The Future Of Digital Policymaking

The Future Of Digital Policymaking
The internet is continuing to drive unprecedented social change, particularly in the Global South. Wealthy and powerful global technology companies are leading this change. Today, they are mediating both domestic social contracts between the governments and their citizens, and relations between countries in both peace and conflict. This is making many governments increasingly nervous.

Freedom House, in 2022, reported that nearly 50% of the global internet population faced permanent and temporary shutdowns and restrictions in the previous year. It further reports that nearly 70% of the internet population was victim to government led manipulation of online discussions. All these governmental actions are well thought out responses.

Global and domestic internet governance has always been about politics, but was addressed less formally in the past. This will inevitably change into a formal political and diplomatic consideration in future bilateral and multilateral engagements

United States diplomatic objectives in the future, as it appears, will have digital policy considerations embedded in them. The US has already created a bureau of cyberspace and digital policy at the State Department. Internet freedom is a fundamental part of the Summit for Democracy initiative, whose second summit was held in the spring of this year. Similarly, the declaration for the freedom of Internet, in 2022, presents a sharp future vision of US, and its allies on internet freedom.

Comparable developments are also taking place elsewhere by a differently motivated group of political actors at the BRICS forum. The EU’s recent action against Meta is another example of political blocs redefining their policy preferences, even amongst allies. Lastly, the introduction of export controls by US led allies, on spyware and other dual application software, is also anchored in similar considerations.

Recent domestic political events and governmental responses in the digital policy domain are mostly incompatible with the policy direction of our major business partners in the West. There is a growing gap between both sides. In the Freedom House report from 2022, we received a low 26 on a 100-point index. On the other hand, our western allies and strategic partner China, already have divergent positions on the internet and human rights. Pakistan, in most likelihood, will once again be a frontier state in this domain of future great power conflict.

The Federal Finance Minister recently referred to ‘geopolitics’ as a contributor to the country’s current economic woes and its present relationship with the IMF. Notwithstanding the controversy around its context, this points out our vulnerability to diplomatic coercion. On the other hand, the Minister of IT & Telecom recently stated that his Ministry wasn’t taken on-board before the nationwide mobile broadband suspension and social media shutdown after the events of May 9. These developments confirm that our house in not in order.

Our domestic decision-making will be dominated by current political priorities in the foreseeable future. For us, there is thus, a significant risk of domestic political actions easily triggering political and diplomatic fallouts. This situation, however, is not unique to Pakistan.

Besides countries, digital platforms are separately feeling pressures from the current content governance model. These companies are being forced to make arbitrary content governance choices because of their commercial vulnerabilities. Recent statement by Jack Dorsey, former CEO of Twitter, about the Indian government’s record of exerting pressure on Twitter confirms such challenges.

On the other hand, it is also a reflection of numerous local social and cultural variations and political angles to historic and present issues. These global players need to be more considerate to such local culture and values.

Both these deliberate and inadvertent developments will lead to the creation of a new order. There is growing political space for independent digital content fiduciaries, for creating a common agenda and regulating the relationship between corporate and national stakeholders of online content.  This concept is adopted from the work of Professors Bowers and Zittrain at the Harvard Law School. The political context of their work is the developed world, but its need is far more convincing in the Global South.

The fiduciary debate begets a question on who can these fiduciaries be? Would it be digital platform led developments like the Oversight Board at Facebook? Or would other political alliances like the SCO, OIC or BRICS create a common agenda for their members? Or is the UN the right forum to lead these discussions? Would the western Governments rely on multilateral agencies and organizations to drive their country specific agenda in the Global South?

These and many others are all political questions. But they are deeply rooted in digital policymaking. They will define for us the future of Internet, and the commercial value we can derive from it.  Do our decision makers recognize this challenge?

The author is a project management and technology professional.