Authors: Tebogo Kopane (South Africa), Kevin Lopez-Vito (UK/Philippines), Brian Nkala (South Africa), Bipana Dhakal ( Nepal)
Reviewers: Tebogo Kopane (South Africa), Kevin Lopez-Vito (UK/Philippines), Brian Nkala (South Africa), Bipana Dhakal ( Nepal)
Together with the advancement of technology and rising level of access to connectivity, the internet has proven to be a key tool for bringing solutions to sustainable development goals. Furthermore, the recent COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a significant increase in our daily use of the internet and cemented the integral role online platforms and the internet play in our core functions as a society. Multiple lockdowns brought about by the pandemic pushed people to rely on the internet as the primary source of communication. This rapid change in how we communicate and connect with people in our workplaces and social calls became the only way in reaching out to our colleagues, friends and family. In some unfortunate cases, it became the only way to say farewell to loved ones who were quarantined in a hospital. As the internet pivoted from an emerging platform to a primary tool to function during the pandemic, it also became a path towards having equal opportunities to work, learn, connect with the government, and exercise our political rights. Due to all the reasons mentioned above, we have compelling grounds to not only consider but recognize a right to internet access.
This blog features YouthxPolicyMakers ambassadors within the interconnected world. On October 21st of 2021, we, the YouthxPolicyMakers ambassadors from around the world, had an opportunity to engage in an online roundtable discussion with policy makers and leaders from various governments in the international community. These panelists are Manal Ismail, Egypt's National Telecom Regulatory Authority's (NTRA) Chief Internet Policy Expert, Nadim Gemayel; the former chairman of the Lebanese parliament's ICT committee, and Vincent Ameganvi; a Togolese member of parliament. The discussion featured the essence of an inclusive and accessible internet governance. The dialogue also involved discourse regarding the effects of access and accessibility such as increased awareness on the need for removing barriers to infrastructure, network coverage, enabling environments, education, as well as digital literacy skills.
Access And Accessibility In Internet Governance
While the world is steadily narrowing the gap in access to internet connectivity, there are still very important and necessary discussions about what these may imply in terms of access and accessibility. While the majority of the world has been witnessing the benefits of connecting to the internet, what does it mean to connect the next billion? Moreover, how can we ensure that access and accessibility benefits all?
The internet offers people from various backgrounds, ethnicities and geographical locations the opportunity for connectivity. Despite the rising level of access and expanding opportunities in the platform, the COVID-19 pandemic has uncovered underlying issues the advancement of digitization has brought about. Aside from connectivity, it has equally exacerbated the structural inequalities and has further increased the digital divide. For the past years, the global digital policy debate has largely been based on improving technology infrastructure and now the question of meaningful access has allowed for a more in-depth and inclusive debate on what access really means. There is a growing call for groups, who were previously excluded to participate in policy discussion, formulation and implementation. This will create a more inclusive space for discourse on issues of internet governance, access and accessibility.
During our roundtable discussion, we had the opportunity to highlight and unpack several limitations of internet access. With a globalized approach and perspective, our discussion focused on global south internet and accessibilities challenges. Interestingly, the policy makers in the round table made specific emphasis on the inequalities of access by gender. They highlighted the importance of bridging the gap in an effort of solving the gender based injustices within the digital sphere, as well as the urban-rural gap. In this regard, the pandemic has played a unique role in both increasing the demand for access through the closure of institutions and underlining the importance of access concerns to governments. Forming partnerships between the public and private sectors was one method of improving access through active involvement of concerned stakeholders.
Due to an imbalance in the demand and supply of the internet market, quality of access to the internet has been highly affected. Both the global north and south are suffering from this adverse effect of the pandemic as proper policies and plans synchronized in micro, mezzo and macro level of functioning needs dire evaluation.
In Egypt, for example, service providers formed a collaborative partnership with government institutions to improve accessibility. While the partnership is a step forward for internet access and accessibility, issues of data security and privacy still remain to be a primary cause of concern. These are pertinent issues which must not be overlooked as it can further obstruct the pathway to access and accessibility in the future. Recommendations to form local initiatives and bottom-up techniques were also discussed and emphasized as a strategy to aid the government in understanding innovations in varied circumstances. Finally, connecting the next billion must go beyond mere technological execution since digital illiteracy prevents meaningful access. From the panelist to youth ambassadors, everyone agreed that multi-stakeholder approaches, which incorporate underrepresented groups such as the youth, local businesses, and minorities are critical, especially in a strategy that considers the needs of the next billion.
What seems to be important
As part of the youth, we are increasingly becoming conscious of the need for progressive transformation and institutional reform in order to address the present complex issues of internet governance, access, and accessibility challenges at all levels. As our increasingly globalized society builds infrastructure for the sole purpose of connectivity, we should always be cognizant of building a global digital space that fosters opportunities for equal and meaningful participation. Digital access already differs across geographical location and demography and it is time to lessen the difference of access by forming an inclusive space. Policy makers and stakeholders must start allowing representation for the disabled in the discourse and policy formation of internet governance, which affects innovation of devices, access and accessibility.
By recognizing this as a critical thread and focus point of our position, we emphasise the necessity of a multi-stakeholder strategy that brings together youth, public, business, and government organisations to collaborate on internet governance access and accessibility. Additionally, we believe that a bottom-up strategy will better foster collaboration across projects because this will enrich community network infrastructures and allow a fluid operation of policy assessment at all levels of internet governance, whether large or small.
Due to the Covid-19 pandemic and an extremely high demand to adapt to a quickly changing environment, we must both continue to be informed and raise awareness on the primary issues on access and accessibility. Despite advancement in technology and present changes in internet policy infrastructure, many people over the globe still lack the quality of access required to enjoy the internet's most powerful capabilities, such as online learning, video streaming, and telemedicine.
As a generation, we recognise the need of lifting the bar for internet access and striving for meaningful connectivity for all. Because there is evidence that digital illiteracy limits meaningful access, connecting the next billion people must go beyond technological implementation. Finally, both roundtable panelists and youth ambassadors agreed that multi-stakeholder approaches that engage several groups, such as youth and business, are vital, particularly in a plan that addresses the demands of the next billion people. As a result, we must continue our research into the best strategies for improving policy formation and gaining the trust value required to push for institutional reform to achieve the outcome that all stakeholders envision.
The YouthxPolicyMakers platform offers young people to step up as active and engaging stakeholders while strengthening the bridge of discourse, policy discussion and eventually implementation of this vision. Creating an inclusive space with this level of representation is not only admirable but a pragmatic way to create a well rounded policy for global issues such as internet governance, access and accessibility. We would like to thank the German Informatics Society, as well as all of its partner agencies for making it possible for voices to be heard and be part of the change we want to see in the world.