[Read more session reports and live updates from the 12th Internet Governance Forum]
The session, which was organised by Ms Karen McCabe, Senior Director Technology Policyat the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Standards Association (IEEE-SA) in the USA, aimed at engaging panellists on perspectives and insights based on real-world connectivity projects and initiatives in which they were engaged.
The moderator Mr Deepak Maheshwari, The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Internet Initiative Vice Chair, opened the discussion with his presentation on Internet inclusion. In Deepak’s view, inclusion was a multi-faceted issue. He gave an example of how someone from the developed world looked at Internet inclusion as opposed to someone from the global south. Deepak felt that the dimensions varied a lot depending on locations and different perspectives.
Maheshwari then invited Professor Christopher Yoo, Technical Community, 1 World Connected, and University of Pennsylvania to share his view on Availability and Awareness.
Professor Yoo said that they had catalogued 750 innovative attempts to connect people to the Internet, and they discovered there was a complete lack of empirical information about what was working and what wasn't. He added that only half of the 7 billion world citizens were online. He further elaborated that a lot of the models that were being supported right now were being done on grant or corporate social responsibility money, thus lacking scaleable models. Professor Yoo decried the lack of revenue in these models, citing that when grant money ran out, they had no ability to continue operating. He further elaborated that accessibility was not just getting people connected but keeping them connected. And that becomes a very different problem. The professor pointed out that getting 3.5 billion people online needed different solutions for urban, rural, and mountainous regions, and islands. and emphasised the need to have public-private partnerships in efforts to try and find ways that could scale and sustain Internet connectivity initiatives. In his final analysis, the Professor stated that digital literacy training was crucial in accomplishing the goal of connecting 1.5 billion people by the year 2020.
Mr Adrian Lovett, President and CEO of the Web Foundation in Geneva, Switzerland, told the session that within the next year, we would finally pass the mark of half the world having access to the Internet for the first time. This he said, was fundamental in recognising the extraordinary benefits that had arisen from the Internet, be it economic, political, or social.
Ms Samar Baba, The IEEE Special Interest Group on Humanitarian Technology (SIGHT), stated that her country, Tunisia, was suffering from the lack of accessibility to the Internet, with only 40% of the schools and universities having Internet access. Samar added that IEEE SIGHT was working to provide Internet access to schools in rural areas. She felt it was vital to talk about availability since it could be a means of creating job opportunities for the populace.
Ms Jane Coffin, of the Internet Society in the USA, opined that if we wanted more available architecture, and technical infrastructure, we had to change the way we do policy. She pointed out that the old communications policies from a telecom perspective would not help scale what we needed from the Internet inclusion perspective. Coffin added that people had to be allowed to be involved in policy and regulatory process. She also echoed Professor Yoo’s sentiments, citing that we had to move away from the volunteer-funded model to a business model. Further, she reiterated that awareness within the beneficiary indigenous communities and transparency were key to project sustainability.
In regard to Internet affordability and accessibility, Lovett pointed out that a survey by Web Foundation’s Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI), illustrated there had been some progress in the last year or so. For her part, Coffin believed that training people, building capacity, building a community, and equipment donation to help set up Internet infrastructure, was crucial in helping connect the unconnected. However she decried the detrimental tax policies imposed by Customs departments in various countries, which she felt were retrogressive.
While concurring with Coffin, Mr remarked that recruiting volunteers was also a very important aspect. These personnel, he believed would train the trainers who would then get the people to maintain the network.
Baba said that accessibility was a challenge in some countries, such as Tunisia. She revealed that studies had shown that boys in Tunisia had more opportunities to access the Internet as compared to girls. She emphasised the importance of focusing on gender to achieve gender equality.
Professor Yoo believed that plans where one could be allowed to buy an e-mail plan that doesn't give one access to the whole Internet, but gave access to what they needed would play a major role in affordability.
In the last segment of the session that focused on assurance, the panellists concurred that online censorship, data breaches, and Child Online Safety were some of the emerging threats to Internet users.
By Bonface Witaba