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The purpose of this session, co-ordinated by the Multistakeholder Advisory Group (MAG), was to set the scene for digital inclusion discussions during the IGF and to connect IGF participants who are engaged in this topic. The main question that was raised is how to have a fully digitally connected society. Ms Doreen Bogdan-Martin (Director, Telecommunication Development Bureau, International Telecommunication Union) stressed that the only way to have a fully digitally connected society is to have everyone connected. According to the recently published ITU Facts and Figures Report, this year the good news is that connectivity shifted from 50% to 53%, but the bad news is that growth rates are slowing, particularly in the countries at the bottom of the pyramid, including poor countries and vulnerable groups. In particular, the gender digital gap is growing. The percentage of women connected to the Internet stands at 48%, while 58% of men are connected. Throughout the world, except for the Americas, men have more access than women. Thus, she concludes, increased connectivity is the only answer to some of the world's greatest development challenges; it is important to focus on digital inclusion and ways to close the gap.
To address digital inclusion, Bogdan-Martin identified important areas to address. First, affordability is one of the main challenges. The UN Commission on Sustainable Development set a target for affordability at 5% of the monthly Gross National Income (GNI), which was later lowered to 2%. Even so, many countries have not reached that level. Affordability is also extended to devices that are relatively expensive. Second, digital skills should be enhanced; efforts should be doubled to enhance educational systems and structures to increase basic digital skills. The ITU joined forces with the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) to look at school connectivity and assess which schools are connected and which are not. Connecting schools also necessitates creative financing models. Third, technological solutions are necessary for enabling sustainable framework policies. This is in line with the recently published report by the UN High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation, which addresses the notion of digital public goods, that is, goods that are available, publicly open, reusable, and adaptable.
Some examples in this regard were highlighted. As for e-health; the ITU has a partnership with the World Health Organization (WHO) called ‘Be He@lthy Be Mobile’, which provides mobile health solutions through a mobile application. The application has been actively used in Zambia to address cervical cancer, a major issue in the country. Campaigns have raised awareness on the importance of regular screenings and follow-up actions. The results are quite encouraging. Another example is from Niger, where the Smart Village Initiative showcases how to cost-effectively accelerate the implementation of the sustainable development goals (SDGs) in remote areas through an integrated development and technology platform model. It will also be implemented in Indonesia and hopes are to scale this up to rural villages around the world. The main purpose is to not merely to bring connectivity, but to link it to agriculture, education, and healthcare solutions so that communities can benefit and thrive.
Yet, some challenges and concerns remain to support digital inclusion. Some participants pinpointed a number of these challenges. They include: a) policymakers who should be people-oriented in order to set frameworks that ensure inclusion; b) the establishment of local mobile networks and the enhancement of access to spectrum for small-scale areas; c) the development of infrastructure to include access to persons with disabilities; and, d) the promotion of zero-rating (providing Internet access without financial cost under certain conditions) and change of policies that adversely impact net neutrality principles and hence access.
The participants broke up into small groups to discuss the different dimensions and challenges of digital inclusion. The first group discussed skills, jobs, and innovation, and emphasised how important it is for everyone who has access to the Internet to have access to the development of critical skills. Also, because of a high rate of change in jobs, education, and technology, information regarding mental health is important. So far, the majority of people do not have any education about mental health and resilience. A second group discussed governance, and noted that inclusion in governance affects and reflects inclusion and exclusion in the wider Internet. This means that whoever sets Internet policies also decides who actually gets what from the Internet. The group also agreed that governance does not necessarily mean government, and that most Internet governance happens outside of the government sphere. One participant highlighted how the Internet in Libya is currently managed without a functioning government. The third group addressed local content and multilingualism, and emphasised the need to evaluate the local community to discover what is really needed. People should have the right to speak their languages and discuss their cultures online. Additionally, locally relevant content also relies on a healthy local news and media environment. The fourth group discussed social inclusion; this group looked at the ways content is regulated and excludes some marginalised groups such as transgendered individuals, ex-drug addicts, or abuse survivors. The group also highlighted the importance of inclusion of persons with disabilities. The last group focussed on access, affordability, and infrastructure, highlighting the importance of establishing national ICT frameworks that promote digital inclusion. In most third-world countries, a lack of infrastructure hinders affordability. For example, Jamaica has good infrastructure, but lacks electricity, amplifying the rural and urban digital divide. A multistakeholder approach was stressed to address infrastructure and access issues.
Finally, it was noted that we need equitable digital inclusion for all so that we have an equal society and equal rights and participation in the new digital economy. We need to make it easier for people to be connected. To do so, we need to make it more affordable and start doing things differently.
By Noha Fathy