Q3/2020 - Executive Summary

Q3/2020 - Executive Summary

Current happenings in the Internet governance context July to September 2020:

In the third quarter of 2020, the global discussion on Internet governance was still strongly impacted by the coronavirus crisis, which continued to cast a shadow here like over all other developments and events at international level. Additionally, the Internet governance discussion was characterised by a possibly persistent aggravating conflict that might have long-lasting consequences: Digital cooperation and confrontation in cyberspace are growing at equal level and are becoming a key issue of global political and economic discussions.

On the one hand, the UN Roadmap for Digital Cooperation, which was presented by UN Secretary-General António Guterres in June 2020, has given fresh impetus to seek global solutions for the numerous political, economic, human rights and technical Internet problems. On the other hand, the confrontation between the two global cyber superpowers, the United States of America and China, is escalating and casting its shadow on ever more areas of world politics, and thus also on the discussions and negotiations in the global Internet governance ecosystem.

Cooperation versus Confrontation

The UN Roadmap for Digital Cooperation was very well received everywhere in the world. At the virtual UN Summit on 21 September 2020, the heads of states and governments of the 193 UN member states spoke out in favour of extending digital cooperation and enshrined their intention in Article 13 of the “Declaration on the Commemoration of the 75th Anniversary of the UN”, which was adopted by acclamation. In several speeches delivered at the end of September 2020, UN Secretary-General António Guterres offered the UN as a platform for the multistakeholder dialogue on Internet governance. The “Option Paper” on the Recommendations 5A/B of the UN High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation (HLP) the governments of Germany and the United Arab Emirates submitted to the UN on 3 September 2020 includes concrete proposals how to continuously develop the institutional mechanism for the global Internet governance ecosystem (IGF+). Even though the negotiations on cyber security (GGE, OEWG, LAWS), digital economy (OECD, WTO), human rights (HRC) and artificial intelligence (UNESCO, Council of Europe) have not yet yielded any concrete outcomes, the mere fact that a complex global negotiation mechanism for the multiple Internet-related issues is emerging shows that digital cooperation has become a core theme of world politics and that many states and non-state stakeholders have set out to find solutions for the novel questions the digital age has brought about.

Yet, the new political significance Internet governance issues have gained in international politics also has a downside: Fundamental political, economic and ideological conflicts have a much more direct impact on Internet governance discussions than in the past. Bi- and multilateral negotiations on digital and cyber issues become hostage to conflicts between states and block obvious solutions. This is particularly true for conflicts between the cyber superpowers USA and China, which have escalated dramatically in the third quarter of 2020. The “Clean Network” initiative launched by the US State Department on 5 August 2020 and the two “Executive Orders”[1] signed by US-President Donal Trump that are directed against Chinese companies like Huawei, TikTok/Bytedance and WeChat/Tencent have triggered countermeasures by the Chinese government and are fuelling a global digital trade war. The US-American “Clean Network” project aims at “cleaning” the global Internet and related hard- and software delivery chains from Chinese influences. On 8 September 2020, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded with a global initiative titled “Data Security”. The project is designed to strengthen the “cyber sovereignty” of the state and government control of data handling. The two ministers of the exterior – Mike Pompeo and Wang Yi – travelled through Europe in August 2020 and sought support for the two antagonistic projects. The US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, held a keynote speech in Prague on 6 August 2020, in which he attacked China. On 30 August 2020, Wang Yi delivered a keynote speech in Paris, in which he supported multilateralism and rejected “cyber bullying by states”. These conflicting points of view were also reflected in the speeches the presidents of the two countries – Donald Trump and Xi Jinping – gave at the virtual UN Summit on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the United Nations on 22 September 2020.

The escalating conflict between the USA and China puts the global, open, free, secure, interoperable and unfragmented Internet at risk. A bifurcation into an American-controlled and a Chinese-controlled Internet segment is threatening to materialise. Not only Africa and Asia are finding themselves increasingly caught between the fronts of this new cold cyber war. Against the backdrop of the establishment of 5G and 6G networks, Europe is becoming the central arena of the American-Chinese cyber conflict. The European Union has taken its stance at an early stage and clearly rejected any fragmentation of the Internet. Following up on the speeches of French President Emmanuel Macron at the IGF in Paris in November 2019 and the speech of German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the IGF in Berlin in November 2019, the President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen called for strengthening the digital sovereignty of Europe and urged to turn the 2020ies into a “European Digital Decade” in her speech on the State of the Union on 16 September 2020: “Europe must now lead the way on digital – or it will have to follow the way of others, who are setting these standards for us."[2]

Four Core Areas

In the 3rd quarter of 2020, little progress was made with regard to concrete substantive discussions and negotiations in the four core areas of the Internet governance ecosystem (cyber security, digital economy, human rights, technological development). This was due to the ongoing pandemic and to the summer break.

Cyber Security

In the field of cyber security, the UN Security Council held another extraordinary meeting according to the so-called “Arria formula”. Against the background of the pandemic, the session on 23 August 2020 dealt with cyber attacks on medical facilities. Nothing was decided, however. The cyber security negotiations of the two UN groups that operate under the 1st Committee of the UN General Assembly –“Group of Governmental Experts” (UN-GGE) and “Open-Ended Working Group” (OEWG) – continued their work in the virtual space, but did not make any progress. The session of the new UN Working Group on Cyber Security, that operates under the 3rd Committee of the UN General Assembly, was postponed from August 2020 to January 2021. The CCW negotiations on Internet-based lethal autonomous weapons systems (GGE-LAWS) were also transferred to the virtual space. No progress was achieved at the session from 21 to 25 September 2020.

Digital Economy

IIn the field of digital economy, the primary topics are digital trade and digital tax. As to the Global South, an issue of particular importance is the strengthening of the digital economy to achieve the UN sustainable development goals.

  • The Moratorium of the World Trade Organisation (WHO) from 1998, whichhat prohibits to levy duties on services within the framework of electronic commerce was planned to be reviewed at the 2020 WTO Ministerial Conference in Nur-Sultan (Kazakhstan). The conference has been postponed to June 2021. At a virtual workshop of the WTO on 12 July 2020, the pros and cons of terminating the Moratorium were discussed but ended with no global consensus being in sight.
  • The OECD/G20 negotiations (BEPS) on a global digital tax also are in a difficult state. On 16 June 2020, the US government had left the negotiations, pointing out that the global situation had changed as a result of the pandemic. Negotiations within the framework of BEPS nevertheless continued. On 3 September 2020, nearly finished drafts of a digital tax agreement based on two pillars were leaked on a website of a Canadian tax expert. In October 2020, the OECD plans to publish the text and to make it available for public commenting. The agreement shall be ready to sign by the end of 2020. The EU has confirmed that it will rush ahead with a European digital tax if the BEPS negotiations fail.
  • The UN efforts to achieve the sustainable development goals (SDGs) by 2030 through a stronger promotion of the digital economy in the “Global South” have received a new impulse through the “UN Roadmap for Digital Cooperation”. The African Union (AU) had already adopted a ten-year program for a “Digital Transformation Strategy for Africa” in May 2020, which is waiting to be implemented.

Human Rights

In the field of human rights protection in the digital age, no progress can be reported for the third quarter of 2020. Even though it is generally acknowledged – as was already confirmed years ago in the UN Resolutions – that human rights equally apply offline and online, little progress is made in clarifying which concrete measures can be taken to protect the right to freedom of expression, the right to privacy, freedom of assembly and of travel in cyber space with a view to the new technological developments (such as monitoring and control software), and which role private enterprises who operate social networks and search engines shall and must play in this context. At the ordinary sessions of the UN Human Rights Council in July 2020 and September 2020, the Internet-related aspects of human rights played only a minor role. The development of concrete proposals, such as the drafting of an international convention against unfounded digital mass surveillance or standards for digital face recognition or on freedom of expression and elections in the digital age, is stagnating. At the same time, numerous states are increasing their activities to restrict freedom of expression on the Internet. They justify their action with the fight against terrorism, against fake news and hate speech, and with the need to protect national security and public order. The side effects of the fight against the pandemic, such as the use of AI-based technologies (biometrics, geo-location), also interfere with the guarantee of human rights. If restrictions on individual human rights are justified as means taken to avert danger and are thus positively perceived, this entails the risk of leading to broad acceptance of such surveillance and control technologies. The Council of Europe has already warned of a creeping “trivialisation of mass surveillance”.


In the field of new technologies, artificial intelligence and technical norms continued to be the major subjects also in the 3rd quarter of 2020. The UNESCO Ad Hoc Expert Group on Ethics of AI (ADEC), which has the mandate to draft a new normative instrument, presented a first official draft on 7 September 2020 for a “UNESCO Recommendation on the Ethics of Artificial Intelligence”, following a second public consultation round. A similar consultation was performed by the OSCE in the summer months July and August 2020 on the topic “Freedom of information and artificial intelligence”. A related report is expected to be submitted in the 4th quarter of 2020. The Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe has acknowledged the interim report of the Ad-hoc Committee on Artificial Intelligence (CAHAI) at the end of September 2020. By the end of the year a feasibility study shall have clarified if - and if yes, how - a normative instrument shall be developed. WIPO has concluded its second consultation round on “Intellectual Property Policy and Artificial Intelligence” and will present a final report with recommendations under its new Director General by the end of the year. The discussions about new technical Internet standards (New IP), in contrast, are not making any progress. Representatives of Huawei who had submitted a work paper together with the Chinese government to a Focus Group of ITU-T in September 2019 played down the initiative in Q3/2020. The Chinese paper had rather been an academic contribution to the discussion, outlining how Internet resources could be used more effectively, instead of a proposal for establishing an alternative re-centralised Internet. The IETF is increasingly dealing with the political and social implications of technical standards, as can be seen from the RFC 8890 “The Internet for End Users” of August 2020.[3]

Inter-governmental Level

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

  • The UN Security Council held an extraordinary meeting in the “Arria format” on 23 August 2020 about cyber attacks on medical facilities;
  • At the UN Summit on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the United Nations, a declaration was adopted on 22 September 2020, which includes a paragraph on “digital cooperation”;
  • In opening speeches of the 75th UN General Assembly, numerous heads of government and ministers of the exterior addressed the issue of cyber security and digital cooperation;
  • In the follow-up of the presentation of the “UN-Roadmap for Digital Cooperation” (June 2020), several virtual UN High-Level Roundtables were held at the end of September 2020;
  • On 3 September 2020, the governments of Germany and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) submitted their “Option Paper” on the Recommendations 5A/B of the UN High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation (HLP) and advocated the extension of the UN Internet Governance Forum to an IGF+;
  • Nearly all meetings scheduled under the US-American G7 Presidency with issues related to international cyber and digital policy on the agenda have been cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic;
  • Under the Saudi G20 Presidency, several virtual meetings were held, including a meeting of the digital ministers on 27 July 2020. July 2020. The G20 Summit is scheduled as a virtual meeting on 21 November 2020;
  • The BRICS and SCO Summits scheduled for July 2020 in St. Petersburg were postponed to November 2020 and will take place as virtual meetings. Several ministerial meetings took place under the Russian presidency, which also included issues of cyber security and digital cooperation. For the first time ever, a civil society BRICS dialogue was held that included the issue of digitisation.
  • The BEPS negotiations on a global digital tax conducted by the OECD, in which more than 130 governments are involved, have been continued despite the withdrawal of the USA. On 3 September 2020, the text drafts of a future global agreement were leaked. The agreement shall be ready for signing by the end of 2020;
  • The WTO Moratorium on electronic commerce dated from 1998 remains in force because the 12th WTO Conference of Ministers was postponed to July 2021. At a WTO webinar in July, the pros and cons for terminating the Moratorium were discussed. Yet, a concrete alternative for a new global agreement on digital trade is not yet on the table;
  • In a study on the WTO e-commerce Moratorium, UNCTAD (July 2020) has put up for discussion a differentiated model for a specification of electronic services;
  • The EU Commission intends to make the 2020ies a “European Digital Decade”, as the President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen announced in her speech on the State of the Union on 16 September 2020; in July 2020 a consultation was started on the reformation of the EU cyber security directive (NIS); the European Union Agency for Cybersecurity ENISA has extended its activities under its new President Juhan Lepassaar; for the first time ever, the EU has imposed sanctions against Russian, Chinese and North Korean persons and institutions after cyber attacks on European facilities;
  • The Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe has discussed the interim report of the Ad-hoc Committee on Artificial Intelligence (CAHAI) at the end of September 2020 and is expecting a feasibility study concerning the drafting of a legal instrument for the development and application of artificial intelligence for strengthening human rights, democracy and the rule of law by the end of the year.
  • On 7 September 2020 UNESCO's Director-General Audrey Azoulay handed on the Ad-hoc Expert Group's (AHEG) draft on the “Ethics of artificial intelligence” to the governments of the UNESCO member states for commenting. The document is planned to be adopted in November 2021 at the 41st UNESCO General Conference;
  • The annual ITU WSIS Forum was held in the period between July and September as a virtual meeting and had 15,000 attendants;
  • The UN Group on the Information Society (UNGIS), which comprises 34 UN organisations, has elected the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) as new Chair for the 2020/2021 term;
  • In July, WIPO concluded the second consultation round on “Intellectual Property Policy and Artificial Intelligence”; it plans to publish a report with recommendations for the next steps by the end of the year;
  • The OSCE conducted a public consultation on the topic “Freedom of information and artificial intelligence” in the summer months July and August 2020;

Multistakeholder Level

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

  • The 15th IGF in November 2020 will be a virtual meeting held in two phases; for the first time ever, it is going to adopt a recommendation of a High-Level Governmental Segment;
  • The IGF MAG Strategy Group has worked out proposals for a new “Multistakeholder High-Level Body” (MHLB) for an IGF+;
  • The Freedom Online Coalition has set up a working group dealing with artificial intelligence (Freedom Online Coalition’s Taskforce on AI and Human Rights (T-FAIR)) which is to prepare a “Joint Statement” by the annual meeting in Finland in 2021;
  • The Global Forum on Cyber Expertise (GFCE) resident in The Hague has restructured its management in the third quarter of 2020 and paved the way for establishing “Capacity Building Measures” in the realm of cyber security;
  • On 15 September 2020, the Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development presented a report on its activities in the last ten years and gave recommendations how the United Nations sustainable development goals (SDGs) can be reached by 2030 in the information and communications field;
  • The Charter of Trust initiated by Siemens has started an outreach program in July 2020 with a webinar (The Human Element in Cybersecurity) and a series of roadshows in Brussels, Berlin, Tokyo, Geneva and Madrid to increase awareness of the ideas underlying the Charter and to win new members;
  • On 21 September, the Tech Accord initiated by Microsoft awarded the prizes to the winners of its competition for digital services to promote an open, secure, stable, and accessible cyberspace for all (Apps4Digital Peace);
  • The World Wide Web Foundation asked the president of the 75th UN General Assembly on 21 September to give priority in the UN to the issue of trust and security in cyberspace and to develop an international instrument;
  • The World Economic Forum Davos has published a White Paper on the “Internet of Bodies”; the 2021 WEF meeting will take place in May 2021 in Lucerne;
  • The Internet conference “RightsCon” organised by Access Now was a digital meeting in 2020; it greeted more than 7,000 attendants and featured 380 sessions;
  • The “Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism” (GIFTC) is being restructured, yet criticised by civil-society groups.

US-China Cyberconflict

"So as the world learns how digital technology underpins almost everything we do, people also are becoming more aware of the need for it to be secure and reliable.  We are seizing this moment to underscore to governments around the world that information communications technology are critical infrastructure and should be secured as such. The consequences of 5G deployment choices made during the next year by government and by telecom operators will be felt for years, if not decades, to come.  The countries need to make the right decisions now. Countries need to be able to trust the 5G equipment and software companies and that they will not threaten their national security, privacy, intellectual property, or human rights.  Trust cannot exist where telecom vendors are subject to authoritative governments like the People’s Republic of China which lacks an independent judiciary or the rule of law that would effectively prohibit the misuse of data or the disruption of critical networks.  In addition, in authoritarian countries there is no way for individuals to challenge such untoward activities. The ownership control of a company like Huawei is not transparent, and the company has a history of unethical and illegal behavior, including intellectual property theft.  Allowing untrusted, high-risk vendors such as Huawei and ZTE into any part of 5G networks makes critical systems vulnerable to disruption, manipulation, and espionage while putting sensitive government, commercial, and personal information at risk. The tide is turning against Huawei as citizens and governments around the world are waking up to the dangers of the Chinese Communist Party’s surveillance state and suppression of information."  

Robert L. Strayer, US-Deputy Assistant Secretary for Cyber and International Communications and Information Policy, Washington, 21 July 2020

"China stands firmly against the US practice of abusing national security concept and state power to wantonly suppress non-American businesses like TikTok. This violates market principles and WTO rules. Such blatant bullying and political manipulation has been seen through and condemned by the international community including people in the US, which is what it deserves. We urge the US side to correct its hysterical and wrong actions, come back to market principles and WTO norms, and stop unjustified suppression and discriminatory restriction targeting Chinese companies."

Zhao Lijian, China´s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson, Beijing, 10 August 2020

  1. Donald Trump, Executive Order on Addressing the Threat Posed by TikTok, Washington, 6 August 2020, see: https://www.whitehouse.gov/presidential-actions/executive-order-addressing-threat-posed-tiktok/
  2. Ursula von der Leyen, Speech on the State of the Union, 16 September 2020 https://ec.europa.eu/info/strategy/strategic-planning/state-union-addresses/state-union-2020_en
  3. Internet Architecture Board (IAB), M. Nottingham, Request for Comments: 8890, August 2020, Category: Informational: "The Internet is for End Users", see: https://tools.ietf.org/html/rfc8890

Wolfgang Kleinwächter

Professor Emeritus of Internet Policy & Regulation at Aarhus University