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In March APC and one of our leading strategic partners Privacy International convened a Networking and Learning Forum to bring together over a hundred researchers, practitioners, innovators and activists, to talk about issues critical to ensuring an open, fair and sustainable internet. They talked research and action, methodology, current contexts and looked at new ways of communicating the research.

Also present were women’s rights activists from twelve developing countries who have been working with APC to strengthen anti-violence against women initiatives as part of our work around the Third Millennium Development Goal which promotes equality of the sexes.

Current challenges to a open, fair and sustainable internet

Dramatic events in months leading up to the NLF, such as the internet shut downs in North Africa and the Middle East and the clampdown on WikiLeaks in the United States were pressing reminders that an open and fair internet cannot be taken for granted.

But the Networking and Learning Forum was not just concerned with freedom of expression. For the internet to fulfil its potential as platform for shared learning, innovation, solidarity and collaborative action for justice, other factors should also be considered, such as limits on freedom of information by trends in intellectual property rights enforcement, the ‘hard-wiring’ of surveillance in network protocols and infrastructure, blatant disregard of personal privacy by social networking platforms, and the difficulties many people still face in having affordable access.

The main objectives of the forum were to:

  • Build a common understanding of what an open, fair and sustainable internet means to us
  • Look back as activists and advocates on what we have achieved in the last two years
  • Learn from one another, share skills and strategies among APC and PI members, partners, research networks and project teams
  • Strengthen our collaboration for an open, fair and sustainable internet.

Discussions were structured in six thematic clusters, related to some of APC’s strategic priorities for the period 2009-12 (which had been analysed by APC’s worldwide membership network back in late 2007).

Some of the challenges and opportunities identified included:

Affordable internet access for all
Access is a multi-dimensional concept which involves connectivity as well as the capacity to use online services – often determined by socio-economic conditions. The changing access environment (which differs radically from country to country as well as within countries) and the constant development of new technologies bring about new challenges, especially in developing countries. The assumption that being able to connect to the internet through a mobile handset has ‘solved’ the access challenge is simply not true.

Policy and regulation remains a critical area for action: high costs in developing countries are generally due to lack of competition, but the use of more wireless spectrum could help reduce costs. Regulatory measures can either help or hinder reduction in costs and more fairly distributed access to wireless spectrum.

Securing and defending internet rights
Several participants felt that it is necessary to distinguish between the right to have to access the internet, and rights on the internet, such as freedom of expression and association. Others felt that affordable access to the internet should be recognised as a right. Also a key challenges are how to achieve an open internet without compromising privacy rights, and how to respond to the emerging risks related to ICT-mediated surveillance. Protecting and promoting privacy and freedom of expression online from unwarranted government intrusion remains a priority.

Making technology work for the environment
Participants made it clear that they want to learn more about the environmental consequences of the production, use, maintenance and disposal of ICTs. We urgently need more initiatives that aim to share knowledge on ICTs and the environment – especially e-waste and climate change – and how we can work better with technology to do our work in a sustainable way. Increasing awareness, improving information sharing and coordination, and working with environmental specialists will be paramount.

Building the information commons
The information commons exists. It is built and defended by the activists and organisations all over the world but it needs to be promoted more actively. Market-driven approaches to information and knowledge threatens the development of the commons. Knowledge related to intellectual property regimes within the APC and among is partners needs to be aggregated and communicated more effectively.

Improving governance, especially governance of the internet
Civil society organisations that promote open, democratic and participatory internet governance need to find ways to counteract the tendency of some governments to close, control and centralise decision-making processes, said participants. It was generally agreed that all entities involved in governance of the internet, including those in the private sector, must be encouraged to build accountable and transparent practices into their policy making processes.

Gender equality and women’s rights
Participants discussed new ways to effectively advocate for change in policy processes regarding violence against women through ICTs. These include developing and/or documenting programmes and tool-kits that are effective in reducing gender-based violence. But it is also critical that women are portrayed as being in control of their bodies and sexuality when communicating messages — something that is still widely missing reported participants. They critiqued that incorporating gender analysis in research is often acknowledged as important but given little more than lip service. Gender needs to be integrated into research more systematically.

A report on the outcomes of the Networking and Learning Forum is available online

Continuing to build research capacity to ensure an open, fair and sustainable internet

The forum was also the first major face-to-face meeting of researchers from the APC community. Many of them are professional researchers but more usually they are communications activists who focus on “information society” themes. Most are based in or associated with APC member organisations (80% of which are based in developing countries) and most were in attendance at the meeting. Having the Privacy International researchers in the NLF added depth in research expertise and activism. Also present were a number of resource people who are experts working in ICT for development, gender equality, and human rights. This enabled the NLF to reflect on what research is needed, and how to build the capacity to do it well.

Researchers present have a common goal: positive changes in the policy environments in the countries and regions where they live and work. Over the next year they will focus on:

1. Sustainable ICT use in the ICT4D community Research on environmental sustainability and ICTs will focus on making people aware of how to use technology in an environmentally-friendly way.

2. Opening up the radio spectrum so that it can be used to provide affordable internet access.

3. Privacy, security, cybercrime and human rights in policy and regulation to scope out where further research would be most effective to support good policy change in Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean.

Photo by APC