The UN Risks Normalizing Internet Censorship

Saudi Arabia will not be the first illiberal regime to host the IGF. Last year’s forum was held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, amid an internet shutdown in the country’s Tigray region. Critics like digital rights group AccessNow decried the choice of venue at the time. “We cannot have a truly resilient internet or shared, sustainable, common future if we systematically silence or ignore those most at risk of rights violations,” the organization wrote in a statement.

It’s unclear whether Saudi Arabia was the only country to actually submit a bid to host the 2024 Forum.

In 2021, Canadian cybersecurity firm eQualitie launched a petition to have the 2024 forum in Montreal. Dozens of tech companies and civil society organizations from Canada and around the world signed on to the petition, but the Canadian government appears to have ignored the request. A spokesperson for Canadian foreign affairs minister Mélanie Joly did not return a request for comment.

In a press release, eQualitie called Riyadh’s selection a “missed opportunity” and that Saudi Arabia’s successful bid “raises concerns about the Forum’s ability to maintain its principles of open dialogue and collaboration with civil society.”

In a LinkedIn post, Bukovská sarcastically wrote of the trend being set by the UN body hosting an internet governance conference in Riyadh. “I guess I will also be looking forward to visiting Pyongyang, Teheran, or Moscow in the years to come.” But there are good odds that the IGF’s next meeting will, in fact, be held in Russia.

In 2020, the Russian Internet Governance Forum issued a press release indicating that Russia had been chosen as the 2025 host, citing official confirmation sent by the UN. It was repeated again in December 2021 by Russia’s deputy prime minister, Dmitry Chernyshenko. “Choosing Russia as the venue to host the 20th forum is a great honor for us and evidence that our country’s strong positions in the field of the development of the information society and digital technologies are recognized,” he said in a speech.

WIRED has previously reported on how a concerted American campaign for the presidency of the International Telecommunications Union thwarted Russian efforts to take over the body.

“This actually makes a joke of the whole system,” Bukovská says. She points to similar efforts at the UN Human Rights Council. “If you want to protect the integrity of these UN systems, as something where states should be held accountable for their human rights violations, it should not go to these countries.”

This spring, the Norwegian government announced its bid for the 2025 forum. In a statement, the Norwegian government wrote that “there has yet to be a decision made” about the 2025 Forum. A government official added that Oslo’s representative at this year’s IGF, local government and regional development minister Sigbjørn Gjelsvik, was focused on “efforts to strengthen freedom of expression in cyberspace,” among other things. The IGF has not officially indicated where the forum will be held.

It is increasingly clear that the world’s most repressive countries are vying, either in conjunction or independently, to gain more control of how the very mechanics of the internet operate.

Updated at 9:40 am ET, October 11, 2023, with a statement from the IGF confirming the 2024 Forum will be held in Riyadh.

Updated at 12 pm ET, October 12, 2023, with a statement from Norway’s government.

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Justin Ling