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The 16th edition of the global Internet Governance Forum (IGF), the United Nations’ most significant multistakeholder platform for discussing internet governance, is taking place in a hybrid format from 6 to 10 December 2021 in Katowice, Poland. Pre-sessions, thematic introductory sessions, as well as the Open Forums, National and Regional IGFs (NRIs) and Dynamic Coalitions sessions have been hosted as part of the rich longer period of the Preparatory and Engagement Phase, which will continue until the global session. The Association for Progressive Communications (APC) values the IGF as a convening space to substantively engage in and contribute to discussing and shaping internet policy with a broad range of stakeholders, not only during the global session, but throughout the intersessional work. In that sense, we welcome the efforts made to expand and strengthen the preparatory and engagement phase.
The overall theme for this year’s global session of the IGF is “Internet United”. The programme is built around six issue areas: (1) Economic and Social Inclusion and Human Rights, (2) Universal Access and Meaningful Connectivity, (3) Emerging Regulation: Market Structure, Content, Data and Consumer Rights and Protection, (4) Environmental Sustainability and Climate Change, (5) Inclusive Internet Governance Ecosystems and Digital Cooperation, and (6) Trust, Security and Stability. A wiki page is available for each of them with further details and information on relevant sessions.
The hybrid format will include sessions that will take place both virtually and in-person, to be hosted by the Government of Poland in Katowice. In August 2021, APC along with many stakeholders expressed concern with the fact that the pandemic has multiplied inequalities in access and participation in policy processes, especially global and regional processes where travel is required. We feared that the adoption of a hybrid model, while mobility constraints imposed by the pandemic have not yet been fully lifted, could contribute to exacerbating those inequalities and limit opportunities for meaningful participation and engagement with key international processes that shape the future of internet governance and digital rights, such as the IGF. We welcome the efforts by the IGF Multistakeholder Advisory Group (MAG) and the Secretariat to address these and other concerns – especially the working group created to discuss and prepare the hybrid agenda – and continue to express our willingness to assist in ensuring meaningful remote participation during all phases of the annual event.
We regret, however, that concrete cases of arbitrary denials of visas have been reported by participants, including APC staff. We fear that the treatment reported by many in their dealings with consulate personnel are not in line with the commitments assumed publicly in this regard by the Polish authorities. In addition, the most recent pandemic developments and the subsequent restrictions to mobility of participants coming from certain countries have resulted in last-minute cancellation of on-site participation. This will certainly have an impact on the meaningful engagement of stakeholders from the global South. We call on the IGF Secretariat and the host country to fully support participants currently facing difficulties.
Below, we discuss some of the issues that will deserve special attention from APC’s staff and members in the upcoming weeks and during the global session:
2. APC’s priorities and activities at IGF 2021
2.1 Imagining the future of global internet governance
The internet continues to become more and more central to our lives. Its uses are broad and far reaching – from accessing public services, including health care and education, to personal development and entertainment, as well as a means to communicate with others. The increasing digitalisation of so many areas of our private and public lives means that being online is slowly becoming more of a requirement and less of an option.
The internet is run by a myriad of bodies, institutions and entities located in different parts of the world. Its decentralisation has long been praised as the reason behind the innovation, creativity and openness that characterised its early expansion.
Today, however, we are living in a new time where the internet has become a much more controlled, privatised and weaponised space.
In this current context, the manner in which the internet is governed has become an even more relevant and urgent question. The answers, however, are still few and lacking in their commitment to a people-centred model that could ensure rights and freedoms, innovation and openness.
APC works for internet governance processes that are accessible, democratic, transparent, accountable and inclusive. Our commitment has been and continues to be with the strengthening of the IGF as a platform to improve coordination and cooperation in global internet governance. In order to ensure that the IGF continues to play such a role, APC believes it is important to promote strategic discussions concerning its future and the future of global internet governance more broadly, so that these processes can lead to an internet governance that contributes to social, gender and environmental justice and human rights.
On 8 December, APC will be organising a session to discuss the future of global internet governance, in partnership with APNIC, Asociación Latinoamericana de Internet, ONG Derechos Digitales, DotAsia, KICTANet and Pollicy, and with support from the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida).
The framework for this workshop are the preparations for WSIS+20 – the forthcoming review process marking the 20th anniversary of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) – and the need to rethink, adapt and/or reconfirm commitments made at the first phase of the Summit in 2003 in Geneva and the second phase in 2005 in Tunis. We will take stock of the many lessons learned and the progress achieved, but will also open our minds and microphones to new ideas and voices.
This session will build on a series of multistakeholder regional dialogues carried out throughout the second half of 2021 and hosted in collaboration with regional stakeholders in Latin America, Asia and Africa. Insights collected from different regions will be shared and followed by a hands-on activity where participants will build on regional outputs to identify possible common grounds for work in the run-up to WSIS+20, keeping in mind the processes that have emerged in the past couple of years towards digital cooperation, including the Roadmap on Digital Cooperation and the upcoming Digital Compact.
2.2 Where environmental concerns intersect with internet governance
Environmental justice and sustainability continue to be a priority issue for APC engagement in the IGF. In 2021, the IGF is hosting a session of the Policy Network on the Environment (PNE), framed by the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. A multistakeholder working group was formed in early 2021, together with an open mailing list, and during the IGF on 9 December the PNE will present a report with concrete, actionable policy recommendations. APC staff and members have been contributing to the work of the PNE, including in the drafting of the report.
The PNE report focuses on three issue areas: (1) environmental data, (2) food and water systems, and (3) supply chain transparency and circularity, and also includes chapters on overarching issues, opportunities and risks. The report incorporates common themes across the various chapters, including digital inclusion and meaningful access, transparency, trust, and public participation in decision making. The report highlights that digital technologies pose risks to the environment through the extraction and use of natural resources, and makes policy recommendations to help identify and address violations of environmental and human rights.
In preparation for the discussions during the IGF, the APC network organised a virtual discussion in November 2021 to explore and imagine how community-led development and deployment of digital technologies around the world are shaping paths towards digital transformation that are socially, economically and environmentally just and sustainable. This virtual pre-event to the global IGF responded to perceived gaps in the official programme of the IGF Environmental Sustainability and Climate Change track, which includes workshops on narrow and specialised topics such as sustainable tourism and data-driven environmental monitoring, with insufficient consideration or exploration of the role of local communities.
Participants in this virtual convening shared and reflected on their work and experiences with community-led initiatives, including models of technology development and governance that are rooted in the principles and values of the local communities involved. The discussion included a special focus on paths to just and sustainable digital transformation that are forming through alternative business models, platform cooperatives and collectives, and social enterprises.
Through those discussions, APC is contributing to build greater awareness and understanding of how local communities can be supported in different contexts to shape the deployment and use of digital technologies to create just and sustainable communities, leading to greater care for ourselves, each other and the Earth.
During the IGF, APC will also organise the session “Global Information Society Watch (GISWatch) 2020 IGF launch: Technology, the environment and a sustainable world”. The GISWatch 2020 report was first launched in April 2021. This groundbreaking edition contains 46 country and regional reports along with a powerful series of thematic reports that explore the constructive role that technology can play in confronting environmental and climate crises, and disrupts the normative understanding of technology being an easy panacea to the planet’s environmental challenges.
From lithium extraction in Latin America to telecommunications among Indigenous communities in the Amazon, from artificial intelligence for curbing illegal poaching and animal trade in Uganda to the potential of community networks to create a more just and sustainable world – this innovative research takes readers around the globe looking at the role of technology in the fight for climate justice.
This session will discuss the contents of GISWatch 2020 in the voices of the authors of thematic and country reports. It aims to provide an overview of the diverse challenges related to the intersection between digital technologies and environmental sustainability and will present action steps from an internet governance and internet policies point of view.
2.3 Gendered disinformation
APC staff have also been supporting the work of the Best Practice Forum (BPF) on Gender and Digital Rights. This year, the BPF on Gender has been exploring the concept of gendered disinformation; it has organised a series of online workshops with the participation of diverse experts and practitioners, and has produced a report that will be shared and discussed with the IGF community.
While the weaponisation of disinformation against women in public spaces has long been pointed out as a form of gender-based violence online, APC believes it is important to recognise it as a specific phenomenon. Gendered disinformation is a subset of online gendered abuse that uses false or misleading gender and sex-based narratives against women aimed at deterring them from participating in the public sphere. It combines three defining characteristics of online disinformation: falsity, malign intent and coordination.
Gendered disinformation targets not only women, but also feminist struggles and gendered discourse. In practice, it is used to silence women, to push them to self-censorship, and to restrict their civic space.
The situation is even more striking from an intersectionality lens. Female political leaders and activists from racial, ethnic, religious or other minority groups are targeted far more often than their white colleagues.
We welcome and value the work underway by the BPF on Gender in this regard.
2.4 Digital inclusion and access
Amid growing consensus among international organisations that the rate at which mobile networks are extending coverage is slowing down and even plateauing, and increased awareness that the widely hyped 5G rollout will only benefit wealthy urban sectors of the population, a growing number of voices are recognising the need for innovative models to connect the unconnected and for communities to exercise self-determination in relation to how they connect themselves to the digital realm. APC works towards affordable and meaningful access to the internet for all people and all the time, irrespective of class, identity, gender or disability, or where they live. The IGF remains a dynamic platform for convening, exchanging knowledge and strategising around this critical issue.
With these goals in mind, APC has been supporting the Policy Network on Meaningful Access (PNMA). The PNMA’s objective is to assess and gather good practices and policy recommendations already discussed at the IGF; identify what the key barriers are to these not being implemented; and facilitate networking among actors from all stakeholder groups that are concerned with the topic. This year the PNMA focus is to collect concrete stories, case studies and local experiences under the three overarching workstreams: Connectivity (infrastructure and business models), Digital Inclusion (accessibility and multilingualism), and Capacity Development (technical skills training).
2.5 Strengthening of the IGF
We believe that the IGF, as a vital piece of the internet governance ecosystem and a platform conducive to improving coordination and cooperation in global internet governance and global digital cooperation, has to be strengthened, building on its achievements.
In November 2021, the IGF Secretariat launched a nomination process at the request of the Executive Office of the United Nations Secretary-General for the inaugural Leadership Panel of the 2022 and 2023 IGF cycles.
We view the IGF Leadership Panel as one of the many efforts started 10 years ago towards consolidating the IGF as a platform for identifying viable ways to shape, sustain and strengthen global digital cooperation.
It is our view that no separate new structure that determines or shapes the IGF, its processes and procedures, or that makes decisions on behalf of the IGF community, should be created outside of the IGF architecture.
APC believes that the IGF Leadership Panel should contribute to strengthening and raising the profile of the IGF within the UN system, working hand in hand with the MAG, to complement its efforts. The IGF Leadership Panel should build on the lessons learned from years of MAG operations.
Like other civil society groups, APC is concerned about the risk that with the creation of this new structure, a top-down approach to digital cooperation dominated by few powerful private and political forces could undermine the IGF’s legacy.
We call on the UN Secretary-General to ensure diversity in the composition of the panel and representation of global South perspectives to counteract this risk and to commit to designing all aspects related to the mandate of the Panel in an open and participatory fashion. Genuine and effective democratic global digital governance can be only sustained through high standards of transparency.
3. APC's activities at the IGF
A full list of events that APC and its members are participating in during IGF 2021 is available here.
4. Follow APC online at IGF 2021
Twitter: @APC_News and @GenderITorg
Media contact: email@example.com in English and Spanish (off-site).
For updates on gender and ICT policy, visit GenderIT.org.