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The annual Internet Governance Forum (IGF), the United Nations’ most significant multistakeholder platform for discussing internet governance, is taking place from 6 to 10 December. This year the event is taking place in a hybrid form, with some participants joining the event in Katowice, Poland, and others joining remotely. APC is participating in several activities. Let's share some highlights from the first days at the Forum.
Some highlights from IGF 2021
6 December - Day 0
Representatives and participants of National and Regional IGF initiatives (NRIs) gathered together in a session called NRI Coordination Session with the main goal of understanding what has been done so far and what needs to be done in the coming months and next year, especially to strengthen NRIs and global internet governance ecosystem.
The discussion focused on sustainability of these initiatives in terms of funding and how the international community can better support them, as well as capacity development, communication, accessibility and stakeholder engagement. In a vivid discussion, 25 individuals from different countries around the globe, from Colombia to Tanzania to Italy, shared their experience and inputs to strengthen the IGF process at the country and regional levels.
Video of the NRIs coordination session
Among the highlights of this day was a protest by progressive activists during a session with Meta, Google and IAB demanding the banning of surveillance ads and improving platform worker conditions.
UN's #IGF2021 panel with #Facebook's @OversightBoard was just disrupted by trade unions & progressive movements! Banners call for #BanSurveillanceAds and protection of platform workers. Powerful speeches about regulating, taxing #GAFAM, breaking up monopolies. Just wow pic.twitter.com/0qfT3oKPeM— Jan J. Zygmuntowski (@ZygmuntowskiJ) December 6, 2021
7 December - Day 1
At the session on Digital Inclusion, a Tool for Empowerment in the New Normal, APC introduced what digital inclusion means for us, the types of models we support and our work to promote participation in policy spaces. In the context of pandemic, which has exacerbated inequalities, the need for renewed commitments to inclusion is more clear than ever, both offline and online. Gender was presented as a key aspect, with women in many countries still not allowed to go online. "Everything we do should include advocating for them to be included," stressed one participant.
We also participated in a session on digital self-determination, where a rich discussion emerged on how data is an extension of ourselves and the importance of putting users at the centre.
Video of the session "Digital inclusion as a tool for empowerment in the new normal"
8 December - Day 2
In the 1990s, there was a sense that global governance was disconnected from people's needs. The IGF was born as an opportunity to reshape the internet from a bottom-up perspective. We've retained a spirit of that, but the IGF and internet governance in general now need to negotiate the interests of states, which come from different places (cybersecurity issues, lack of trust between states, lack of solid cooperation frameworks, emerging areas of consensus, fear of the internet by authoritarian states), as well as the presence of the corporate sector (how do you govern the internet in a way that it remains a commons, when so much of it is actually controlled and provided by corporations at an immense cost when it comes to surveillance and the sovereignty of people and states?).
The session Imagining the Future of International Internet Governance deployed an innovative methodology for considering future scenarios, where participants took stock of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) process so far, before looking at alternative principles and dynamics for the future. How can we achieve a people-centered, bottom-up and impactful internet governance, truly meaningful multistakeholderism, and better coordination of internet-related international policy processes? How is the present taking us to the future? We can't foresee the future, but we should continue to expand fundamental rights and global digital cooperation. Democratising internet governance is still a challenge. We need to keep working towards a free and open internet for all.
Video of the session "Imagining the future of international internet governance"
At the Building Capacities for Meaningful Access to the Internet session, organisations across the world presented their experiences and learnings about training and capacity building for community networks. Some focused on moving from knowledge acquisition to community-based action, while others emphasised affordability, low energy and adoption of policies to enable the creation of community networks. Several said that they had learned over the years that they must involve the local community's needs and concerns from the beginning of the process of building such networks.
Other common learnings that emerged were about how focusing on quantity of trainings might be important internally, but quality comes when you go beyond training community members to carry out specific activities to training for self-sustainability. You also have to create incentives for creation of local content, because access to foreign internet alone is of limited use. And you have to include other types of capacity building like mentorships, creating spaces and networks between people, not just technology, so they can share their dreams and problems. Otherwise, such projects that are brought in from outside often diminish if local leaders are not involved in these processes.
Video of the session "Building capacities for meaningful access to the internet"
According to figures from UNESCO shared in the session, of the roughly 7,000 languages currently existing in the world, only 130 are represented in the online space. The session How Can We Achieve a Multilingual Internet? addressed why it is so important to consider the diversity of languages as a key element towards universal and meaningful connectivity. In addition to overcoming barriers such as affordability and digital skills, the panel pointed out that building a multilingual online space is key to reaching this goal. The ability of internet users to engage online in their own language was highlighted as a fundamental step to embrace the diversity of human experience and provide connectivity in such a way that all people can use it freely whenever they need.
The session presented examples of how the internet can accommodate multilingualism, pointing to local content development and universal acceptance of domain names (https://uasg.tech/) as key drivers. Among the examples offered were the inspiring experiences of the Coordination of Indigenous Organisations of the Brazilian Amazon (COIAB) in Brazil and from the World Comics Network in India. With different approaches to deal with the diverse and multiple local realities in those countries, both experiences mobilise communications strategies and self-determination around storytelling to make marginalised voices being heard. Multilingual communications and local content emerged as powerful steps to movement building, advocacy and knowledge sharing in the online space.
At the interactive roundtable discussion among representatives of National and Regional IGF Initiatives (NRIs) at NRIs Collaborative Session: Smart local solutions to connect everyone, one of the first points stressed was the need to listen to people at the local level, because it's the local communities that know how to bring more connectivity, how to create better digital inclusion and equity in their local areas. Because of this, community engagement is essential when we are talking about community connectivity. Community engagement entails mapping the key leaders or influencers in the community, understanding the needs of the community, and devising connectivity solutions that respond to their specific needs. One means of achieving this is to support local start-ups in the development of digital solutions and specific local content adapted to the basic needs of local economic and social actors and populations.
Another point highlighted at the session was the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us the importance of connectivity, the importance of digital inclusion, and what that means to every different locality. Numerous NRI representatives concurred that the need for online schooling during pandemic lockdowns, and the fact that many students in rural areas, especially in the global South, were unable to continue with their schooling due to the lack of connectivity, spurred governments to finally take action to expand access to the internet for underserved areas. It was also stressed, however, that connectivity alone is not enough. Digital literacy is also an important component to consider, as people need to know how to make effective use of connectivity once it is available.
9 December - Day 3
The Best Practice Forum on Gender and Digital Rights, one of the IGF intersessional activities, explored the concept of gendered disinformation. Disinformation is a multifaceted issue that sits at the crossroads of ICTs, human rights and governance. While much of the available scholarship focuses on the gendered impacts of disinformation, like this year’s BPF thematic report, the contours of disinformation at the governance level remain blurred and particularly challenging.
What is it that makes disinformation so hard to handle, mitigate and prevent? It is difficult to measure, and therefore difficult to address. We need a multistakeholder approach to address this. Participants shared examples of how gendered disinformation is used in different contexts. In Brazil, there's been a growing use of hate speech to silence diverse political actors and human rights defenders. In Pakistan, the main issue has been the creation of fake social media accounts. Sexualisation of women politicians online is a big issue, including in Poland, where the IGF is being hosted. In many African countries, women and LGBTQ people are constantly affected by disinformation, which is linked to violation of human rights and exclusion. Filipino journalist and Nobel Prize laureate Maria Ressa was also mentioned as an example of gendered disinformation. She is a prominent voice who is discredited for appearing strong in the eyes of the people and challenging the status quo.
Based on APC’s landmark publication, the session Global Information Society Watch (GISWatch) 2020 IGF launch: Technology, the environment and a sustainable world presented a series of powerful questions to speakers to invite debate on the intersection between digital technologies and environmental sustainability. The 2020 GISWatch edition is Technology, the environment and a sustainable world: Responses from the global South, which disrupts the normative understanding of technology being an easy panacea to the planet’s environmental challenges.
One speaker explored the role of big tech in environmental sustainability from a feminist perspective, pointing to the GISWatch piece on "Imagining a principle for a feminist internet focusing on environmental justice". They also presented some thoughts on how big tech affects women and marginalised communities, including through colonial histories, surveillance, algorithms and encouraging "busyness". Another speaker said that in their experience, environmental sustainability is directly related to community networks and their needs, such as creating a platform to share and capitalise on local knowledge, and eventually preserve the biodiversity around them.
One participant presented some provocative questions like, what does a fossil-free internet look like by 2030?, and should we divest financially and in services from big tech?, while another pointed to an incredible report on the carbon footprint of unwanted data (such as ads) on smartphones, and yet another mentioned the fossil-free data initiative. One speaker from the private sector explained how their company doesn’t prioritise money as a goal and tries to create change from within the capitalist system, which also helps sustain their green initiatives. They also made the point that switching to fossil-free internet shouldn’t be at the cost of other continuing fossil consumption.
Video of the session Global Information Society Watch (GISWatch) 2020 IGF launch: Technology, the environment and a sustainable world