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Growing the Internet 17 June 2020

“The Internet is a deeply human technology”

Andrew Sullivan's remarks at the launch of the U.N. Secretary-General’s report Roadmap for Digital Cooperation

11 June 2020

Mr. Secretary-General, Excellencies, distinguished moderator and panelists, friends, and colleagues,

If ever there was a time to appreciate all the benefits the Internet brings and could bring, it is now. Even a few years ago, a gathering like this, online, would have been unthinkable. In the ongoing pandemic, millions of people have been able to work and to maintain their social bonds, no matter whether separated by distance or illness. The Internet, too, is a means by which totally justified cries for racial justice are echoing around the world. The Internet is a deeply human technology, built by people collaborating to make it so that people could collaborate better. More Internet, more collaboration, in a virtuous circle.

Therefore, I welcome the way the Roadmap for Digital Cooperation emphasizes the need for connectivity. We at the Internet Society agree that it is an urgent need, and we are keen to help. The world also needs to create and assert a common understanding of the importance of Internet infrastructure and how it can help all people. If we are to have any hope of listening to and hearing the voices of people who are today excluded, the first thing we need to do is include them.

Early in the days of the pandemic, some suggested that the Internet’s decentralized nature might make it incapable of dealing with the new demands. Instead, the Internet design worked. It is centralized, tightly-controlled networks that have struggled. The Internet way is to use simple building blocks, and to make complex systems out of the blocks. Experience tells us this approach works very well, and so the Internet way is the best way to connect us all so that we can learn from one another.

Now, of course, the Internet presents some challenges. It is too often used as a means to promote racial hate or false information. But while admitting those challenges, we must keep in mind how well the architecture of the Internet has proven itself, and how people have benefitted. We must build on those strengths. This means understanding that the distributed, decentralized design of the Internet is what worked in the current health crisis, so we need to resist calls for centralization or regulations that are not fit for purpose. It means making sure that the people who want connectivity can be involved in building it, so that it meets their needs. It means acknowledging that seemingly simple solutions to address one problem on the Internet can create possibly worse effects elsewhere in the complex system. And it means ensuring secure connectivity for everyone, because insecure systems for some means an insecure Internet for us all. There are, as the Roadmap notes, legitimate concerns underlying the need for encryption; sometimes, those concerns can only be addressed with strong end-to-end encryption.

When the pandemic came, the Internet was ready. Many traditional governmental systems were not. There is a lesson to be learned here, I believe, when thinking about the future of digital cooperation. The words of Kofi Annan, former UN Secretary-General, shared fifteen years ago still resonate: “in managing, promoting, and protecting [the Internet’s] presence in our lives, we need to be no less creative than those who invented it. Clearly, there is a need for governance, but that does not necessarily mean that it has to be done in the traditional way, for something that is so very different” (WGIG speech, 2004). Digital cooperation, and ensuring everyone is included in that cooperation, is necessary so that all of humanity, and not just a few, can receive these human benefits.

Let us make sure, together, that the Internet is for everyone.

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