IGF 2020 High-Level Leaders Track: UN Wrap-up
Concluding the IGF 2020, leaders from international organisations, national governments, businesses, and civil society convened to reflect on key issues discussed throughout the conference and on ideas to enhance the responsiveness, relevance, and impact of the IGF, looking forward to the next year’s edition in Poland.
In his closing keynote speech, Mr António Guterres (Secretary-General, UN) urged all stakeholders to work with the UN to close the digital divide that is exacerbating existing inequalities worldwide. Aligning with the IGF 2020’s thematic focus, Guterres highlighted inclusion in data governance. Leveraging data as a public good and orchestrating data governance efforts are crucial in order for the international community to make progress towards achieving the sustainable development goals (SDGs).
In this session, panellists discussed how the digital divide was further exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Of particular importance is how can the Internet governance community ensure that nobody is left behind in the digital era? The panellists raised several key points: infrastructure, investment, affordability, locally relevant digital content, digital skills, regulatory frameworks, and political leadership, among others. First and foremost, without infrastructure, it is impossible to go online. Mr Mats Granryd (Director General, GSMA) pointed out that among the 4 billion people in the world who remain unconnected, about 700 million are prevented from going online due to the lack of coverage. For these people to be online, infrastructure is a necessity; however, governments often lack resources to build the necessary infrastructure. Ms Vera Songwe (UN Under-Secretary-General and Executive Secretary of the Economic Commission for Africa) called on international donors and development agencies to co-invest in building infrastructure in unconnected areas as it allows each donor to reduce the cost of investment. Investment in infrastructure can also improve end-users’ Internet experience by enhancing connection speeds. Songwe shared that it often takes two minutes to connect to Google’s search engine in Africa, while it only takes 2 seconds to do so in the United States. Mr Vint Cerf (Chief Internet Evangelist, Google) provided insights on how the difference in speed is caused by differences in bandwidth. Investment in wireless network infrastructure (4G and 5G) will contribute to not only increasing connection speeds but also providing African countries with opportunities of digital transformation.
Affordability comes as the next hurdle for the unconnected, illustrated by the statistics mentioned by Granryd that 3.4 billion people (voluntarily or involuntarily) remain unconnected even if the coverage exists there. Many may choose to remain offline because there is no relevant content or content in their local language available. Mr Goran Marby (Chief Executive Officer and President, Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) emphasised that the Internet needs to be both global and local for it to be empowering and useful to all current and future users. The digital divide, and particularly the digital gender divide, can be reduced through the development of digital skills. Mr Carlos Molina (Vice Minister of National Planning, Costa Rica) stressed that it is ever more important to foster digital skills among girls, as the lack of such skills during the ongoing pandemic potentially costs them their right to education and employment.
Mr Fabrizio Hochschild (Under-Secretary-General, Special Adviser on Preparations for 75th UN Anniversary) noted that the libertarian nature of the Internet has perpetuated the notion among some that any types of governance or regulation are an enemy to the Internet. He stressed that regulations should play a role in the protection of human rights and democratic values online. Hochschild elaborated that inclusive multistakeholder governance of the Internet from the bottom-up creates legitimacy for stronger leadership and enforcement of appropriate regulations. Additionally, governments can create an enabling environment through policy-making while addressing the issue of digital divide. Mr Ahmedin Ahmed (State Minister of Innovation and Technology, Ethiopia) stated that Ethiopia plans to liberalise and commercialise its telecom networks to open the market to new actors. Meanwhile, Cerf highlighted that regulations need to take the openness, interoperability, and intermobility of the Internet into account in order to avoid destroying the very features that made the Internet a revolutionary invention.
Political leadership will be a strong determining factor in the success of digital transformation and in efforts to close the digital divide. Having taken leadership in building Estonia’s digital government, Mr Toomas Hendrik Ilves (Former President of Estonia) underlined that technology to enable a digital government already exists. What countries often lack is commitment and leadership to implement changes that are sometimes tedious and time-consuming.
The digital transformation has brought global challenges along with it. Mr Maxim Parshin (Deputy Minister of Digital Development, Communications and Mass Media, Russian Federation) raised online safety, data protection, and fake news as key challenges that require international co-operation. He proposed that a structure should be established in the UN to develop norms and standards to fight against fake news. Ms Simonetta Sommaruga (President of the Swiss Confederation) stated that the risks of digitalisation – such as misinformation and cyber-attacks on critical infrastructure – need to be mitigated by developing and adopting global principles, noting that international law should be applied to irresponsible behaviors in the digital space. In addition, she further noted that Switzerland supports the creation of a pilot policy network in the areas of digitalisation and environmental protection.
Many challenges lie ahead for IGF stakeholders. In particular, the IGF needs to remain relevant, responsive, and impactful to the wide range of issues related to Internet governance. As a representative of the IGF 2021 host country, Mr Marek Zagórski (Secretary of State at the Chancellery of the Prime Minister, Poland) committed to making the IGF more inclusive by involving the youth community, programmers, and online gamers. Responding to Zagórski, Ms Vallarie Yiega (Youth Representative, Kenya) called for the involvement of youth in the process of planning and designing IGF sessions to systemically reflect youth perspectives. Sommaruga recognised the need to fill the gap between expert discussions within the IGF and decision making at the national and regional levels. As a global forum on Internet governance, she points out that the IGF should take initiative in developing global principles for Internet governance that align with the goals set out in the UN Secretary-General’s Roadmap for Digital Cooperation. Ms Anriette Esterhuysen (Chair, IGF Multistakeholder Advisory Group) looked forward to strengthening the IGF as a policy-making platform through the empowerment of dynamic coalitions that can improve its effectiveness. However, she underlined that the IGF should not underestimate the complexity of the problems at hand while encouraging stakeholders to remain humbly confident about its design to deal with such complexity.
In the closing remarks, Mr Liu Zhenmin (Under-Secretary-General for the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA)) reflected on his takeaways from IGF 2020. While recognising that IGF 2020 successfully bridged last year’s discussions on data issues, the IGF needs to continue to develop a more focused agenda and strengthen continuity between annual sessions. Zhenmin shared that participation by ministers and parliamentarians continues to be a priority for future IGFs. He also stressed the role of national, regional, and youth initiatives to preserve the bottom-up culture at the IGF, sharing the UNDESA’s commitment to work with all partners to develop a capacity within all national and regional IGF initiatives (NRIs) and youth initiatives. Moreover, it is important to establish linkages and coherency between dynamic coalitions. To conclude IGF 2020, Zhenmin thanked the Secretariat and donors for their support to make this year’s edition possible amid uncertainty.