Room 4

Organizer 1: Civil Society, Western European and Others Group (WEOG)
Organizer 2: Civil Society, Western European and Others Group (WEOG)

Speaker 1: Hanane Boujemi, Private Sector, Western European and Others Group (WEOG)
Speaker 2: Olaf Kolkman, Technical Community, Western European and Others Group (WEOG)
Speaker 3: Gergana Petrova, Technical Community, Western European and Others Group (WEOG)
Speaker 4: Chris Buckridge, Technical Community, Western European and Others Group (WEOG)
Speaker 5: Lousewies van der Laan, Private Sector, Western European and Others Group (WEOG)
Speaker 6: Nadia Tjahja, Civil Society, Western European and Others Group (WEOG)


Round Table - Circle - 60 Min

Policy Question(s)

Regulation, competition and innovation: How could regulatory and self-regulatory frameworks help foster more competitive Internet-related markets, a larger diversity of business models, and more innovation? How to enable equitable access to data, marketplaces or infrastructures for fostering competition and innovation on the Internet?
Data governance and trust, globally and locally: What is needed to ensure that existing and future national and international data governance frameworks are effective in mandating the responsible and trustworthy use of data, with respect for privacy and other human rights?

Additional Policy Questions Information: Digital autonomy and the risk thereof: in what ways could pursuing digital autonomy lead to a splinternet, and what would be the day-to-day risks of pursuing digital autonomy on a national and/or regional level.

People often talk about the danger of a splinternet, but rarely about the actual implications if this development were to happen. Therefore, this session will focus on the day-to-day implications of a splinternet. During the round table discussion, both macro and micro level implications will be discussed. On the one hand issues such as the consequences of a splinternet on global trade will be considered, specifically the implications for developing countries. On the other hand we will also discuss how a splinternet would affect individuals' internet experiences.



Targets: This session on the risks of pursuing digital autonomy and the implications of a splinternet relates to UN Sustainable Development Goals 9 and 17. The session will discuss the significance of building resilient (internet) infrastructure and the importance of ensuring a conducive policy environment. The session will also focus on the implications of a splinternet for various regions, including developing countries. Since we cannot find a global solution by thinking regionally, it is essential to further the international discussion in order to enhance international cooperation on and access to technology. Additionally, it is essential to enhance global, multi-stakeholder partnerships in order to preserve the global nature of our internet.


The risks of digital autonomy: balancing national interests with preserving a global internet

Last year the European Commission presented its digital strategy, in which the term digital sovereignty was introduced. The need to become autonomous in the digital field is present. What are the consequences of this ambition for other parts of the world? And does it pose risks for the global internet? Could it lead to a splinternet? How would a splinternet affect global trade on a macro level, and how would it affect individuals’ internet experiences on a micro level? We need to discuss globally in what ways we can balance national and regional interests, whilst preserving a global internet. In this round table discussion, speakers from various backgrounds will consider these questions and the day-to-day risks of pursuing digital autonomy on a national and/or regional level.

Expected Outcomes

This session will be organized by the Netherlands Internet Governance Forum (NL IGF). In preparation of this panel discussion at the IGF, the NL IGF will be hosting a national IGF on November 10th and 11th, to further the national discussion on the risks of pursuing digital autonomy regionally.

We plan on having speakers both online and on-site. It will be a discussion on the risks of pursuing digital autonomy, with speakers from various backgrounds. The circular round table format provides us with the opportunity to involve both online and on-site participants in the discussion. Additionally, we plan on using a menti poll to gauge the opinion of participants, both online and on-site. We acknowledge the value of the open multi-stakeholder platform that the IGF offers, as we cannot find a global solution to this issue by thinking regionally and hence we value participants' input.

Online Participation

Usage of IGF Official Tool. Additional Tools proposed: We plan on using polls via zoom or menti in order to get input from the participants on this pressing issue. This input will further the discussion on the risks of pursuing digital autonomy. By using a polling tool like menti, we want to include both on-site and online participants. Additionally, given the (virtual) circular round table format, we would like to open up the floor to engage both online and on-site participants in the discussion.

Key Takeaways (* deadline 2 hours after session)

A crucial difference exists between digital sovereignty and autonomy. It is important to focus on individual autonomy of Internet users within the digital realm.

A need exists to balance solving problems on the Internet, without compromising the technical layer of the Internet.

Call to Action (* deadline 2 hours after session)

We mustn't politicize the Internet. Instead, we need to continuously ensure a multistakeholder approach.

Session Report (* deadline 26 October) - click on the ? symbol for instructions

The risks of pursuing digital autonomy #WS130
Organised by the Netherlands Internet Governance Forum (NL IGF) and the Dutch organisation ECP, this session addressed the notion of digital autonomy and the risks it creates for balancing national interests with preserving a global internet. Recent focus at the policy level on concepts such as digital sovereignty and digital autonomy has indeed raised fears that this pattern could lead to a splinternet. Moderated by Olaf Kolkman (Senior Advisor, Internet Society), this session proposed to explore what would be the implications and day-to-day risks of pursuing digital autonomy on a national and/or regional level. 

Though increasingly a feature of Internet governance discussions, digital autonomy and digital sovereignty are controversial notions. As they do not convey the same meaning for all actors, it is important to clarify their definition before assessing their potential risks. Nadia Tjahja (PhD Researcher, UNU-CRIS) argued that framing discussions in terms of digital sovereignty often leads to thinking with a binary approach, pitting independence against the forms of interdependence on which the Internet relies. Also, the notion of digital sovereignty is state-centric and thus ill-suited to address the multi-faceted challenges faced by internet users. 

Digital autonomy, on the contrary, is the right to make informed decisions, and thus more related to the individual level. Chris Buckridge (Advisor, RIPE NCC) argued that this notion is not necessarily in conflict with that idea of a global internet, since the internet relies on the interoperability of autonomous systems, and as enhancing autonomy does not necessarily require more regulations and state control. 
Lousewies van der Laan (Executive Director, Transparency International Netherlands) agreed that autonomy is a concept that can translate into a plurality of practices. For instance, it can cover both the issue of how individuals can make informed choices in relation to digital aspects of their life, as well as challenges at the policy level. From a consumer perspective, van der Laan supported the emergence of ‘personal digital autonomy’, which would derive from an improved knowledge of Internet users on how these technologies function. 

Moving to the policy level, participants also discussed the role of states and governments in guaranteeing ‘digital autonomy’. Roelof Meijer (CEO, SIDN) detailed that various actors, including the EU, intend to enhance their ‘strategic digital autonomy’, to have the possibility to decide on digital issues considered are strategically important. For critical resources service providers, such as Stichting Internet Domeinregistratie Nederland (SIDN), in charge of the management of a country code top level domain (ccTLD), the ability to choose between different options and avoid lock-ins or single points of failure is indeed very important.

Gergana Petrova (External Relations Officer, RIPE NCC) explained that, since internet governance mechanisms departed from traditional decision-making centralised settings, there is a clear challenge posed by the increasing attempts of national governments to shape internet-related issues through national and regional policies. 

As the EU is due to release its new Declaration of Digital Principles, there is a need to ensure that EU authorities further their commitment to a globally interoperable and unfragmented internet. Van der Laan agreed that more and more state actors are attempting to get greater control over the technical layer of the internet, characterising this pattern as an extremely dangerous development. 

Buckridge argued in particular that the recent negotiations on the reform of the NIS directive at the European level could soon extend regulatory obligations to root server operators of the internet. This legislative text could have a negative effect for the stability of the internet, especially as other states may follow suit. Petrova additionally explained that international sanctions could also restrict the use of internet resources in certain countries and RIPE NCC investigates the possibility of getting an exemption for internet resources from EU sanction regulations. 

On the other hand, Meijer underlined the fact that the behaviour of a number of corporate actors required action from public authorities, and thus partly triggered this trend of states’ engagement with internet policy arenas. Underlying that state actors are not the only stakeholders able to favour digital autonomy, Tjahja referred to various technological developments in the Netherlands related to ‘self-sovereign identity’. SURF for instance has developed a blockchain-based verifiable data registry, in which users become the owners of their personal data and determine what information they share and with whom. Such technology could become useful in providing new ways for individuals to protect their information and provide more decision-making power in relation to the data they share online. 

Lousewies van der Laan concluded by stressing the importance of keeping these types of discussions, including this workshop on digital autonomy, at the IGF, as the Internet Governance Forum provides an open and transparent forum that fosters a multistakeholder debate.


This session report is based on the report written by Clement Perarnaud, published by Digital Watch observatory, Geneva Internet Platform (https://dig.watch/events/igf2021/the-risks-of-pursuing-digital-autonomy/).