Modularity for International Internet Governance

Essay by Chris Riley and Susan Ness: “The modern-day “global” internet faces a dubious future. On the battle lines of internet freedom, Russia’s increasing authoritarian control aspires to China’s great firewall levels, while the annual Freedom on the Net report for 2021 found a global decline in internet freedom for the 11th straight year. The same report also noted that at least 48 separate countries explored increasing governmental oversight over the tech sector. 

In the midst of increasing global division lies, perhaps, a core of unity: a worldwide interest among democracies in changing the status quo of internet governance to improve the baseline of responsibility and accountability for digital platforms. And for this problem, at least, there is hope—perhaps distant hope—for the possibility of increasing alignment. We propose that modularity can be a useful and tractable approach to improve digital platform accountability through harmonized policies and practices among nations embracing the rule of law.

Modularity is a form of multistakeholder, co-regulatory governance, in which modules—discrete mechanisms, protocols, and codes—are developed through processes that include a range of perspectives. Modularity produces, to the extent possible, internationally aligned corporate technical and business practices through shared mechanisms that achieve compliance with multiple legal jurisdictions, without the need for a new international treaty.

Think of modularity as a five-step process. First, problem identification: One or more governments—working together or separately—identify an open challenge. For example, vetting researchers as part of a digital platform data access mandate. Second, module formation: A group of experts (which may or may not include government representatives) collaborates to develop a module that includes both standards and processes for addressing the problem, and is designed for use across multiple jurisdictions. Third, validation: Individual governments evaluate and approve the module by indicating that its output—such as a decision that individual research projects should be cleared to receive platform data—can be used to satisfy requirement(s) set out in their respective underlying legislation. Fourth, execution: Systems created through the module apply the module’s protocols to individual circumstances. (In this instance, vetting research projects applying for clearance.) Finally, enforcement and analysis: Each government uses its national policies and procedures to ensure digital platform compliance, and periodically assesses the module process to ensure it remains fit-for-purpose. 

Modularity offers many advantages for digital platform governance. It helps norms and expectations evolve along with rapidly evolving technology, while maintaining the force of law, without the obstacles and delays inherent in separately amending each of the underlying laws. And it helps close substantive gaps present in many platform legislative frameworks being developed today. But making it a reality will require governments to be willing to embrace an aligned path forward through disparate legal and political systems…(More)”