The matters pertaining to the Internet and its ‘governance’ are broad and varied, and include aspects such as human rights, cybersecurity, infrastructure and connectivity, and skills learning, among others.
Human rights and cybersecurity
In the area of human rights, aspects of online freedom and the privacy of data are of paramount importance, and very relevant to policymakers and decision-making bodies, both public and private. There is growing concern as to what is the boundary between the compilation and management of personal data for protection and security purposes, data oriented to enhance policy development to achieve the sustainable development goals (SDGs) vis-à-vis, data used for surveillance or to promote hatred speech, discrimination, and/or gender bias.
Currently, there is a proliferation of code and we need to ask ourselves who is managing the data, where, and for what purposes. Both industries and governments have expressed their interest in developing standards, including those for the use of artificial intelligence (AI), supporting the use of AI and the Internet of things (IoT) for good, keeping in mind the threat of misuse, notably to influence debates, opinions, and preferences.
In the case of cybersecurity, the debate ranges from the applicability of international law, including international humanitarian law, to the cyber domain, and how cyberspace can become an enabler for economic progress, and not a platform to exacerbate conflict or support cyberterrorism. Of course, the concept of attribution continues to be an integral part of the discussion, especially as it relates to non-state actors.
The discussion around Internet governance must be linked to other processes already taking place within and outside the United Nations, for example, the UN Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) and the Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG) on information and communications technologies (ICTs), the standards and guidelines of the European Commission and the European Council, the guidelines of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), etc.
The digital divide
Another element to be considered is the role of infrastructure. On the one hand, with 30 billion devices connected today, and an estimation of 500 billion devices in the next few years, according to Cisco, the Internet of forgotten things (devices not updated and becoming obsolete) will have a huge economic and environmental impact. On the other hand, there is a growing need to connect the one billion people who do not have access to the Internet, and this is a matter of infrastructure, connectivity, and closing the digital divide. The latter will derive more barriers for the developing world in gaining access to the economic and social benefits of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the digital economy.
On the latter, the International Labour Organization (ILO) has developed extensive reference materials on the aspects of skills learning, automatisation, and the jobs of the future. It is clear that unless developing economies prepare their workforce for the transition to a more digital world, inequalities, poverty, and conflict will exacerbate.
In other words, only through collaborative efforts and international co-operation will humanity be able to address the challenges and risks presented by digital development and the governance sphere. No country can tackle cyber-threats or socio-economic and environmental challenges on their own. In this context, diplomats play a key role in assessing the digital needs in their own countries, where citizens are often disconnected from the tech community. Critical infrastructure must be put in place in each country to be able to identify the gaps, and to measure and monitor the progress against digital policy development. In these circumstances, promoting meaningful regional co-ordination and collaboration, and accelerating international co-operation will be essential.
The Internet Governance Forum (IGF)
I personally see a great opportunity for the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) to become a stronger catalyst for digital co-operation and a global platform for mainstreaming good practices and innovative policy solutions. The idea of the High-level Panel on Digital Cooperation (HLPDC) of establishing a global observatory desk that will act as a clearing house for best practices and relevant information seems sensible and appropriate.
At this current juncture, all countries see the promises of a digital future, taking advantage of open-source instruments that are useful for the sharing of good practices and toolkits, and for enabling greater interaction between users.
The HLPDC’s recommendation on trust and security (which is already included in the UN Charter, the Geneva Protocols, and other documents) offered a good insight into the future of the Internet, both from the policy and the operational perspectives. A multi-stakeholder approach that facilitates the engagement and participation of all groups, including the civil society, women, and youth, will guarantee inclusiveness and address transformational development.
The call for a new social contract between the state and the private sector is worth reflecting upon. The opportunity for prosperous and peaceful societies to flourish will depend on the capability and political will of all stakeholders and actors to commit to a shared vision of positive systemic change and social justice. Of course, we will all have to compromise, to lose some and to win some, but in the end, a stronger, inclusive, and more resilient society will emerge.
This article reflects the personal views of the author.
Ms Maricela Muñoz is Minister Counsellor at the Permanent Mission of Costa Rica to the United Nations in Geneva and is a member of the IGF/Multistakeholder Advisory Group. She has more than 20 years of experience in multilateral diplomacy, working with governments, international organisations, the private sector, and civil society organisations, particularly in the areas of climate change, disarmament and non-proliferation, and the advancement of more peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development.
Dear Ms Muñoz,
Thanks for a very interesting and well thought out blog posting. I agree with most of your pertinent comments and suggestions. However, I want to point out one "blind" spot in your disaggregated analysis, suggested in your statement on " A multi-stakeholder approach that facilitates the engagement and participation of all groups, including the civil society, women, and youth,"
I agree. However this inclusion needs to include another potentially vulnerable group, that is the older persons present in our societies due to the longer life span of contemporary life in many countries of the world. Older persons have their distinctive needs, constraints and vulnerabilities, even in life online.
Older persons as a distinctive stakeholder group have already been recognised in the context of HLPF as a community belonging to the other Stakeholder Groups category. Such recognition needs to be mainstreamed into our discourse and thinking.
In the domain of the internet, older persons have different levels of digital proficiency, sophistication and access to online communications. To avoid leaving any older person behind, it is critical that governments ensure that minimum digital literacy is a universal right. Without such literacy, older persons, for example, will be left out from social security payment during COVID-19 time since online transfer is the only channel for distributing such payment. It will be the same for health information on COVID and other life-threatening disease or e-medical services.
Not all people, including older persons, have access to the internet or mobile service in all countries of the world. Lack of access will also prohibit older persons from benefiting from the increasingly digitalised services, even when older persons have the necessary literacy level. Therefore, making public or affordable access would be another crucial item on the public policy agenda to achieve inclusive internet.
Both conditions, digital literacy and guaranteed access, will empower many of the "younger" older persons who are still healthy and are motivated to stay actively engaged in societies and labour market and to contribute. With a larger portion of the population older than 60's, supporting this class of human capital to remain productive could be an important policy agenda for the coming decade.