UN DESA Voice, Vol 26, No. 11 - November 2022

NEW YORK - Browsing for work, school or to access government or health care services; for many, Internet access may be easily available in our daily lives. Yet, more than 2.9 billion people around the world still lack this connection. Ahead of the Internet Governance Forum later this month, we speak with UN DESA’s Wai Min Kwok about this Forum and how it plays a critical role in efforts to leave no one offline.

1. Sustainable access to the Internet for all people, everywhere, is a top priority for the IGF. Yet billions of people remain unconnected. How is the IGF bridging this digital divide?

“The Internet is changing dramatically the way we live, learn, work and participate in the economy and society, but is itself also changing in a changing world. The convergence of the Internet and digital technologies – artificial intelligence, blockchain, and the Internet of Things, along with big data and the dark sides of technology – is driving megatrends and digital transformation in an unprecedented global scale.

Yet more than 2.9 billion people are still offline. They are effectively placed at an even greater societal disadvantage and are being left further behind. Meaningful online access, affordability and ability, collectively the 3As, are now the primary determinants of digital divides or “digital poverty”. The divides and fragmentations between the digitally connected and digitally disconnected continue to widen, with increased complexity. The pandemic has deepened socioeconomic and digital disparities, reinforcing the vicious cycle of inequality, including intergenerational inequity.

It is in this context that the Internet Governance Forum delivers as convener and connector. The IGF brings together stakeholders from different groups, such as governments, the private sector, the technical community, civil society, and international organizations, and across different regions, sectors and disciplines. The open, inclusive, bottom-up dialogue at the IGF is recognized as the way forward to advance the complex global Internet governance issues; to create level-playing fields for sharing policy solutions, best practices and experiences; to identify emerging issues and bring them to the attention of the relevant bodies and the public; and to contribute to capacity building at all levels.”

2. An open and free Internet also comes with risks of it being misused. What are the tools currently in place to ensure online safety, security and accountability?

“UN Secretary-General António Guterres has been outspoken and unequivocal about the ‘dark side of the digital world’ which includes the spread of hate speech, misinformation and fake news, cybercrimes, and job displacement provoked by automation. The vision of an open, free and secure digital future that is accessible to all underpins the crucial role of the IGF in shaping the global conversation and sharing policy options, tools and approaches.

Cybersecurity is a top priority for many countries, with Governments focused not only on domestic threats but also on international risks, given the cross-boundary architecture of the Internet. An increased awareness of cybersecurity issues and threats, clear incident reporting frameworks, and ongoing training are necessary for effective response to data breaches and cyberattacks. The Best Practice Forum on Cybersecurity set up by the Internet Governance Forum serves as a platform for focused multistakeholder and multidisciplinary discussion on cybersecurity policy challenges, with the discourse intended to inform Internet governance policy debates.

Likewise, the Policy Network on Internet Fragmentation offers a systematic and comprehensive framework to define Internet fragmentation, to analyze case studies and to establish shared principles, recommendations or codes of conduct that prevent fragmentation and preserve the open, interconnected and inter-operable nature of the Internet. In addition to campaigns and awareness building, the use of policy and artificial intelligence (AI) tools against hate speech and fake news are also emerging.

Digital policies should always be well-defined, centred on peoples’ needs and clearly articulate public benefits.

Individuals also have an obligation to contribute to the mitigation of online risks, such as protecting their personal data online. However, they can only be expected to act responsibly if they understand what is at stake, are aware of the risks, know their rights, and have learned what to do. Developing capacities and broader digital literacy should enable users, including vulnerable groups and minorities, to become more secure online, to demand data security and safety protections, and to defend themselves against threats.”

3. How can we harness advanced and frontier technologies, such as AI, to become a
seamless part of our sustainable future?

“Digital technology increasingly shapes the new economy and the hybrid digital society. Artificial intelligence (AI) systems are used in “smart” devices and apps for automated decision-making. Robotics and Internet of Things applications are deployed in areas as diverse as manufacturing, healthcare, and agriculture.

While digital tech is morally and politically neutral, its applications and uses have value implications. For instance, algorithmic decision-making often results in gender bias, discrimination against minorities, and other harmful stereotypes that result in wider social inequality. AI-based systems can pose risks to human safety and human rights; and Internet of Things devices come with privacy and cybersecurity challenges. Augmented and virtual reality raises issues of public safety, data protection, and consumer protection.

Harnessing technology for good is easier said than done. There are often opposing, polarized views and heated debates, for instance on the regulation of AI algorithms and systems, the extent of governmental regulation versus free market self-regulation, and the nuanced debates of AI ethics versus AI norms, values and principles.

In reclaiming the global digital commons for the common good, a new global digital compact is needed with a full consultation with different groups of stakeholders. The overall approach should be principles-based rather than rules-based and should be inclusive and people-centered. Indeed, the IGF is stepping into this critical role through its globally recognized platform, under the legitimacy and convening role of the United Nations and the Secretary-General. Multistakeholder dialogue, cooperation, and partnerships – among governments, intergovernmental organizations, tech companies, and civil society – are required to ensure that AI and other technologies are developed and deployed in a human-centric and human rights-based manner.”

The 17th meeting of the IGF will be held in Addis Ababa from 28 November to 2 December 2022, hosted by the Government of Ethiopia, and supported by UN DESA in collaboration with UN ECA.

To learn more about the event, visit the following website: https://www.intgovforum.org/en/content/igf-2022