#IGF2020: The week so far

A special edition of the Digital Watch Newsletter, published on Friday, 13th November 2020

A one-of-a-kind IGF during a once-in-a-century pandemic

Held during two phases (2–6 November and 9–17 November), this year’s Internet Governance Forum (IGF) is like no other. It’s the first virtual meeting of its kind, and it’s taking place amid a global pandemic that has plagued most nations. As the IGF Secretariat succinctly put it, ‘the Internet has been a vital lifeline in maintaining economic and social ties during the COVID-19 pandemic’. 

This year’s IGF is happening at a time when technology is truly being tested. How is artificial intelligence (AI) helping us in the fight against the virus and its fierce spread? How is technology helping us overcome the challenges of physical distancing? How is it making sure the world remains afloat, as large sectors such as travel and entertainment are being deeply affected? 

This mid-IGF report, published as a special edition of the Digital Watch Newsletter, looks at the discussions so far during the second phase of IGF 2020. We look at the issues that are being raised within the virtual rooms, and how the discussions on digital policy are resonating with what is happening beyond the IGF’s virtual platform. 

As usual, the Geneva Internet Platform (GIP) and DiploFoundation are following the IGF discussions closely, and are publishing just-in-time reports from every phase II session (available on our IGF2020-dedicated space on the Digital Watch observatory). This report is therefore based on our session reports, and on data analysis of the discussions conducted by Diplo’s Data and AI Team. 

#IGF2020 in numbers

  • 4 thematic tracks: data, environment, inclusion, trust
  • 12 days of discussions in two phases
  • Over 250 sessions 
  • Over 1000 speakers
  • Over 3000 people expected to participate 

(Source: IGF Secretariat)


The good, the bad, and the ugly 

The good. The IGF adapted very quickly to the circumstances by taking the decision early enough to go virtual. Deciding to go virtual may be seen as a no-brainer by many, especially today. Yet, the decision taken by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA) and the Government of Poland in June, came at a time when many of the events were being either postponed or outright cancelled. The decision taken at a time when we were still coming to terms with the first wave of the pandemic, proved to be well-timed. (It was therefore uplifting to see the younger IGF community expressing their appreciation for the opportunity to engage on the same footing with everyone else, including like-minded people of all age groups, via videoconferencing.)

So was the decision on the four thematic tracks, based on themes suggested by the IGF community in the lead up to IGF 2020. By the start of the year, the ‘sustainability’ theme had already received strong support to be introduced as a separate thematic track. This resulted in ‘environment’ being one of the four main tracks, an important decision which has anchored the IGF into mainstream global discussions where climate and the environment have been debated much more prominently in recent years. 

The bad. As the pandemic led us to rely even more heavily on the Internet, digital policy has become an area which is important for everyone, and not just policy practitioners. ‘Internet governance is now more clearly seen as an area that affects everyone,’ the IGF Secretariat wrote, ‘from the student studying remotely, using a mobile device borrowed from a parent, to an at-risk grandparent isolated in a nursing home, being assisted by their carers to make video calls to their family, and especially those who are not connected and have been unable to use the Internet to help them cope with pandemic-related isolation and restrictions’. 

Even with this clear need for action, many discussions (with some notable exceptions) have not evolved beyond a survey of well-documented issues. We all know the benefits of technologies, the risks it poses, and the need to connect the unconnected. We’re more or less familiar with the challenges we need to overcome, and what needs to be done to close the gaps. We know that most of the issues require political will, continuous capacity development, solid data to inform policy, strong commitment by all stakeholders, and financial resources to transform all this into concrete action.   

With the deadline for achieving the SDGs looming, the global community needs more than just a fresh round of discussions. We need to develop the IGF into a central policy space that brings together all the fragmented measures and mechanisms. We need more governments and industry leaders to talk to each other, and to also listen to what civil society has to say. We need to equip developing countries with tools and resources to start measuring society, its ailments, and its progress. If this year’s IGF can make significant progress on any one of these fronts, perhaps even capture them in its high-level thematic messages to be published by the end of the year, it will have achieved much more than previous years.

The ugly. The IGF Secretariat did anticipate challenges with organising a virtual event, including bandwidth costs to connect to the entire meeting, connectivity disruptions, issues related to time zones, committing to a meeting schedule which is several days (and hours) longer than usual, and the ‘virtual meetings fatigue’ which many of us are now experiencing.

What the IGF Secretariat did not anticipate is the complexity resulting from a hodgepodge of requirements to make the virtual event experience as seamless as possible. 

For many online events, the platform needs to be stable enough to cater to a very large audience logging in and out simultaneously; the virtual rooms need to be effortlessly easy to access; the programme needs to be easy to understand and follow; and the registration process needs to be secure. More or less, in that order. 

When these, and even more requirements, are put in the same basket without clear prioritisation, the result can be confusing at the least, prohibitive at most. It takes a brave and focused effort to follow the 12 steps required for participating in a session. Not that it’s impossible, but there’s no doubt that those with limited online navigation skills (or patience) may have found this too daunting. Luckily for participants, as the English saying goes, practice makes perfect (or at least easier).


1. COVID-19: A main focus of IGF 2020 

At a time when the world is grappling with second and third waves of the pandemic, there was no doubt that many discussions would centre on COVID-19: how it has exacerbated the digital divide; how technology is fighting (or falling short in the fight) to limit the spread of the virus; how it is helping us overcome the consequences of lockdowns and physical distancing; how the proliferation of damaging content is preying on people’s vulnerabilities – and at times, naivety; and how the world is dealing with other problems beyond the pandemic, such as climate change, environmental issues, and sustainability.

  • COVID-19 knows no boundaries

Lockdowns and physical distancing has pushed everyone to resort to another way of living and working: using technology and the Internet. For those who already have access, it was ‘just’ a matter of shifting more and more to a virtual way of doing things. But for those who do not have access, the pandemic amplifies the existing digital divide.

School-aged children around the world are among the most hard-hit. The limitations they face are not limited to developing countries. Even in rich countries such as the USA, one in ten children has had little or no access to technology.

Small and developing countries are also hard-hit, but many are using the pandemic as an opportunity to accelerate digitalisation processes. Countries such as Fiji saw the pandemic as an opportunity to roll out government services by using Internet solutions. Many governments turned to online platforms to provide services to citizens. These efforts should be matched by concurrent global efforts to connect all citizens to the Internet.

  • What digital inclusion measures should focus on 

One of the main issues is infrastructure, and specifically, the provision of electricity – which many of us take for granted. Digital inclusion can never be fully achieved without a stable supply of electricity. Another challenge is the cost of Internet access: even if connectivity is available, it needs to be affordable.

As one discussant observed, this new normal of working and learning from home will not change any time soon, even when COVID-19 is over. This calls for a resilient infrastructure to support the way we’re living and working right now and in the foreseeable future. 

  • How technology is fighting the spread

Artificial intelligence was crucial in early warning of COVID-19, in automatic temperature monitoring and contact tracing, in the analysis of lung scans, and in drug development. It was also used to assist information management and virus research. Related to the three Vs (vaccines, vaccinators, and vaccinees), digital technology has helped with remote vaccine temperature monitoring through temperature logs, online skills training for vaccinators, electronic immunisation registries, and mobile communication with parents, and additionally pushed the demand for vaccines. 

ATM pharmacies have also become quite popular due to the contactless approach of dispensing medications. Similar, telemedicine, chatbots, and digital-digital interventions, provided healthcare without the need for human contact. 

2. ‘Data hungry’ contact-tracing apps attract criticism

Traditional methods of contact tracing went digital with the introduction of mobile apps. Since then, governments have been encouraging people to download the apps, in a bid to fast-track the collection of geographical and proximity data. The apps help identify people who may have come in contact with a virus-positive person, therefore limiting the spread of the virus. In many countries, thousands of people have welcomed this public health initiative, and have installed the apps.

This technological development does not come without its own set of issues. Several discussions delved in-depth on these issues, including: the potential for abuse by malicious actors; the lack of clarity on how long people’s data will be retained; the low take-up by marginalised communities; and the potentially invasive ways of collecting data

  • Finding a balance: A matter of trust?

We probably need to concede that many users would gladly provide all their personal data if it meant overcoming COVID-19, and that governments will need increasingly more data to keep their people safe. The issue, however, is not a matter of one versus the other, but of finding a better balance between privacy and how to handle a public health emergency, and of putting the proper privacy and personal data protections in place, to avoid becoming a situation of mass surveillance.

The issue is perhaps one of trust; the solution is more transparency. As one discussant explained,  in Japan, for instance, the trust which citizens had in the government (and vice versa) led to exemplary collaboration; contrary to what was happening in other countries, citizens did not feel the need to protest or criticise any measure. 

3. A pandemic fuelling an infodemic

If the spread of misinformation was already having governments, companies, and users concerned, the current infodemic has only fuelled these concerns further. The main issue goes beyond the disinformation itself: the biggest worry is the erosion of trust in scientific evidence since misinformation often aims to erode trust in the source of information.

  • How do we deal with harmful content? 

Beyond the oft-heard suggestions (including the need to teach people how to verify information, and for automation to complement the more essential human intervention), a few novel insights emerged. 

For instance, self-regulation by platforms is often unilateral, and content moderation remains opaque, especially on automated decision-making. The issue is for governments to understand at what point they need to intervene (not too soon, not too late) with content regulation. Since local context is often disregarded by giant companies, resulting in false positives and arbitrary and discriminatory decisions, more multilingual measures are required. Another suggestion was the creation of an ombudsman to help regulate content while ensuring the protection of digital rights.

4. The impact of digital technology on the environment

Given the greater global awareness on climate change and the environment – including the fact that COVID-19 has indirectly helped to reduce carbon emissions – this year’s IGF included a track dedicated to the environment, which links digital technology and its impact on the world around us.

Research shows that digital technologies can slow down climate change. Measures, such as the development of smart transportation systems, can significantly reduce CO2 emissions. Although the ICT sector still produces more CO2 emissions than it has helped save so far, some believe that digital technologies will be indispensable in addressing climate change.

Yet, we still need to tackle the increasing levels of e-waste, estimated at doubling by 2050, since only 20% of the 50 million+ tonnes of e-waste generated every year gets recycled. 

We also need to be careful about technology’s rebound effect, according to which a technology designed to save resources actually increases the use of resources in the long run. For example, mobility apps for ride-sharing in cities can encourage people to commute together, but can also lead to more cars on the road, given the convenience and availability of ride-hailing services.

5. The exploitation of children

Cybercrime reared its ugly head during the pandemic, especially with criminal activity concerning vulnerable children. The pandemic has had a significant impact on the volume of child sexual abuse materials being posted online. 

The issue of encryption is increasingly being debated nowadays. Law enforcement is reiterating that encryption poses a huge challenge to combating and monitoring abusive online content. When end-to-end encryption is used, content cannot be screened by private sector platforms, which limits law enforcement’s ability to block or remove inappropriate content. Coalitions in favour of encryption, however, believe that backdoors would put all other users at risk.

Beyond this debate, additional (and easier) online reporting mechanisms for adults and children are needed to improve incident reporting, and to provide abuse-related support. Peer education and digital skills can also help young people understand technology better.

6. Evolving debates

Other discussions we’re following very closely are those related to geopolitics (the USA–China relations), and debates around the concept – or existence – of digital sovereignty (China arguing in favour, the USA arguing against, and the EU oscillating in between). Plus, many others are unfolding around central issues of data governance, and access and inclusion.

With several more days of discussions still to come, we’ll publish a comprehensive thematic summary in our final report.


Halfway through the IGF: What the data reveals (so far)


As the first week of phase II of the IGF is coming to an end, Diplo’s Data Team tracked the prominence of digital issues, identified new trends and shifts in the discussion, with data analysis carried out on more than 60 session transcripts.

  • Data is the buzzword

Appearing over 2000 times, ‘data’ was by far the most commonly used keyword from the digital policy jargon so far. 

As a cross-cutting issue, data was discussed in the context of environmental challenges (how it can be employed to curb misinformation on climate change, and how data can help tackle waste management). The role of data was equally explored in discussions on trust and content (such as, how individuals can increase ownership of their data).  

The word ‘Internet’ was also frequently used, along with the terms ‘people’ and ‘access’.

Like last year, many sessions were linked to SDG 9 (Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure). This was to be expected since Goal 9 is one of the few that makes direct reference to digital technologies. References to SDG 10 (Reducing inequalities) came in second place with a total of 44 related sessions – a reflection of inclusion being one of the main four themes this year. Reference to SDG 17 (Partnerships for the Goals) scored third. Despite the fact that the environment was one of the key topics of the IGF, its respective SDGs featured lower on the scale.

  • Sustainable development as an overarching issue

Over the course of four days, sustainable development was the most dominant issue, followed by data governance and content policy. This trend can be explained by the fact that the key topics of this year’s discussions, i.e., data, trust, inclusion, and environment, are related to the above issues. Access, artificial intelligence, cultural diversity, multilingualism were among the issues that were less prominent.

  • Prefix monitor: Digital makes the difference

Diplo’s prefix monitor helps us identify trends in digital policy discussions, such as how actors frame their perspectives on digital issues.

Halfway through the IGF discussions, the prefix ‘digital’ dominates this year’s IGF language, and surpasses the use of ‘online’ and ‘cyber’ – prefixes usually associated with security-related issues and human rights. This frequent use of ‘digital’ can signify a shift in focus: the once-narrow approach of digital policy has now widened to include digital literacy, digital divide, digital inclusion, and digital trust, among others. 

Featuring second, the prefix ‘online’ was primarily used in the context of space, for instance, online space, online platform, online community, while ‘cyber' was mostly accompanied by words such as terrorist, crime, conflict, and threat. The fourth most prominent prefix, ‘tech’, typically refered to actors in digital policy (such as tech companies and tech experts).

The use of the term ‘virtual’ is relatively low, which comes as somewhat of a surprise given that the prefix is featured in the very title of this year’s IGF. Lastly, the prefix ‘e-’ continued in decline, and was mostly used in the economic context, namely, in discussions on e-commerce and e-trade. 

  • The most prominent baskets so far

Taking a closer look at the distribution of issues by baskets (used by the Digital Watch taxonomy of issues), we note the change in prominence of different categories over the past week. While the Development basket dominated the discussions on the first day of phase II, sociocultural issues – including content policy, online education, and an interdisciplinary approach to tackling trust and ethics – took over on the second day, appearing in half of the sessions.

Other baskets, such as Human Rights and Cybersecurity, were somewhat less prominent. Human rights related sessions mostly focused on gender and children’s rights, as well as privacy and data protection, whereas cybersecurity sessions mainly tackled issues related to child safety online.

On the third day, the focus switched back to the Development basket. In contrast, the Sociocultural basket faced a sharp decrease, accounting for only 14% of all sessions on that day, together with Cybersecurity, Human Rights, and the Legal basket.

Additional analysis will be included in the final report, out on Thursday, 19th November. Stay tuned!

Author: Stephanie Borg Psaila

Data Analysis: Katarina Andjelkovic and Natasa Perucica (Diplo’s Data and AI Team)