Q2/2020 - Executive Summary

Current happenings in the Internet governance context April to June 2020:

China, in turn, is pushing the expansion of its Internet companies as part of the “digital silk road” project. In addition to Africa, Europe and America are increasingly being addressed as target markets. Huawei plans to build a factory in France. The mobile payment service AliPay and the app “TikTok” are also becoming more and more popular “in the West”. In May 2020, a bizarre legal dispute between two Chinese providers (Zym vs. TikTok) has arisen on the American market. “Zym” is a “TikTok” variant of the Chinese Internet giant Tencent, which also operates the “We Chat” app. “We Chat” has over one billion users worldwideIn the second quarter 2020, the global discussion on Internet governance was strongly impacted by the coronavirus crisis, which cast a shadow over all developments and events at international level. Conferences were cancelled, negotiations postponed, time schedules went haywire. Many activities were transferred to an online environment.

Internet: Boon or Bane in the COVID-19 Pandemic

One of the most sustainable side effects of the pandemic certainly is the extreme speed at which global digitalisation is advancing. Home office, distance learning, online shopping, video conferencing, all this is nothing new. Yet, whereas a year ago, online and offline activities were clearly distinguished, the real and the virtual world have merged in an unprecedented way in times of the COVID-19 crisis.

This is also true for the global Internet governance discussion, in which new formats, new issues and new players are emerging and priorities are shifting. Never before have access to the Internet, general availability of digital services and operational security of the public core of the Internet been so widely acknowledged as a critical infrastructure for services of general interest. Proposals that request the right of access to the Internet to be constitutionally enshrined as a fundamental right of every individual and to legally secure the protection of the public core of the Internet have acquired a new international urgency as a result of the pandemic.

On the other hand, existing digital, economic and social divides have widened and the pandemic has led to a serious increase in cyber crime. The World Health Organization, hospitals and medical research institutions have been victims of cyber attacks. Fake news and COVID-19-related conspiracy theories were disseminated in social networks via the Internet. Donations were captured by phishing mails. Video conferences were sabotaged by Zoom bombing. Mutual cyber attacks of Israel and Iran or Russian and the Ukraine have escalated in the shadow of the coronavirus crisis.

The pandemic has also led to increased tensions between the two cyber superpowers, the USA and China. Some observers think it has triggered tectonic shifts in the international relations system. The resulting “new world order” is expected to be a “digital order” in which cyberspace will become the scene of international conflicts and rivalries. Although this new digital world order would be multipolar in its constitution and include both state and non-state actors, it would be overshadowed by a political and economic conflict between the USA and China as well as a societal antagonism between a democratic and an autocratic version of the global information society.

UN-Roadmap for Digital Cooperation

Regardless of the worldwide lockdown, the discussion about the further development of the current global Internet governance ecosystem was not suspended in the second quarter of 2020. The majority of the international negotiations on Internet governance were continued in the virtual space. Several important conferences, however, were postponed. At the same time, new forms of the multistakeholder cooperation model are emerging.

Particularly worth mentioning with regard to the 2nd quarter of 2020 is the presentation of the “UN Roadmap for Digital Cooperation” by UN Secretary-General António Guterres on 11 June 2020. The Roadmap is based on the recommendations made by the UN High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation (HLP), which was established by Guterres. Co-chaired by Melinda Gates and Jack Ma, the Panel submitted its final report precisely one year before, on 11 June 2019. The UN Roadmap recommends the United Nations not as a “world government of the Internet” but as a “platform for the multistakeholder dialogue”. The dialogue shall be organised by a so-called Technology Envoy that the Secretary-General will appoint in January 2021. The Roadmap defines eight fields of action, in which global digitalisation shall be pushed in the ten years until 2030 – the target date for achieving the UN sustainable development goals (SDGs). The Roadmap further advocates to cautiously reform the architecture of Internet governance ecosystem’s mechanisms, as they have developed over the last 20 years. The preferred model is that of a strengthened and enhanced Internet Governance Forum (IGF+) as it is recommended by HLP.

Four Core Areas

In the 2nd quarter of 2020, all four core areas of the Internet governance ecosystem (cyber security, digital economy, human rights, technological development) experienced trends and developments that are particularly worth to be mentioned.

Cyber Security
For the first time ever, the UN Security Council held a separate meeting on 22 May 2020 (a so-called “Arria Formula Meeting”[1]) dedicated exclusively to cyber security. This is an absolute novelty in this field. The two UN negotiation groups on cyber security, the Group of Governmental Experts (UN GGE) and the Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG), which are supervised by the First Committee of the UN General Assembly, continued their work in the virtual sphere. The OEWG Chair, the Swiss ambassador Jürg Lauber, presented a second draft of his final report on 25 May 2020, yet recommended to extend the OEWG mandate for another year. The mandate will expire in the course of the ongoing year.

Digital Economy
As to digital economy, the postponement to summer 2021 of the Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organization (WTO) originally scheduled for July 2020 in Nursultan (Kazakhstan) has impacted the planned international regulation of e-commerce. A moratorium dating back to 1998, stating that no customs duties were to be charged for cross-border e-commerce transactions, was planned to be replaced by a new treaty on global digital trade at the Ministerial Conference.

The pandemic also affected the OECD/G20 (BEPS) negotiations designed to create a global regime for a digital tax. According to the original schedule, a global agreement was planned to be reached by the end of 2020. In December 2019, the European Parliament had adopted a resolution concerning digital tax that threatened to introduce an independent European solution for a digital tax, if no international agreement had been reached by 31 December 2020. At the virtual meeting of the G20 finance ministers and the central bank governors in April 2020, however, the dispute escalated, particularly between the USA and France. On 16 June 2020, the US Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin announced that the US government would no longer participate in the OECD/G20 (BEPS) negotiations.[2] In reaction to this, OECD Secretary-General Ángel Gurría stated that the OECD wad going to continue the negotiations and stick to its timetable despite the withdrawal of the US. In the meantime, the BRICS finance ministers have also come to support a global digital tax. Pressure is increasing internationally to open up new sources of income – for instance, from the US-American Internet companies which have made considerable additional profits during the crisis – to compensate for the enormous financial expenditure that have incurred in the course of the pandemic.

Human Rights
In the field of human rights, the pandemic re-fuelled the discussion about data privacy (in relation with tracing apps) and freedom of opinion (in relation with the disinformation campaigns, conspiracy theories and fake news) in the 2nd quarter of 2020. The UN Human Rights Council, however, avoided to intensively discuss the issue at its virtual meeting in June 2020. Proposals for drafting an international convention against random mass surveillance continue to fall on deaf ears with the majority of governments in the UN Human Rights Council.

Freedom of the media has also re-emerged as an issue. On 3 May 2020, the UNESCO World Press Freedom Day, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and the OSCE addressed the wider public with a statement on freedom of expression and elections in the digital age, in which states were requested to take all necessary regulatory measures to ensure that in case of elections “free, independent and pluralistic media” were able to provide citizens with comprehensive, accurate and trustworthy information about political parties, candidates and the election process.

ITU, too, is coming under scrutiny in the human rights discussion. The technical standards for digital face recognition and visual mass surveillance systems the drafting of which is on the agenda of the  ITU-T Study Groups 13 and 17 well have the potential to undermine existing human rights standards.

In the field of new technologies, artificial intelligence and technical norms continued to be the major subjects also in the 2nd quarter 2020. On 15 May, the UNESCO Ad Hoc Expert Group on Ethics of AI (ADEC) presented a first draft recommendation for a new normative instrument in this field. On 15 June, OECD was appointed secretariat of the newly established “G7 Global Partnership on Artificial Intelligence” (GPAI). The OSCE is preparing a high-level expert conference on freedom of expression and artificial intelligence”, which is to take place on 6 July as an online event. At the Council of Europe, an Ad-hoc Committee on Artificial Intelligence (CAHAI) is drafting a document on “human rights and artificial intelligence. ITU will hold its “AI for Good Summit” in form of a series of virtual seminars that will extend over several weeks.

In addition to all this, conflicts are building up also in the Study and Focus Groups of ITU with regard to issues such as the technical standards for digital face recognition, video mass surveillance, the Internet of Things, Smart Cities and New IP. The four-yearly World Telecommunication Standardisation Assembly (WTSA), which was scheduled for November 2020, has been postponed to February 2021. At the WTSA, recommendations by the ITU-T Study and Focus Groups are discussed.

Also outside the established international negotiation mechanisms, a number of developments could be observed in the 2nd quarter of 2020 that had direct impact on the global Internet governance ecosystem.

In the shadow of the COVID-19 crisis, the cyber war between Israel and Iran has escalated. After an Iranian general was killed by a US drone, Iran attacked core areas of Israel's water system in April 2020. The cyber attack failed and Iran denied the action. Israel reacted with a cyber attack on an Iranian port facility in the Strait of Hormuz in May 2020. Israel's cyber security chief said that a “changing point” in the use of offensive cyber capacities in hybrid military confrontations had been reached and predicted a “cyber winter”.[3] A wave of cyber attacks was reported by Ukraine. On 19 June 2020, Australia reported a massive and coordinated cyber attack on dozens of government agencies.

In the digital economy, a digital trade war between China and the USA is escalating. The core issue of that war is Huawei and 5G. The USA has considerably expanded their sanctions against Huawei. Pressure has been exerted on other governments to follow the US line. In May 2020, the USA and the Czech Republic signed a joint declaration on 5G.[4] In Brazil, the USA took over the financing of alternative providers to build the national 5G network.[5] China, in turn, is pushing the expansion of its Internet companies as part of the “digital silk road” project. In addition to Africa, Europe and America are increasingly being addressed as target markets. Huawei plans to build a factory in France. The mobile payment service AliPay and the app “TikTok” are also becoming more and more popular “in the West”. In May 2020, a bizarre legal dispute between two Chinese providers (Zym vs. TikTok) has arisen on the American market. “Zym” is a “TikTok” variant of the Chinese Internet giant Tencent, which also operates the “We Chat” app. “We Chat” has over one billion users worldwide.[6]

Inter-governmental Level

At the inter-governmental level, the following major activities and events in the second quarter of 2020 are particularly worth mentioning:

  • The UN Security Council held a special meeting on cyber security on 25 May 2020 in the “Arria format”;
  • On 11 June 2020, the UN Secretary-General presented his “UN-Roadmap for Digital Cooperation”.
  • On 25 May 2020, Swiss ambassador Jürg Lauber, Chair of the Open-Ended Working Group on cyber security, presented a second draft of his final report to the UN General Assembly and submitted a revised schedule for the OEWG, which proposes to extend its mandate until 2021.
  • The time schedule for 2020 of the American G7 Presidency went haywire due to the coronavirus crisis. The G7 Summit at Camp David scheduled for June 2020 was initially planned to be held by video conferencing, then to be performed as a face-to-face meeting in Washington and finally was postponed to September 2020 (involving Russia, India and some other states). G7 ministerial conferences were reduced in scope and number and held online.
  • The Saudi G20 Presidency managed the switch from face-to-face to virtual meetings in good time. In the 2nd quarter of 2020, video conferences were arranged for the G20 finance, trade and digital ministers. The G20 Digital Economy Task Force (DETF) also fulfilled its schedule.
  • On 25 May, the Russian government announced the postponement of the BRICS and SCO Summits scheduled for July 2020 in St. Petersburg. A new date has not yet been communicated.
  • The OECD announced that despite the pandemic and the withdrawal of the US government it is going to continue working at the consolidated proposal for a global digital tax.
  • The WTO postponed the 12th Ministerial Conference, which was scheduled for June 2020 in Kazakhstan, to 2021.
  • On 27 April 2020, UNCTAD presented its annual report on e-commerce. Compared to the preceding year, digital trade has grown by 8 percent in 2018 and accounted for 25.6 trillion US$;
  • At the 23rd session of the United Nations Commission on Science and Technology Development (CSTD) first steps were taken in the discussion on the implementation of the WSIS decisions to set the course for preparing the next review conference WSIS+20 (2025).
  • On 25 May 2020, the European Commission gave priority to the digitisation of Europe in its 750 billion € assistance package to master the COVID-19 crisis.
  • The Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe accepted a recommendation on “human rights and algorithms” on 8 April 2020.
  • On 18 May 2020, the African Union adopted a comprehensive strategy paper on the digital transformation of Africa up to 2030.
  • The UNESCO Ad Hoc Expert Group on Ethics of AI (ADEC) presented a first draft for a new normative instrument regarding the ethics of AI.
  • The meeting of the ITU Council scheduled for June 2020 was postponed. Among other things, the conference had received a report by ITU Secretary-General Houlin Zhao on the ITU’s cyber security agenda.
  • On 21 May 2020, WIPO submitted a second Issues Paper on Intellectual Property Policy and Artificial Intelligence for discussion.
  • The OSCE is preparing a virtual conference titled “The rise of artificial intelligence and how it will reshape the future of free speech” for July 2020.
  • At the 44th session of the UN Human Rights Council, which was held as a video conference at the end of June 2020, privacy protection in the digital age and freedom of expression were not explicitly mentioned on the agenda;
  • On 6 May 2020, INTERPOL started a campaign titled “Wash Your Cyberhands” and presented a publication on the new dangers of cyber crime in times of the COVID-19 ´crisis.

Multistakeholder Level

At the multistakeholder and non-state level, the following major activities and events in the second quarter of 2020 are particularly worth mentioning:

  • The Polish government, which will host the 15th IGF in November 2020, announced on 14 June 2020 that the IGF will be held in form of a virtual meeting and that Katowice is going to organise the 14th IGF in 2021. The 17th IGF (2022) and the 18th IGF (2023) will take place in Ethiopia and Japan;
  • EURODIG13, which was planned for June 2020 in Trieste, was held as a virtual meeting. More than 1,000 attendants had registered for the online event. Trieste is going to organise the EURODIG14 in 2021;
  • The Freedom Online Coalition published a statement of the issue of “COVID-19 and Internet Freedom” on 8 June 2020;
  • The Global Forum on Cyberexpertise (GFCE) based in The Hague carried out a workshop on the coordination of public campaigns for cyber security in June 2020;
  • The Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development adopted an action plan on 2 April 2020 for developing countries how to strengthen their digital infrastructure in times of the coronavirus crisis;
  • The “Charter of Trust” launched by Siemens started an initiative for an extended and structured information exchange on cyber threats on 23 June 2020;
  • The “Tech Accord” launched by Microsoft started a competition for digital services that promote digital peace (Apps4Digital Peace) on 30 April 2020;
  • The Global Cybersecurity Alliance signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with ICANN designed to strengthen DNS security on 16 June 2020.
"Allow me to highlight three major elements of how to safeguard cyberspace:
First, the United Nations Member States have agreed long ago that existing international law applies also in cyberspace. We hold the strong view that existing international law provides comprehensive guidance for state behaviour regardless of the domain. By following this simple principle, the behavior of states in cyberspace can become more transparent and predictable.
Second, Estonia considers that a framework for cyber stability and conflict prevention has already been established by existing international law, voluntary norms of responsible state behavior as well as confidence building measures. It is now important to implement this framework. Regional efforts will be essential for conflict prevention and increasing transparency and predictability.
The third guiding principle for Estonia is to recognize the importance of capacity building in promoting stability in cyberspace. Globally, there are vast differences between states regarding their capacity to face cyber threats. Here we all have a responsibility to mobilize our expertise and resources. Over the last decade, Estonia has been sharing its best practices on advancing e-governance and building cyber resilience with many partner nations in Asia, Africa and Latin America. During the global pandemic, it is more important than ever to raise awareness about cyber threats and share best practices. It would be also crucial to recognize the role of the private sector in providing cyber resilience. We would also like to stress the contribution made by all other stakeholders, including academia and civil society, in promoting cyber stability. Ladies and Gentlemen,
Estonia continues to support an open, free and stable cyberspace where the rule of law fully applies, and human rights and fundamental freedoms are respected. We gather today – although digitally – at a crucial moment. Preserving an open and secure cyberspace is our common responsibility – not only during the current crisis, but also far, far beyond."

Jüri Ratas, Prime Minister of Estonia, Virtual Aria-Formula-Meeting of the United Nations Security Council, 22 May 2020

  1. Bsp: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arria_formula_meeting
  2. OECD to stick to digital tax negotiation timetable despite US opposition: „,According to press reports yesterday, the US has quit negotiating with European leaders on a digital tax update, choosing instead to threaten retaliatory tariffs on countries that impose digital services taxes. The US also said that governments should not attempt to “rush such difficult negotiations” given countries’ need to deal with the COVID-19 crisis. In a statement today, though, the OECD said that it is mandated by the G20 to deliver a consensus-based solution by the end of 2020 on the taxation of the digital economy based on a two-pillar approach. The OECD will maintain its schedule of meetings, offering a 130+ country collation known as the “Inclusive Framework on BEPS,” an opportunity to design a multilateral approach to the taxation of digital firms, the OECD said. “All members of the Inclusive Framework should remain engaged in the negotiation towards the goal of reaching a global solution by year-end, drawing on all the technical work that has been done during the last three years, including throughout the COVID-19 crisis,” Secretary-General Angel Gurría said. In: https://mnetax.com/oecd-to-stick-to-digital-tax-negotiation-timetable-despite-us-opposition-39092
  3. 'A changing point in cyber warfare': ‘Cyber winter is coming,’ warns Israel cyber chief after attack on water systems, in Times of Israel, „Last month’s major cyber attack against Israel’s water systems was a “synchronized and organized attack” aimed at disrupting key national infrastructure, Israel’s national cyber chief said Thursday. The assault has been widely attributed to Iran. Yigal Unna, who heads the National Cyber Directorate, did not mention Iran directly, nor did he comment on the alleged Israeli retaliation two weeks later said to have shut down a key Iranian port, but he said recent developments have ushered in a new era of covert warfare, ominously warning that “cyber winter is coming.” “Rapid is not something that describes enough how fast and how crazy and hectic things are moving forward in cyberspace and I think we will remember this last month and May 2020 as a changing point in the history of modern cyber warfare,” he said…“If the bad guys had succeeded in their plot we would now be facing, in the middle of the Corona crisis, very big damage to the civilian population and a lack of water and even worse than that,” he added. Israel and Iran are bitter foes who have engaged in years of covert battles that have included high-tech hacking and cyber attacks. Most famously, US and Israeli intelligence agencies are suspected of unleashing a computer worm called Stuxnet years ago in an attempt to disrupt Iran’s nuclear program. But Unna said the attempted hacking into Israel’s water systems marked the first time in modern history that “we can see something like this aiming to cause damage to real life and not to IT or data.” Had Israel’s National Cyber Directorate not detected the attack in real time, he said chlorine or other chemicals could have been mixed into the water source in the wrong proportions and resulted in a “harmful and disastrous” outcome. His office released a brief statement after the attempt, acknowledged it had been thwarted and no damage had been caused. But Unna’s comments marked the first official detailed account of what happened. “It is a part of some attack over Israel and over the national security of Israel and not for financial benefit,” he said. “The attack happened but the damage was prevented and that is our goal and our mission. And now we are in the middle of preparing for the next phase to come because it will come eventually.” Iran hasn’t commented on the attempted hacking and has played down the alleged reprisal on May 9 against the Shahid Rajaee port. Mohammad Rastad, head of Iran’s port and marine agency, told the semiofficial ILNA news agency that the attack failed to infiltrate into the agency’s systems and only damaged “several private sector systems.” Israel has not officially commented on the attack against Iran, but in an interview with Israel’s Army Radio, Amos Yadlin, a former head of military intelligence, said it was significant. “The attack displayed the cyber ability of a world power. It appears that this was a clear Israeli message to Iran, don’t dare to touch civilian systems, the water and electricity systems in Israel, which were attacked this past month. You, the Iranians, are more vulnerable than we are,” he said. Without discussing the attack directly, Unna said the past month marked a historic turning point in cyber warfare. “Cyber winter is coming and coming even faster than I suspected,” he said. “We are just seeing the beginning.” In: https://www.timesofisrael.com/israeli-cyber-chief-attack-on-water-systems-a-changing-point-in-cyber-warfare/
  4. Siehe: Joint Statement on United States – Czech Republic Joint Declaration on 5G Security, 6. Mai 2020, in: https://www.state.gov/joint-statement-on-united-states-czech-republic-joint-declaration-on-5g-security/
  5. USA will mit Finanzhilfen Huawei aus Brasiliens 5G-Netz drängen, Reuters, 24. Juni 2020,
  6. Kuaishou Sues Rival Douyin for ‘Piggybacking’ on Its Name: China’s second-largest video platform claims top competitor infringed its trademark to gain more users, 13. Mai 2020, in: www.sixthtone.com/news/1005645/kuaishou-sues-rival-douyin-for-piggybacking-on-its-name>, siehe auch: Zynn, the Hot New Video App, Is Full of Stolen Content: Multiple influencers told WIRED that their videos had been copied from other platforms and reposted to Zynn without permission, Wired Magezine, 9. Juni 2020, in: https://www.wired.com/story/zynn-hot-new-video-app-stolen-content/

Wolfgang Kleinwächter

Professor Emeritus of Internet Policy & Regulation at Aarhus University