“Who governs the Internet?” This was the question posed on a large billboard on the streets of Berlin advertising the 14th United Nations Internet Governance Forum (IGF) from 25 to 29 November. Under the overarching theme of “One World, One Net, One Vision”, more than 3,500 delegates attended the IGF and debated, discussed, and workshopped topics from governance and responsible use of data, to digital inclusion, security, safety, and resilience. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, opened the IGF and asked the delegates to consider what kind of future it is that we want, and where the Internet is taking us as a global society? I attended the event representing DIAL and our work across the digital ecosystem.
The IGF agenda was extensive, in total over 200 sessions, and took the form of workshops, dynamic coalitions, open discussion forums, main hall events, and an IGF Village with 50 booths. Organizations from five different continents joined the IGF Village, including representatives from governments and intergovernmental organizations, private sector, civil society and the technical community, to share their work with Forum delegates. There were also 55 remote hubs organized around the world. These included all regions from Africa, Asia-Pacific region, Eastern Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean, and Western European, each with an active online presence, video-sharing and live-comments during the sessions.
With up to 8 sessions running concurrently, it was impossible to attend everything, but some of the highlights for the work I see at the Digital Impact Alliance (DIAL) included a main hall session on Achieving the SDGs in the Digital Age, a session on the European Union (EU) approach to Digital Strategy, and another on Data Governance for Developing Countries. Speakers commented on the cross-cutting role technology plays in achieving the SDGs. GeSI reported that their research shows technology can have a positive impact on 103 of the 169 SDG targets but that the risks and challenges that digital transformation bring are often underestimated. The ICT Minister of Paraguay made several comments that resonate with the work I see at DIAL. He spoke about internet access as a basic right, and the challenges faced by being a landlocked country having to negotiate access to infrastructure with numerous neighboring countries. He connected this with the recognition that siloed approaches will not help address the complexity of the challenges of fast paced but uneven growth. He also spoke about how digital skills and capacity building are key enablers, but access means nothing if end users do not have the skills to adopt the technology. In the data governance policy discussion, Pathways to Prosperity found there is a lack of real evidence specific to developing countries, policy and regulation is being driven by developed nations, and the rules enacted in these countries become the de facto rules in developing countries with no recognition of the specific needs of developing countries.
As one speaker commented, the Internet is both sovereign and international, but we cannot talk about the Internet as a driver of economic growth when the truth is that inequality is growing. There is a fundamental contradiction between the developed world’s desire for a borderless Internet without fragmentation, and the reality that policy and regulation today is being driven solely by developed countries. The EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) law, for example, was held up as something of a benchmark and standard in data protection regulation. The GDPR is a regulation in EU law on data protection and privacy for all individual citizens of the European Union and the European Economic Area (EEA). It also addresses the transfer of personal data outside the EU and EEA areas and as such countries that deal with the EU need to comply and apply the law. This was reinforced, when talking to a Malaysian delegate from a law firm who has had to become an expert in the GDPR because it applies to many of her local Malaysian clients.
Attending the IGF reinforced for me the importance of DIAL’s work. For example, our work with the SDG investment framework and model for an integrated approach to interoperable building blocks for ICT investment by a government can address issues of deployment of more sustainable, robust, and interoperable system. DIAL’s stewardship of The Principles for Digital Development, a set of recommended guidelines for implementing technology in development programs, is a key capacity building tool. Our work on demand forecasting and exploration of pooled procurement and financing mechanisms that leverage aggregated demand and innovative financing models contributes to the multi-stakeholder approach which was often spoken about among IGF participants. With our country-specific data-sharing agreement brokerage, DIAL aims to define, implement, and document D4D projects and business models that generate digital data-based insights. Additionally, in our work on common data architecture, building out and sharing our own Responsible Data Use practices, along with other resources, and engaging in sector-wide thought leadership in the complex data governance area, including addressing regulatory and policy challenges, DIAL plays a strong role in the digital development ecosystem.
I found a dynamism and sense of urgency in many of the IGF sessions. There is a real desire to work on a multilateral level to address the risks and share the opportunities technology offers, and although sometimes overwhelming in terms of the challenges, ultimately, I left IGF with an optimistic outlook for the future and the role DIAL can play.