IGF 2020 Switzerland Unearths ‘Diseases’ Of Digitalisation As Poland Sets To Host IGF 2021


The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that more needs to be done to eliminate digital inequalities around the world. Ensuring universal access to Internet infrastructures should be a priority. Community networks – developed and owned by local communities – are one solution to bring affordable connectivity in remote areas. Funds, capacity building, and more flexible spectrum allocation policies are needed to help community networks become more sustainable. Low Earth orbit satellites also promise to help connect the unconnected; while large private companies are investing in such options, challenges remain around issues of costs and coverage, writes the GENEVA INTERNET PLATFORM.

Building Internet Exchange Points (IXPs) is key in supporting Internet development and growth. Developing countries need guidance, training, and technical assistance to deploy IXPs.

Because access to the Internet is essential during natural disasters and other emergency situations, resources need to be allocated to preparedness and response measures that ensure the availability of Internet infrastructures in such crises.

Critical Internet resources

Internet service providers (ISPs) have an important role in facilitating digital inclusion, and incentives are needed to encourage them to deploy Internet Protocol version 6 (IPv6); relying on IPv4 will ultimately mean higher network costs and result in higher prices for end-users. Governments, for instance, could introduce IPv6 requirements in their procurement processes. The consumer electronics market also needs to be more active in switching to IPv6.

The stability and security of the Domain Name System (DNS) remains a priority for stakeholders. Addressing DNS abuse in an efficient and effective manner requires capacity building for and co-operation between registries, registrars, and law enforcement. Debates continue on the DNS over HTTPS (DoH) protocol: while its proponents see it as an ideal solution to improve the integrity and confidentiality of DNS queries, others raise questions on its economic and political implications.

When Internet-related regulations and policies are developed, it is essential to ensure that they take into account the ‘Internet Way of Networking’ and do not have negative consequences on the core architecture of the Internet. Considering the critical properties of the Internet is key to avoiding unintended consequences and ensuring that the Internet can foster innovation and sustainable development. The Internet Society, for instance, has developed an Internet Impact Assessment Toolkit to help policymakers, the tech community, and Internet users analyse how policies could impact the Internet architecture.

Trustworthy AI for sustainable development

Artificial intelligence (AI) can help drive sustainable development. But adequate governance frameworks and international cross-sectoral co-operation are needed to ensure the development and use of AI is safe, secure, trustworthy, and in line with human rights and ethical principles. More clarity is needed around issues of accountability and liability for AI systems: for instance, is the developer or the deployer responsible if an AI system causes damage or harm? At the same time, regulations have to be flexible and responsive to continuous technological progress. Last, but not least, international organisations and developed countries have a duty to assist developing nations in building the necessary institutional and regulatory capacities to enable them to take advantages of the opportunities offered by AI while addressing the associated risks.

Emerging Technologies


Responsible state behaviour in cyberspace

Geopolitical tensions amplify security concerns. Confrontations are emerging over technical standards such as 5G, AI, and Internet protocols among familiar geopolitical lines. States turn to various forms of sovereignty, strategic autonomy, and securitisation of cyberspace. Cyber-incidents have skyrocketed during COVID-19 pandemic, such as DNS abuse. Hospitals have become targets for cyber-attacks, while the dependence of schools, work, and other sectors on the Internet has, at the same time, changed the notion of critical infrastructure. Vulnerabilities in software, services, and devices continue to increase (particularly due to the proliferation of the Internet of Things (IoT)) and are being exploited by states.

On a positive side, the two UN processes on responsible behaviour in cyberspace – the Group of Government Experts (GGE) and the Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG) – has increased states’ attention and involvement, and brought up constructive proposals. However, more is needed to enable the contributions of the private sector and civil society, in particular in the protection of critical infrastructure and digital rights, respectively. UN roundtable discussions on digital trust and security will play an important role, as well as regional discussions (such as in the Organization of American States (OAS), the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), or the Malabo Convention in Africa) and bilateral or multilateral partnerships (i.e. ‘bubbles of trust’ among states).

Norms are more likely to be implemented if they are technologically viable, concrete, and specific, while being framed in context, propagated by leaders with the engagement of stakeholders, and grounded in evidence-led human-centric assessment of their impact on society. Yet, existing norms are not understood in the same way around the world and between states and stakeholders. It was agreed that the IGF could play a crucial role in fostering a common understanding. In absence of broad adherence to norms, some states turn to deterrence, in the forms of threat of punishment (through naming and sanctions, but also through offensive cyber and non-cyber means) or denial of potential gains (through resilient systems and defence). Respecting norms and proper attribution, however, are necessary for credibility of the punishment. Attribution should take into account technical facts, broader geopolitical context, and intelligence data, as well as legal aspects related to responsibility and possible political effects and consequences. Low-confidence attribution risks escalating tensions, especially in war-torn regions. A collaboration among experts in the academic, technical, and private sectors in developing common transparent methodologies and principles for attribution may be a useful step.

Cyberconflict and warfare

Securing digital products and services

A crucial element in enhancing cyber-stability is increasing the security of digital products and services. Companies can reduce vulnerabilities by embracing security in their design practices (good practices are provided by the Geneva Dialogue on Responsible Behaviour in Cyberspace). This includes implementing end-to-end encryption and international standards, as well as embedding children’s rights at the very heart of design (particularly by the gaming industry). Yet, companies – particularly start-ups, and those in developing countries – often lack resources to focus on security. The global economy heavily relies on an increasingly interconnected supply chain, which is being stressed by national security concerns and increasingly subject to cyber-attacks. Regulators should set guidelines and certification schemes (particularly for the IoT), while users should critically assess the security of the services and infrastructure they rely on.

Capacity building remains essential for cybersecurity. On one hand, diplomats – particularly in developing countries – should be supported in better understanding technologies and their associated challenges; the work of the Global Forum on Cyber Expertise (GFCE), DiploFoundation, Kaspersky, and the Policy and Regulation Initiative for Africa (PRIDA) are some notable examples. On the other, the tech sector and companies should be supported in better understanding diplomacy. Policymakers should strengthen capacities to develop effective and user-centric regulatory frameworks, while the civil sector has to develop capacities to defend itself from cyber-attacks.

Advancing child safety online

Children are increasingly exposed to harmful content, an Interpol report reveals. This includes, among others, disinformation, misinformation, scamming, and profiling. Gaming, while often allowing kids to communicate, learn, and relax, also exposes them to the harvesting of personal data, inappropriate content, and cyber-bullying. Taking and sharing sexual images online has become more common among youth today: Such content is nearly impossible to take down and might be exploited by their peers and adults.

Kids are advised to resist the urge to answer bullies, or alternatively, to block them while seeking help from those they can trust (e.g. parents, peers, caregivers, or teachers). Though parents had become more observant of their children’s online practices during the pandemic, most parents and teachers are not digitally literate enough to understand risks. Community-based media literacy programmes are needed for parents and teachers, as well as the media, game designers, and policymakers. Children, being tech-savvy, may also be involved as educators and teach digital skills across generations at home. Digital skills and literacy – particularly source checking and critical thinking – should also be part of the school curricula for kids. Nevertheless, vulnerability is an important part of discovering one’s self, and just as it is allowed in physical spaces, it should be allowed online, but with guidance.

Governments should allocate funds to equip law enforcement and to provide help lines for kids. Due to increased use of encryption by abusers, it is important for industry to work with law enforcement to detect child abusers. Importantly, research shows that children trust governments more than companies and that they want to be engaged in decision-making processes and have their voices heard.


Regulatory trends and challenges

Regulatory and legal issues, as well as the need for interoperability between jurisdictions, were present in all four tracks of IGF 2020.

The notion of ‘digital sovereignty’ and ‘data sovereignty’ is an emerging trend in national regulatory approaches. Using the EU as an example, regulatory power is used to create a digital self-determined space, or regulatory reach, challenging the principle of traditional sovereignty based on geographical division. Whether it will lead to the improved protection of user rights or to the fragmentation of digital space remains to be seen.

In recent years there has been an increase in rules and regulations related to the Internet. Some countries, especially in the Global North, take a proactive approach in the regulation of content and conduct online. Other countries – such as North African and Latin American countries – follow by replicating and adjusting regulations to suit their local legal environment. This leads to regulatory fragmentation and cross-border challenges. On the other hand, if countries do not adapt rules to their local regulatory environment and instead retain harmonised regulations on the international level, this may lead to challenges to rights of users, especially human rights. The EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the Copyright Directive were used to illustrate this trend. Questions of how the differences in data protection regulations impact users, the responsibilities of private companies in data protection, and the effective enforcement of existing regulations were highlighted as the main concerns.

In regard to access and inclusion, the debate has focused on the cross-border application of regulations related to online content and conduct, as well as on the effects of shaping of global norms on digital inclusion and access to information. In addition to traditional cross-border challenges, private companies must also balance global and national regulations by applying international standards as a baseline while adhering to a wide range of local regulations.

In discussions on emerging technologies, the trust and confidence needed to fully engage AI and the IoT was directly linked to the regulatory environment, as it is necessary to set clear lines for transparency and accountability. Additionally, such regulation should provide sufficient flexibility to allow for the efficient development of new technologies.

Overall, regulation is viewed as a safeguard for a reliable digital environment. That being said, some of the main challenges lie in the interoperability of regulations between different jurisdictions, in the enforcement of existing regulations, and in adopting regulations that allow for technological innovation, while protecting those that are vulnerable to such developments.


Inclusive digital economies

The impact of the pandemic was top of mind when it came to economic discussions at the IGF, and in particular the sudden rise in Internet consumption and use of digital tools, and the overall shift to working in an online environment. The digital economy has faced challenges many could not predict at the start of the year as many aspects of the economy went online.

Job loss, increased poverty, reduced agricultural production, and the weakening of the private sector were direct effects of the pandemic and the associated lockdowns. These effects were felt most acutely among small island developing states and least developed countries, which face the challenges of limited and unaffordable Internet.

Issues regarding platform economies and work from home were in focus in discussions around building inclusive digital economies. Work from home will stay in focus for some time with a considerable challenge: How to achieve social cohesion in a remote environment? Alarming statistics illustrating the growth of the digital gender divide bring attention to the fact that more focus should be put on the inclusion of women in digital economies. Society bears the responsibility to build a sustainable system to prevent the widening of digital divide.

Digital technologies have played an important role in the global efforts to fight the coronavirus. At the same time, the COVID-19 pandemic could also be seen as an accelerator of digitalisation across economies and societies – a trend that should continue beyond the global crisis.

Free data flows

Apart from the consequences imposed by the pandemic, the free flow of data remains high on the agenda. Economies that depend on the export of digital services have faced sharp economic downfalls as a result of data localisation measures. In many cases, governing cross-border data flow is an important instrument with which to fulfill the sustainable development goals(SDGs).

Of particular relevance to cross-border data flows is the variation in data privacy regulatory regimes. Data can no longer be considered as a traditional good. Initiatives for regulatory harmonisation (e.g. the ASEAN Privacy Framework) are important steps forward. Trust is recognised as a key to a vibrant digital economy, and effective data protection laws are vital building blocks. New Internet stakeholder models should take into account platform accountability and interoperability. Furthermore, e-commerce regulations enhancing consumer trust can lead to new business models for inclusive development.


While human rights issues link most IGF sessions as an underlying theme, they were synthesised in a session on the digital Integrity of the human purpose, in which it was proposed to add ‘digital integrity’ alongside physical and mental integrity in fundamental EU human rights charters, while at the same time reducing the role that digital technology plays in undermining human rights. There are timely topics for urgent concern, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic continues: data protection and privacy and inclusive Internet governance (IG) policies.

Data protection, privacy, and rights

As data is at the core of COVID-19 analysis and tracking apps, concerns remain over data protection and privacy. Discussants asked whether there is justifiable trust that COVID data algorithms will balance citizens’ right to privacy and protecting public health, while ensuring a return to pre-pandemic privacy rights and protections.

Looking at the use of data for good, it is important to support health organisations and processes in this field, and provide proper training to ensure optimal use of data and adequate protections.

Efforts to address the COVID-19 infodemic require a careful consideration of how to best counter its effects while also respecting freedom of expression. Co-operation between Internet platforms, civil society organisations, and public institutions is key in this regard.

Freedom of the press – including in the digital space – seems to be increasingly under threat in many parts of the world, as journalists need to protect themselves from various digital threats and human rights abuses on and beyond the Internet. Actions that could help address these challenges include stronger enforcement of legal frameworks that uphold journalists’ rights and encouraging the use of end-to-end encryption to protect journalists’ privacy.

Not often on the digital policy agenda, human trafficking – affecting especially women – deserves more attention. While the use of digital technologies increases the complexity of this crime, they can also be used to prevent and combat it. Among the suggested measures are increased collaboration between ISPs, Internet platforms, and law enforcement, the creation and expansion of online networks of victims, and the use of technology to provide support for survivors of trafficking.

Inclusive technologies and IG policies

If digital technologies are to indeed benefit everyone, they also have to consider the needs of persons with disabilities. More efforts need to be put – by all stakeholders – in embedding accessibility by design in the development of technologies, and ensuring that applications and content are fully accessible. At the same time, including persons with disabilities in the design phase of such technologies and policies is essential.

Strengthened multistakeholder co-operation is needed to protect gender rights online, for instance by creating safer online spaces and addressing gender-based violence. Integrating the perspectives of women and gender-diverse people into policy-making processes will help ensure that their rights and interests are properly considered.


IGF 2020, being the first IGF held in the Decade of Action, dedicated significant attention to the question: How can digital technologies help achieve the SDGs? With inclusion and environment representing two thematic tracks of the IGF, development issues were highest on the IGF agenda.

Internet access

The ongoing pandemic has put the issue of Internet access in focus, and many IGF sessions touched upon it. An Internet connection became a necessity and not a luxury, as it has become almost impossible to learn, work, and communicate without it. The pandemic and the resulting lockdowns is compounding the effects of digital inequality for those who are unable to digitally substitute essential activities.

The promise of SDG 9.c to provide universal and affordable access in least developed countries by 2020 will not materialise in time. There are 3.8 billion people worldwide who are yet to get online. The digital divide therefore needs to be closed, and in a meaningful way. Users who can access only parts of the Internet (for instance, via zero-rating services that enable access to social media and a few other limited online resources) cannot be counted as participants in the global network. To meaningfully connect the unconnected population, the international community should accomplish the four Is: infrastructure, investment, innovation, and inclusion.

To connect the unconnected, infrastructure is a necessity. However, in many cases, access does not actually depend on coverage as there are 3.4 billion users who live in a covered area and are not using the Internet. Rather, other obstacles appear: There is no relevant content or content in the local language, people cannot afford access to the Internet, they lack digital devices, or they do not have digital skills.

Digital capacity development

The digital divide, and particularly the digital gender divide, can be reduced through the development of digital skills. Developing knowledge among users and increasing digital literacy will make the Internet a safer and more resilient space, and will ensure they do not miss out on educational and job opportunities. Likewise, many people have been unprepared by the shift to working digitally and hence employers need to make more effort to upskill their employees.

Youth at IGF 2020

The IGF has always been a good entry point for those new to the IG space, and this year once again set the stage for youth and experts to connect. Young participants benefited from sessions on growing and strengthening the Internet and digital sustainability, a dedicated Youth Summit, and a series of Flash talks throughout Phase II of the IGF that tackled the relationship between the Internet and the environment, cybersecurity, data, IG networking opportunities, and youth engagement at IGF 2021 in Poland. The Internet Society ran a capacity development programme for IGF Youth Ambassadors.

E-waste and the environment

This year’s IGF also marked an important nexus of IG and environmental sustainability with its environment track. Digital technologies can help address climate change as they can reduce 1.34 gigatonnes of CO2 emissions by 2030. However, the rebound effects still outweigh any eco-efficiency gains that may have been achieved by the use of information and communication technologies (ICTs), and concerns around energy consumption, material inefficiency of ICTs, and e-waste persist. Greenhouse gas emissions from the information technology industry are predicted to reach 14 per cent of all global emissions by 2040. Users’ awareness of the carbon footprint of their digital actions must be raised. For example, users are mostly not aware that one Google search calls 0.2 grams of CO2 emissions, meaning that Google emits 500kg of CO2 emissions every second due to user searches.

That being said, it was noted that different emissions quantification methodologies make it challenging to measure emissions between companies and industries.

As technology evolves, old equipment also contributes to environmental issues. Devices with limited lifespans are continuously manufactured, and they quickly became obsolete due to the lack of support for repairs, technical services, and discontinuation. Essentially, they are ‘killed by design’. Additionally, the lifespans of such devices are becoming shorter; for instance, the useful life of a computer has been reduced from 11 years to 4 years in the period between 1985 and 2015. This is why a move to a circular ICT economy is needed, with devices recycled, repaired, refurbished, and reused.

To make progress on environmental issues, more data is needed to monitor the state of environmental degradation. Collective data governance could be fostered through the IGF, it was noted, and the IGF was recognised as an appropriate forum for stakeholders to meet and create an environment data governance framework.


Content policy

With the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic present among all discussions, the debate on content policy gained new urgency and prominence. At the same, it is important to remember that misinformation also impacts functions such as elections as well as conflict situations. A careful balance between countering misinformation and ensuring freedom of expression needs to be maintained. The ability to trust in the information provided by governments and scientists became a key point in the discussions this year. Mistrust might lead to greater inaction regarding critical issues such as climate change, for example.

The discussions made clear that the automation of content moderation has made progress and is showing some good results. Yet, not everything can or should be automated when it comes to content moderation. Machine learning systems are proficient at detecting nudity and graphic violence. However, when it comes to hate speech, bullying, and harassment, content moderation relies heavily on human moderators as context plays a vital role. One set of rules does not fit all, which means that content moderators should demonstrate excellent cultural sensitivity and awareness. Ideally, content moderators are embedded within the different communities on these platforms, which allows them to better distinguish between hate speech and legitimate speech.

As able as machine learning systems are at detecting certain types of content, the algorithms used for content moderation need oversight and governance; suggestions made by panellists include: (a) Proper transparency mechanisms including transparency regarding the role and functioning of automated systems used for content moderation; (b) effective appeals processes (i.e. due process); and (c) external independent oversight of final platform decisions.

Lastly, content policy is also about users, and in particular their education and media literacy. For example, UNESCO partnered with the EU to carry out a social media campaign, #thinkbeforesharing, to fight against fake news and conspiracy theories.

Overall, multistakeholder approaches are key in improving content moderation. Governmental interventions are important in terms of regulation. At the same time, social media platforms should be open to discussing their policies and working together with civil society organisations.

Online education

Of great concern is that the COVID-19 pandemic has not only highlighted existing inequalities within and between countries but has exacerbated them, particularly when it comes to education. Lack of Internet access and devices and high costs related Internet access are the fundamental barriers to online education. All over the world, students in remote areas face connectivity challenges. In Latin America, less than 50 per cent of households have a computer. In the same region, less than 50 per cent of households have Internet access, compared to 80 per cent in Europe. These limitations are not restricted to developing countries; in the United States, one of the richest countries in the world, one in ten children has little or no access to technology.

The ongoing crisis has shown that universities and teaching institutions need to invest in their infrastructure. Online learning success also depends on the quality of available material and the preparedness of instructors and teachers. To this end, increased investment in training and capacity building are needed when it comes to educational personnel. Furthermore, the environment in which learners access online education, such as their home where they may or may not receive support from their parents, needs to be taken into account. Overall, a careful mediation of the interests and needs of various stakeholders needs to be undertaken. Children and parents are important stakeholders in this conversation and children’s rights should be at the forefront or all considerations in this space.

Multilingualism and cultural diversity

The Internet offers a huge opportunity for democratising content creation and encouraging non-dominant languages and voices. Given the right projects and incentive programmes, local content creators play a vital role. Similarly, the digital approaches by libraries, newspapers, and TV can make a huge difference for local content and cultural diversity. Yet, many languages are not well represented online and efforts such as building datasets in African languages for inclusion need to be amplified. Similarly, support for local languages, domain scripts, and e-mail names and addresses needs to be increased with the consideration that this is not only a technical issue but also a question of social and economic benefits. Focusing on multilingualism and cultural diversity on the Internet also serves as an opportunity to improve participation of local communities and to reach out to underserved regions. * *Adapted from THEMATIC SUMMARY, a part of The IGF 2020 Final Report prepared by the Geneva Internet Platform (GIP) and DiploFoundation, with the support of the Internet Society.

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