The session, organised by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) was moderated by Mr Alex Wong, Head of Global Challenge Partnerships at the World Economic Forum (WEF). Developing countries were at the centre of the discussion alongside the important gender gap underlined by Wong, considering the decreasing number of women connected to the Internet despite technology advances. The importance of involving stakeholders from the private and the public sectors in order to fill the gaps between countries and between men and women in the use of the Internet was repeatedly taken up by the panellists.
Mr Bocar Ba, CEO at the SAMENA Telecommunications Council, focused on the challenges, approaches, and opportunities to take into account in collaborations between the private sector and civil society. In his opinion, access to the Internet must become a basic human right, not only a basic human need. As regards the challenges, he considered the infrastructure a major obstacle to connecting people around the world because operators face extremely expensive fees when developing connectivity in developing countries. He underlined the need to make the Internet affordable; this can be improved if the private and public sectors work together. Concerning opportunities, he said that we are heading towards a digital economy that needs to better include the population and create new partnerships. Finally, regarding approaches, he noted that we already have the solutions on the table but that there is a need to increase collaboration to reach a common objective and to encourage cross-sector cooperation including between the education and health sectors.
The second panellist, Mr Michael Kende, Senior Fellow at the Internet Society, noted that trust in the use of the Internet is a major challenge, not only for developing countries but also for developed ones. He stated that there is a need to focus on and create a digital economy rather than just focusing on Internet access. He said that an important effort has been made in the last ten years regarding infrastructure and that the new challenge is to get more people and businesses online so they also benefit from the digital economy.
In the second part of his speech, Kende mentioned the Global Internet Report 2016, released by the Internet Society, which focuses on trust in the Internet and on data breaches. As mentioned in the report, he underlined the concern that with these breaches, there will be less trust in the use of the Internet, especially regarding sensitive information which is also a risk for companies’ reputation, particularly those that have been hacked. However, Kende stressed that companies also have strong protection via their terms and conditions which give them zero liability in the case of a breach. Therefore, as users are still the most vulnerable in these situations, he believes that there is a need for people to trust the system in order to build a strong ecosystem.
Ms Vanessa Erogbogbo, Head of the Empowering Women to Trade Programme at the International Trade Centre (ITC) stressed the importance of women in the digital economy. According to Erogbogbo, despite the growing presence of small companies on the Internet, women are still under represented. Thus, the ITC has taken several actions to unlock markets for women-owned small and medium enterprises (SMEs) under the She Trades initiative. The main aim of this initiative is to make women entrepreneurs visible to the international economy to increase visibility and networking. As part of this initiative, an Internet platform has been developed to help women secure government contracts, strike business deals, access markets, unlock financial services, and to grant ownership rights. Erogbogbo also underlined that the active role of women on the Internet is not only a concern for developing countries but also for developed ones. According to ITC data, only 6% of mobile application developers are women and in 2016, there were 257 million fewer women online, compared to 2015, which accentuates the growing gap in connectivity between men and women.
The final speaker, Ms Esperanza Magpantay, Senior Statistician at the ICT Data and Statistics Division at the ITU, regretted that there is still a large of number of developing countries which do not collect statistics on connectivity. She added that these statistics are also important for policymakers and investors to see which measures must be put in place. Magpantay focused on the results provided by the Measuring the Information Society Report 2016 which shows a steep rise in mobile cellular subscriptions and mobile broadband subscriptions and that mobile broadband networks reach 84% of global population and 67% of rural population. The report also stressed, as she mentioned, that there is a significant digital divide between developing and developed countries. Moreover, the report gives an ICT Development Index which emphasises a strong association between economic and ICT developments. The report gives several indications about the evolution of mobile cellular prices and broadband prices but it also shows several gaps between men and women or for people living in rural areas who are less likely to own or use a mobile phone than those living in urban areas. Other important points also emerge from the report according to Magpantay. The benefits of the Internet are still unavailable to over half the world’s population. Most people who have access to Internet services do not actually use them. It also shows that the full potential of the Internet remains untapped, especially for low-income and less educated users. In addition, access to the Internet as such is not enough; skills are needed to take full advantage of what it offers.
The discussion ended with a Q&A which pointed out the importance of cultural and political obstacles faced by women across the world regarding the use of the Internet. Erogbogbo added that the legal barrier is also an important element considering that gender inequality is in some cases written into law. The panel agreed on the fact that more collaboration between the different stakeholders is needed, not only in developing countries but also in developed ones.