Asia and the next billion: Challenges in digital Inclusion

6 Dec 2016 13:00h - 14:30h

Event report

[Read more session reports and live updates from the 11th Internet Governance Forum]

Satish Babu, ICANN at Large, began the discussion by reviewing the workshop’s objectives. He acknowledged that the Asia Pacific region is very diverse, geographically large and, populous. Indications are that the majority of the next billion Internet users will be from this region.

In many cases, these users will be mobile phone users from poorer regions. This leads to a new Digital Divide around the type of access and how meaningful it is for users.

Babu highlighted the shifting context with education, prices of connectivity access etc. Babu indicated that the structure would be a 30 minute breakout session and introduced Rinalia Abdul Rahim, ICANN Board Member, to describe the discussion topics.

Rahim expanded on Babu’s points providing statistics: 7.4 billion people in the world and less than half, 46%, have access to the Internet. Most without access are typically female, elderly, less educated, in lower income groups and live in rural areas.

Rahim discussed the need for adequate infrastructure to support increased access and listed the discussion areas as:

  1. Infrastructure and economic issues
  2. Social issues
  3. Technological issues
  4. Coherent policy for impact

Having re-convened from the breakout session, Babu invited feedback, beginning with Peng Hwa Ang, director of the Singapore Internet Research Centre at Nanyang Technological University and longtime Internet Governance leader, on infrastructure and economic issues.

Ang indicated the gap between urban and rural would be one of the issues facing the core population. Countries with mountainous areas still face connectivity issues and language is another barrier to accessing content.

Lastly, Ang discussed zero rating where mobile network operators do not charge end customers for data used by specific applications or Internet services through their network and Facebook’s Free basics.

Dr Anja Kovacs reported on the group discussing social issues. Kovacs raised two big issues:

  1. Education, where large sections of the population are not yet literate
  2. High concentrations of poverty

Kovacs indicated that disabled persons’ needs are not sufficiently addressed. Her group identified patriarchal issues where women are restricted in their access to the Internet as another barrier. They raised the need to guard against digital exclusion of the elderly.

The technology group focused on Afghanistan as a case study. Connectivity to rural areas is the biggest challenge there and a policy solution is required to encourage networks to deploy in the mountainous regions.

They discussed the use of the universal access service fund to purchase or subsidise terminal devices for the long haul connections. They discussed how the Afghan government has embraced Free Basics and the local popularity. Facebook’s fake news was highlighted as a problem. Lastly they compared network providers accessing rural areas to the US Federal mail system which is mandated to deliver even in areas where the costs are prohibitive.

Rajesh Chharia, director of NIXI, led the policy group. Chharia highlighted that friendly policies do not exist for the proliferation of the Internet in developing countries, regardless of the development of technology.

Chharia’s group indicated that talk about a multi-stakeholder approach is not always adhered to in practice. They discussed the Internet having no boundaries and governments supporting the multistakeholder approach to increasing access.

Shreedeep Rayamajhi from Nepal, blogger and social activist, he is the Steering committee Member of the Dynamic Coalition of the Internet Rights and Principle Coalition, commented on the need for capacity building and communication in the IG process to address transparency issues. Chharia raised the bridging of the digital divide into the rural areas. He also pointed to India’s recent push to being a cashless society which, if it is successful, will drive increased Internet penetration among rural citizens.

Gunela Astbrink, Australian IGF ambassador and a Director of ISOC Australia and the Principal of GSA InfoComm, commented on disability issues facing the region and practical steps being taken to address it. Astbrink referenced Vanatu government’s launch of the right to information.

Kovacs commented on the demonetisation move in India as worrying and pointed to the harms of digital exclusion as not all of the infrastructure is in place to fully move from a cash based society. The session’s last comment was from a Hong Kong researcher on Internet Governance asking whether the IG policies can be legally incorporated into national law or even the UN charter.

by Andre Edwards, Internet Society, Trinidad and Tobago