Opening high-level session

9 Nov 2020 15:00h - 16:30h

Event report

In the opening session of IGF 2020, the impact of COVID-19 on digitalisation and the digital divide was highlighted by speakers and panellists respectively. Mr Zhenmin Liu (Under-Secretary-General, the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs), Mr Volkan Bozkir (President, 75th Session of the UN General Assembly), and H.E. Amb. Munir Akram (President, UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC)) gave welcome speeches, underscoring the importance of multistakeholder platforms, such as the IGF, to convene all stakeholders (virtually this year) to address distressing digital divide worldwide. Akram added that the IGF continues to evolve as a space for developing countries to be heard and involved in critical discussion on Internet governance.

The COVID-19 has accelerated digital transformation in many parts of the world. During the uncertain and challenging times, the world turned to virtual mediums to continue our daily businesses. Ms Doris Leuthard (former President of Switzerland; Chair, Swiss Digital Initiative ‎Foundation) said many small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) seized this opportunity to go digital and use e-commerce platforms. Mr Thomas Jarzombek (Commissioner for the Digital Industry and Start-ups of Germany) also pointed out the opportunities brought by the interplay of the pandemic and digital transformation. He said he sees that Europe has many potentials for further digitalisation by fostering a start-up ecosystem and investment in artificial intelligence (AI), blockchain, and quantum technology.

Aside from the progress made in digital transformation of our society, the digital divide has become starkly evident. The panellists recognised it as a necessary hurdle to overcome in order to achieve the sustainable development goals (SDGs). In the world with mobility restrictions in place due to COVID-19, we have learnt that it is almost impossible to learn, work, and communicate without access to the Internet. H.E. Mr Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum (Minister for Economy, Civil Service and Communications, Fiji) said that small and developing island countries like Fiji have been struggling to provide connectivity to its citizens because of the cost of services. However, his country also saw the pandemic as an opportunity to roll out government services by using the digital platform. Like Fiji, many governments around the world have turned to online platforms to provide services to citizens in light of the pandemic. While such efforts play a significant role in better serving citizens remotely, it would also widen inequity domestically if there was no concurrent effort to connect all citizens to the Internet. Mon. Paul Tighe (President of the Centre for Digital Culture, Holy See) emphasised that the domestic digital divide has particularly affected access to education of school-age children. The overall remote learning experience is determined by whether a child has stable connectivity and access to digital devices.

So what can the international community do to close the digital divide? Mr Houlin Zhao (Secretary-General, International Telecommunication Union (ITU)) presented ‘four-Is’ that are necessary to meaningfully connect the unconnected population: infrastructure, investment, innovation, and inclusion. On the other hand, Mr Jeffrey Sachs (Director, Center for Sustainable Development, Columbia University) argued that connectivity is much less about infrastructure than affordability. People are simply unable to afford the fees even if infrastructure is already in place. As a potential solution to the affordability issue, Ms Chat Garcia Ramilo (Executive Director, Association for Progressive Communications) introduced the complementary model of connectivity, in which the government provides subsidies and other incentives to the telecommunications sector to provide connectivity to residents.

The session also discussed the role of the private sector in bridging the digital divide. Sachs appealed that it is inexcusable to allow the lack of 1 billion dollar funding to be the reason why the world has yet to bring universal connectivity to Africa, when 78 tech billionaires own 1.9 trillion US dollars of wealth. He elaborated that government regulations could make tech billionaires finance connectivity projects, considering that technology is a public good. Garcia Ramilo added to Sachs’s point by explaining the power inequality between the tech sector and ordinary citizens, in which tech companies are able to shape the public discourse by moderating content on their respective platforms while profiting from selling user data.

Providing perspectives of a technology company, Ms Victoria Grand (Vice President of Policy and Communications, WhatsApp) raised her concern about proposals made by governments across the world, including the UK, USA, Brazil, Australia, India, to roll back privacy-preserving technology, such as end-to-end encryption. She emphasised that values that are prominent in the traditional approach to Internet governance, such as freedom of speech, privacy, and freedom of expression, are at the heart of WhatsApp.