The Panel had many discussions about possible practical next steps to improve the architecture of global digital cooperation and the merits of proposing new mechanisms or updating existing ones. Some suggested that many cooperation challenges could be best addressed by strengthening implementation capacities of current agencies and mandates.

While no single vision emerged, there was broad agreement that improved cooperation is needed, that such cooperation will need to take multiple diverse forms, and that governments, the private sector and civil society will need to find new ways to work together to steer an effective path between extremes of over-regulation and complete laissez-faire. Based on our consultations, the Panel felt that presenting options for digital cooperation architectures would best contribute to the discourse on global digital cooperation.

Annex VI sets out functions that a digital cooperation architecture could be designed to improve. These include generating political will, ensuring the active and meaningful participation of all stakeholders, monitoring developments and identifying trends, creating shared understanding and purpose, preventing and resolving disputes, building consensus and following up on agreements.

Below three possible models are proposed that could address some of these functions. The first enhances and extends the multi-stakeholder IGF. The second is a distributed architecture which builds on existing mechanisms. The third envisions a ‘commons’ approach with loose coordination by the UN. All have benefits and drawbacks. They are put forward here to provide concrete starting points for the further discussion and broad consultation which we recommend the UN Secretary-General initiate in our Recommendation 5A.

A note on inclusive representation

All three models highlighted below would need to take special steps to ensure that they are broadly representative and develop specific mechanisms to ensure equitable participation of developing countries, women and other traditionally marginalised groups who have often been denied a voice.


The proposed Internet Governance Forum Plus, or IGF Plus, would build on the existing IGF which was established by the World Summit on Information Society (Tunis, 2005). The IGF is currently the main global space convened by the UN for addressing internet governance and digital policy issues. The IGF Plus concept would provide additional multi-stakeholder and multilateral legitimacy by being open to all stakeholders and by being institutionally anchored in the UN system.

The IGF Plus would aim to build on the IGF’s strengths, including well-developed infrastructure and procedures, acceptance in stakeholder communities, gender balance in IGF bodies and activities, and a network of 114 national, regional and youth IGFs206 . It would add important capacity strengthening and other support activities.

The IGF Plus model aims to address the IGF’s current shortcomings. For example, the lack of actionable outcomes can be addressed by working on policies and norms of direct interest to stakeholder communities. The limited participation of government and business representatives, especially from small and developing countries, can be addressed by introducing discussion tracks in which governments, the private sector and civil society address their specific concerns.

The IGF Plus would comprise an Advisory Group, Cooperation Accelerator, Policy Incubator and Observatory and Help Desk.

The Advisory Group, based on the IGF’s current Multi-stakeholder Advisory Group, would be responsible for preparing annual meetings, and identifying focus policy issues each year. This would not exclude coverage of other issues but ensure a critical mass of discussion on the selected issues. The Advisory Group could identify moments when emerging discussions in other forums need to be connected, and issues that are not covered by existing organisations or mechanisms.

Building on the current practices of the IGF, the Advisory Group could consist of members appointed for three years by the UN Secretary-General on the advice of member states and stakeholder groups, ensuring gender, age, stakeholder and geographical balance.

The Cooperation Accelerator would accelerate issue-centred cooperation across a wide range of institutions, organisations and processes; identify points of convergence among existing IGF coalitions, and issues around which new coalitions need to be established; convene stakeholder-specific coalitions to address the concerns of groups such as governments, businesses, civil society, parliamentarians, elderly people, young people, philanthropy, the media, and women; and facilitate convergences among debates in major digital and policy events at the UN and beyond.

The Cooperation Accelerator could consist of members selected for their multi-disciplinary experience and expertise. Membership would include civil society, businesses and governments and representation from major digital events such as the Web Summit, Mobile World Congress, Lift:Lab, Shift, LaWeb, and Telecom World.

The Policy Incubator would incubate policies and norms for public discussion and adoption. In response to requests to look at a perceived regulatory gap, it would examine if existing norms and regulations could fill the gap and, if not, form a policy group consisting of interested stakeholders to make proposals to governments and other decision-making bodies. It would monitor policies and norms through feedback from the bodies that adopt and implement them.207

The Policy Incubator could provide the currently missing link between dialogue platforms identifying regulatory gaps and existing decision-making bodies by maintaining momentum in discussions without making legally binding decisions. It should have a flexible and dynamic composition involving all stakeholders concerned by a specific policy issue.

The Observatory and Help Desk would direct requests for help on digital policy (such as dealing with crisis situations, drafting legislation, or advising on policy) to appropriate entities, including the Help Desks described in Recommendation 2; coordinate capacity development activities provided by other organisations; collect and share best practices; and provide an overview of digital policy issues, including monitoring trends, identifying emerging issues and providing data on digital policy.

The IGF Trust Fund would be a dedicated fund for the IGF Plus. All stakeholders – including governments, international organisations, businesses and the tech sector – would be encouraged to contribute. The IGF Plus Secretariat should be linked to the Office of the United Nations Secretary-General to reflect its interdisciplinary and system-wide approach.


The proposed distributed co-governance architecture (COGOV) would build on existing mechanisms while filling gaps with new mechanisms to achieve a distributed, yet cohesive digital cooperation architecture covering all stages from norm design to implementation and potential enforcement of such norms by the appropriate authorities.

COGOV relies on the self-forming ‘horizontal’ network approach used by the Internet Engineering Task Force, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the World Wide Web Consortium, the Regional Internet Registries, the IEEE and others to host networks to design norms and policies. This proposal would extend this agile network approach to issues affecting the broader digital economy and society.

Given the wide range of issues which the COGOV architecture could encompass, it will be imperative to ensure there is broad representation beyond the relatively homogenous expert communities which predominate for some of the technical issues discussed above.

The COGOV architecture decouples the design of digital norms from their implementation and enforcement. It seeks to rapidly produce shared digital cooperation solutions, including norms, and publish them for stakeholders to consider and potentially adopt. These norms would be voluntary solutions rather than legal instruments. In themselves, the COGOV networks would not have governing authority or enforcement powers. However, the norms could be taken up by government agencies as useful blueprints to establish policies, regulations or laws.

The COGOV could consist of three functional elements: a) Digital Cooperation Networks; b) Network Support Platforms; and, c) a Network of Networks.

a) Digital Cooperation Networks. These networks would be issue-specific horizontal collaboration groups, involving stakeholders from relevant vertical sectors and institutions. They could be formed freely by stakeholders in a bottom-up way, self-governed, and share the same goal of cooperation – including potentially the design of digital norms. They could be created or supported by one or more governments and/ or intergovernmental organisations with the same concerns. Their functions would include developing shared understandings and goals for a specific digital issue, strengthening cooperation, designing or updating digital norms, providing norm implementation roadmaps and developing capacity to adopt policies and norms.

Participation in digital cooperation networks should be open for all relevant and concerned stakeholders, including governments, intergovernmental institutions, the private sector, civil society, academia and the technical community. Special efforts would need to be made to include and support representatives from developing countries and traditionally marginalised groups. The digital cooperation networks may be stand-alone voluntary networks or hosted by the network support platforms described below.

b) Network Support Platforms. These platforms could host and enable the dynamic formation and functioning of multiple digital cooperation networks. While the digital cooperation networks would operate in defined and limited timeframes, the network support platforms are proposed as stable long-term elements of the architecture, supporting the digital cooperation networks and enabling them to evolve as necessary to update their cooperation and relevant digital norms.

The network support platforms should not interfere in the work product or composition of the self-governed and stakeholder-initiated digital cooperation networks; they should simply support the networks to operate efficiently. The platforms would help the networks to identify emerging issues, secure the commitment of relevant participants, provide necessary resources and facilities, and promote their outcomes.

c) Network of Networks. The network of networks would loosely coordinate and support activities across all digital cooperation networks and network support platforms. The role of the network of networks is to ensure integrity and enable coherent outcomes that account for the complex inter-dependencies across digital policy issues.

The network of networks would consist of: 1) a support function, which would organise an annual forum, a ‘research cooperative’ and a ‘norm exchange’; and 2) a voluntary peer coordination network, which would bring issues to the attention of the annual forum and follow up on its recommendations by promoting action from specific stakeholders to form digital cooperation networks.

The network of networks should avoid a controlling top-down form of administration: it is simply there to loosely coordinate the activities across the decentralized COGOV architecture; its decisions would not be binding.

Once norms are available, governing authorities may choose to establish enforcement mechanisms and may choose to use these norms as policy input or blueprints. The following table summarises the mechanisms across the norm design, implementation, and enforcement stages:

Norm Design

  • Identify digital governance issues
  • Form digital cooperation networks
  • Support networks through digital cooperation platforms

Norm Implementation

  • Develop norm design and adoption capacity
  • Provide a ‘norm exchange’ to connect communities
  • Offer implementation incentives

Norm Enforcement

  • Develop norms into laws/regulations
  • Adjudicate/resolve disputes and conflicts
  • Establish clear guard rails for digital technologies


In areas such as space, climate change and the sea, the international community has entered into treaties and developed principles, norms and functional cooperation to designate certain spaces as international ‘commons’ and then govern ongoing practice and dialogue.208 For instance, the “common heritage” principle, introduced by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, imposes a duty to protect resources for the good of future generations.209

While norm-making and guidance in digital technologies will pose different challenges, some aspects of the digital realm, such as common internet protocols, already share characteristics with ‘commons’ requiring responsible and global stewardship. ‘Digital commons’ have also been mentioned recently in the context of data and AI developments.210

The proposed “Digital Commons Architecture” would aim to synergise efforts by governments, civil society and businesses to ensure that digital technologies promote the SDGs and to address risks of social harm. It would comprise multi-stakeholder tracks to create dialogue around emerging issues and communicate use cases and problems to be solved to stakeholders, and an annual meeting to act as a clearing house.

Each track could be owned by a lead organisation – a UN agency, an industry or academic consortium or a multi-stakeholder forum, with the choice of participants governed by guiding principles of the kind listed in this report to ensure inclusiveness and broad representation. Light coordination of the tracks, and servicing of the annual meeting where their reports are considered, could be ensured by a small secretariat housed within the UN.

Analogous to processes such as the International Competition Network, the Digital Commons Architecture tracks would have flexible, project-oriented and results-based working groups. They would enable learning on governance and related capacity development to be driven by practice. Annual meetings could aggregate lessons for use in soft law or more binding approaches in the appropriate forums. This could rapidly build a repository of norms and governance practices to guide stakeholders in their respective roles and responsibilities.

The Digital Commons Architecture tracks could focus on issues agreed by the participants. For example, they might initially wish to address issues emerging from the preceding chapters, such as using data in support of the SDGs, using AI to improve agriculture and health, or developing a global values/ethics certification process for new technology.

Multi-stakeholder collaboration around these issues could pave the way for wider cooperation. For example, realising the potential of AI to provide insights to a global health challenge might require the pooling of reliable data, clear privacy measures, a common data architecture and interoperable standards. Successful outcomes could then be progressively extended to other areas. An additional benefit would be to promote transparency and build confidence.

The annual meeting would not make rules, but provide guidance to stakeholders, which they can use in the appropriate forums. The meeting would discuss the output of the various tracks as well as implementation of the governance guidance produced by these tracks through a ‘soft’ review of reports by stakeholders.

The Digital Commons Architecture might not specify technical solutions, but instead propose technical models, and standards of accountability and trustworthiness, which could be applied across the globe. It could also facilitate a discussion of lessons from around the globe on implementation of existing norms in specific areas.

The annual meeting could build on and connect discussions taking place in other fora and could in turn feed its results into discussions taking place in other fora. This would reduce the current burden of multiplicity of forums by clarifying who is doing what, eliminating potential overlap, and identifying partnership opportunities.

The Digital Commons Architecture could be funded through voluntary contributions. Along the lines of the International Chamber of Commerce, membership fees could be considered for private sector participation; these could be waived for certain categories such as small businesses or civil society participants.211 A dedicated trust fund could assist with civil society and least developed country participation.

The three potential models share common elements, such as multi-stakeholder participation, dedicated trust funds to enhance inclusivity, reducing policy inflation by consolidating discussions across for a, and a light coordination and convening role for the UN. The values in Chapter 1 and principles and functions in Annex VI provide shared design elements that further emphasise inclusivity and multi-stakeholder participation.

Equally, there are differences in emphasis and approach. The COGOV, for example, foresees a larger role for new networks of experts and multi-stakeholder governance; the Digital Commons Architecture presumes more of a focus on iterative learning of governance through practice in both multilateral and multi-stakeholder tracks; and the IGF Plus adds functionalities to an existing multi-stakeholder forum with a UN mandate.

The common design elements across the models could be flexibly brought together once the broad thrust of a new digital cooperation architecture has been defined. As suggested in Recommendation 5A, a common starting point could be a Global Commitment for Digital Cooperation based on shared values and principles.

Next: 4.3 The role of the UN

Source: https://comment.eurodig.org/digital-cooperation-report/4-2-three-possible-architectures-for-global-digital-cooperation/