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Each week David Souter comments on an important issue for APC members and others concerned about the Information Society. This week’s blog post looks back at major developments in 2016.

This year’s Internet Governance Forum (IGF) has just concluded in Guadalajara. The year is drawing to a close. It’s time to look back on the Information Society in 2016. Here goes, with references and hyperlinks to blog posts through the year.

Three questions, then. What’s happened, first, with ICT for development (ICT4D)? What’s happened, next, with Internet governance? And third, what trends can we discern in the Information Society as a whole?

The year in ICT4D

The big news for ICT4D at the end of 2015 was the UN’s ten year review of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS). The review reiterated WSIS’ core objective (‘a people-centred, inclusive and development-oriented Information Society’), paid more attention to the gender digital divide, and called for ICTs to be deployed to meet 2015’s top UN priority, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). More of the same, updated, might be a fair summary.

Connecting to the SDGs may prove more difficult than has been hoped. ICTs are less visible in the Sustainable Development Agenda than they should be, given their rapidly growing impact on economies, societies and cultures. It’s proved hard to find reliable data or build a comprehensive evidence base, and we don’t yet have sufficiently substantial indices of impact. Too much literature on ICT4D relies on anecdote; we need hard evidence to plan the future.

What evidence we had during the year raised two concerns. The ITU’s ICT Development Index, which measures access, use and skills, suggested that Least Developed Countries may be losing ground. The World Bank’s World Development Report – the most comprehensive survey of evidence on ICTs’ impact on development to date – warned about increasing inequality and overoptimism where projects and programmes are concerned.

Empowerment and equality are not the same. ICT4D needs to become more sophisticated, more mature, and to bridge a persistent paradigm gap between the ICT and development communities if it is to contribute fully to development.

More attention will be needed, too, to the relationship between ICTs and some of the more challenging aspects of sustainability. Their interface with climate change remains uncertain and in need of deeper understanding, planning and commitment. Their impact on employment is another source of growing anxiety for global development.

The year in Internet governance

The WSIS review maintained the status quo in Internet governance as well, extending the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) for ten more years, and starting yet another search for ways to meet WSIS’ lost goal, ‘enhanced cooperation’.

The Internet community sighed with relief over the renewal of the IGF, whose eleventh iteration, in Mexico, felt less political as a result. A ‘retreat’ to consider ways of improving it, organised by UN DESA, however, showed up concerns about its style and relevance – though the fresh ideas conjured up in the retreat were not substantively discussed in Mexico.

The year’s biggest news in Internet governance was the IANA transition, which shifted ‘stewardship’ of the domain name system from the US government to ‘the internet community’. Internet insiders hailed this as a triumph for multistakeholder principles and processes, relieved at its conclusion shortly before the election of a Republican administration in the United States that might otherwise have sought reversal. It’s a complicated settlement, though, and time will tell how it will work in practice.

Whether the IANA transition brings closure to the prolonged pursuit of enhanced cooperationWSIS code for greater government involvement in the Internet – is also questionable. The latest attempt to square that circle will get properly underway in January. If any area of Internet governance needs fresh thinking, it’s this decade-long cul-de-sac.

The Internet is changing fast. Rhetoric at the IGF remains mostly upbeat but, below the surface, more questions are being asked about the direction Internet governance is taking. Principles and processes that were developed for an Internet of geeks won’t necessarily meet people’s needs now that we have an Internet of corporations. The interface between the Internet and public policy’s increasingly complex – in areas like jurisdiction, for example, and cybersecurity. Complexity, diversity and pragmatism are likely to be hallmarks of the future.

The changing Information Society

The pace of change is at the heart of this and other challenges inside the Information Society. Technology is evolving far more quickly than the capacity of human institutions to deal with it. There’s a growing risk that our societies will be determined by technology not because we choose that that should happen but because we don’t have the institutions that can manage it. This lies behind many of what the IGF would call ‘emerging issues’ in 2016: themes that this blog will cover during the coming year. I’ll pick out three of these for now.

Digital by default or by design?

First, the growing trend towards a world that’s digital by default rather than digital by design.

More and more of what we do is automatically recorded and analysed by online service providers, making it more and more difficult for individuals to control their data and changing the norms of privacy. Internet of Things (IoT) devices will enormously expand our personal data footprints, exacerbating this. Automation, algorithmic decision-making and artificial intelligence will transform many aspects of our lives and of the societies in which we live.

These don’t raise issues just for our relationships with technology; they raise issues too for the security of our societies and economies. Many IoT devices, we already know, are highly insecure. We’ve already seen the first distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks, undermining the viability of the Internet, that exploit their vulnerabilities.

The more dependent we become on digital devices, services and new technologies, the more at risk we’ll be from those that want to do us harm and (also problematic) those that want to do us good. Norms and standards which are set (or not set) now will have enormous impacts on our futures long from now (as those agreed by Internet pioneers in the 1970s and 1980s still have today).

The commercial Internet

Second, and connected, the growing domination of the Internet by a small number of powerful corporations, mostly based in the United States and China but with global reach. Their interests range widely, from online services to data management, and deeply into future innovations, from driverless vehicles to artificial intelligence.

The Internet community has fiercely resisted anything it sees as government interference in the way that it develops new technologies and services and decides how they should interface with users. Its autonomy from oversight is far greater than that of other crucial business sectors (the oil and finance industries, pharmaceuticals and agribusiness, for example). Levels of market dominance are also, often, higher than those which lead to regulation of communications infrastructure.

There were calls in the margins of this year’s IGF for less Internet exceptionalism and more regulation to ensure that online businesses meet human rights and competition norms. They’re likely to become more widespread.

The Internet and politics

Third, 2016 saw an upsurge in concern about the relationship between the Internet and political discourse. Online services that were hailed during the ‘Arab Spring’ as agents of liberal enlightenment have proved just as effective in facilitating other kinds of politics.

  • There’s been an upsurge of hate speech, a resurgence in racism and misogyny, a rise in harassment and threats online in many countries.
  • So-called ‘fake news’ – misinformation, propaganda, call it as you will – is believed to have played a significant part in determining the outcomes of democratic processes.
  • Authoritarian regimes have become adept at manipulating online content, alongside other challenges to civil and political rights online.

There is a growing sense among political and Internet commentators alike that the way content is accessed on the Internet has driven many into echo-chambers that are polarising public opinion.

It’s too early yet to say how this will go (just as it was too early during the ‘Arab Spring’). But it’s leading to some rethinking about the nature of online expression and the role of intermediaries whose policies and algorithms influence the content people see.

These are just three of the powerful, fast-moving trends that are occurring inside the Information Society as we end 2016. There are powerful tensions between them and other currents in global, national and local lives. The more important the Information Society becomes, the more powerful those tensions will become. There’ll be plenty to write about next year.

‘Inside the Information Society’ will take a winter break for the next three weeks. It will be back on 9 January with its first look at the Information Society in 2017.

David Souter is a longstanding associate of APC, and has worked for more than twenty years on the relationship between ICTs and public policy, particularly development, environment, governance (including Internet governance) and rights. David writes a weekly blog for APC, looking at different aspects of the Information Society, development and rights. David’s blog takes a fresh look at many of the issues that concern APC and its members, with the aim of provoking discussion and debate. It comments on current topics and international meetings, draws attention to new reports and publications, critiques assumptions and suggests alternative perspectives. The views are his own, not APC’s. We hope that they will stimulate discussion, and that others will contribute their ideas in complementary blogs in future. More about David Souter. Follow him on Twitter .