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Marta Moreira Dias
.PT Board of Directors
28 November-2 December

Trying to be brief, and not falling into the temptation of being repetitive, we will not list again the topics which were brought to discussion at this 17th edition of the Internet Governance Forum, IGF, since they were precisely those we addressed in our national initiative, which took place last November 3rd and whose messages were prepared, made available at www.governacaointernet.pt, and later distributed in Addis Ababa, capital of Ethiopia and headquarters of the African Union.

Much more relevant is the proposal launched by António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations, in which governments were also asked to make contributions by 31 March 2023, and on which the digital future is supposed to be based. We refer specifically to the Global Digital Compact. This proposal will include a roadmap based on the principle of a global digital future more focused on humanism and that goes through the following macro objectives: universal connectivity (when we still have 2.9 billion people without internet access); freedom of expression; privacy; protection against all kinds of online abuse and secure and responsible use of data.

The focus was clearly on the need to give primacy to human rights in the digital ecosystem and the role of technology "for good", at the service of a common good. At a time when the watchword at the IGF is no longer the internet but the broader concept of digital, Vint Cerf came on stage calling for trust, security, privacy, widespread access, affordability, resilience and operational stability.

Gender equality and the "digital divide" were other points of order at the edition that had the participation of the first woman president of the ITU. Doreen Bogdan-Martin appealed to the importance of digital as a privileged platform for the issues of health, education, development, innovation and the important sustainability in its different aspects. In fact, the Secretary-General of the United Nations had already alerted to the relevance of keeping the SDGs (sustainable development goals) at the top of the digital agenda.

The United Nations Common Agenda has proposed a Global Digital Compact. The GDC will be evaluated at a ministerial meeting in September 2023, following a public consultation involving all stakeholders: governments, private sector, civil society, academia and individuals, including young people. 
The process will close, at an estimated date of September 2024, following the Future Summit, which should pave the way and provide guidance. Concretizing further, the GDC will be focused on the following milestones:

  • Reaffirmation of the fundamental commitment to connect the disconnected;
  • "Ending" the fragmentation of the internet;
  • People in charge of their personal data; 
  • Protecting human rights online;
  • Promoting a trusted internet by introducing accountability criteria on matters such as discrimination and illegal content;
  • Regulation of artificial intelligence (AI).

Notwithstanding the timings set for the GDC, and especially given the recent contingencies of, first, the long period of Covid 19, and now the war in Ukraine and the related climate of global economic and social instability, the issue of internet fragmentation has been anticipated and widely discussed. The internet has always been based on a set of values that can be read as one in its purpose: an open, free and interoperable internet. For this to happen -or to be maintained- there is a need for universal, unconditioned and, if possible, free access to technological infrastructure, content and innovation. On the other hand, only the maintenance of common and interoperable standards and protocols will guarantee this unity that continues to be presupposed, and which should have no borders.

It is estimated that in 2022, 74 countries and regions were victims of situations qualified as internet fragmentation, mostly associated with serious violations of human rights such as freedom of expression and free access to information. Internet fragmentation excludes people, widens the digital divide and thereby impacts innovation.
Several factors are already identified as causing the problem: disinformation; hate speech; child pornography; xenophobia and racism, cybersecurity attacks, etc. Different social, geographic, economic, regulatory and political frameworks lead to different ways of viewing and addressing this issue that is already starting to be associated with the issue of digital sovereignty, since many of the cases of Internet fragmentation are, more or less obviously, expedients of, we would say, survival of "less democratic" political systems.

At this moment a document is being worked on in order to contribute to a more holistic and inclusive debate on the subject and, at the same time, to create a space for a discussion resulting in concrete solutions and possible approaches, especially at the level of public policy definition. 

In this preparatory work three main dimensions of fragmentation were identified: fragmentation of the user experience, fragmentation of the technical layer of the Internet and fragmentation at the level of Internet governance.
 In the first case are the common situations of fragmentation that result in a different experience provided to the user, depending, for example, on where they are accessing the internet. As a practical example we have state interventions (e.g. blocking, censorship); content control by platforms, etc.
The fragmentation of the Internet's technical layer is one that challenges its interoperability, for example the creation of 'national internets' limited by geographical boundaries. The last category is identified as fragmentation at the level of Internet governance, which usually mirrors subversions of the multistakeholder model of governance, a very concrete example being the lack of effective and concerted collaboration between organisations, governments, academia and civil society. 
Now it is important to follow this discussion and be an active voice in it, that will be the most immediate goal. The principle that also guides this whole process, on behalf of an open, transparent and multistakeholder Internet governance, is also imprinted in the .PT's DNA. 

Please note: the articles on this blog may not convey the opinion of .PT, but of its author.
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