Internet governance with and for the citizens

28 Nov 2019 16:10h - 17:10h

Event report

[Read more session reports and updates from the 14th Internet Governance Forum]

‘We wish all children at school learn about Internet hardware, software, and processes so that one can become a responsible Internet user’ was the message to the IGF from participants of the Citizens of the Internet project.

The open forum highlighted the work and findings of a multi-year project, The Global Citizens’ Debate on the Future of the Internet, undertaken by Missions Publiqués. The project involved discussions with citizens (non-digital policy practitioners) across the globe, with the aim of raising awareness of Internet governance issues among users who did not have any prior knowledge of issues. As Internet users, however, they have a stake in the current and future development of the Internet, hence the need for dialogue.

The process, which included 12 preliminary discussions, followed by research on identified topics, and a number of workshops organised in five countries, welcomed participants aged 17 to 82, with diverse gender, regional, and professional backgrounds. The issues discussed included misinformation, digital identities, and the governance of the Internet. As part of the process, the project included peer-reviewed briefing materials (available on the IGF Secretariat’s website); described as useful background documents, the materials describe not only each topic and its related challenges, but also the various options and solutions, with pros and cons for each.

Participants shared many thoughts about Internet issues. Some expressed disillusionment in institutions; others called for more advocacy for a more connected world; others expressed their hope in future community-driven solutions. Interestingly, responses varied according to the time of the day in which respondents participated in the discussions. Early responses tended to be more negative than responses provided at a later time, which generally perceived the Internet to carry more opportunities and benefits.

Zooming in to specific issues, the spread of disinformation was generally viewed as problematic, to different extents; they also considered their immediate surroundings to be safe, but the rest of the world at higher risk. Among the solutions identified by respondents (in order of priority) were education, the use of fact-checking tools, and self-regulation.

Reacting to the findings of the project, Ms Nnenna Nwakanma (World Wide Web Foundation) suggested that in order to benefit from the Internet, users needed to balance their own rights and responsibilities, and reflect on their own behaviour in cyberspace. For instance, users often contribute to the spread of disinformation (knowingly or unknowingly). She also mentioned that the World Wide Web was originally built so that everyone could be a creator and so that everyone could benefit. For this to happen, a safe space for public discourse is needed.

Speakers also pointed out that fact-checking tools – one of the solutions most favoured by respondents – is a difficult measure to implement, considering the issues one encounters when attempting to locate and verify trusted sources. These issues extend the realm of education into capacities of applied critical thinking, an extremely valuable – yet rare – skill, which is necessary to implement effectively the proposed solutions.

Related to digital identities, participants highlighted the need to balance traceability (digital identities are directly linked to individuals), with usability (the practical aspect of digital identities). In a reaction, the session’s participants raised concerns about today’s privacy and identity landscape, which involves issues that barely existed in the past, such as today’s common practice of using personal data without consent, and the subsequent difficulty for a user to track, identify, and request the removal/deletion of such data from companies’ servers.

Related to Internet governance, Mr Max Senges (Google) said that the multistakeholder governance model, in which stakeholders have different roles to play, has evolved over the years. He referred to the common misconception that the Internet is governed by, or through, the IGF. The IGF’s role is to provide a platform for exchanging, deliberating, and proposing solutions, which stakeholders can then take back to their constituencies.

Reflecting on accessibility, Mr Vint Cerf (Internet Pioneer, Google) proposed an Internet license for users. Using the analogy to a driver’s license, he said such a licence would ensure that users gained basic digital competencies in order to be able to navigate the Internet safely.

The session closed with an open invitation to join the research project, and to expand the network of citizen participation globally, in order to create a stronger engagement of people around the world, with tools and policies that are crucial to their daily lives.

By Darija Medić