I’m currently at the Asia Pacific Regional Internet Governance Forum Meeting in Hong Kong where I presented this afternoon on a panel on “Access and the Digital Divide”, which I’m presuming was meant to mirror in some fashion the discussion within the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) concerning issues around Internet Governance and Development and more broadly the overall discussion of “Digital Divide/Access/”Development” issues in the context of the IGF.
My comments on the panel came at the end of a series of very interesting and stimulating presentations by colleagues from primarily Hong Kong and Singapore on their State level responses to the Digital Divide in their jurisdictions which in fact were attempting to find strategies for engaging the final 20% or so of their populations who were not currently making effective use of the Internet.
In my comments I attempted to link the issues presented earlier in the panel discussion with the broader issues of going beyond the matter of “simple access” to achieve effective use of ICTs as a support for broader economic and social development in countries where the level of current Internet access/use is a small fraction of that achieved in HK and Singapore–this was following a quite moving presentation earlier in the day by a senior Bangladeshi politician on his country where current Internet access/use is in the low single digits.
In my comments I challenged the IGF to take on the matters raised by the Bangladeshi speaker and similar issues which are clearly of increasing concern and impact in those countries which have, for whatever reason, not been able to realize any sort of digital transition and where few and particularly few among the poor and marginalized, are currently able to take advantage of any of the opportunities that Internet use can provide.
I should add here that at the time of the World Summit on the Iformation society Tunis and immediately afterwards, I argued quite extensively and publicly for “development” (ICT4D) issues to NOT be included in the agenda for discussion of the IGF while a number of actors seemed to be suggesting that this in fact should be case. My reasoning at the time was that the IGF, being a forum concerned largely (and dare I say narrowly) with the more “technical” areas where a global discussion on Internet Governance might prove useful, was the wrong place with the wrong set of participants to discuss ICT4D issues. It was my opinion at the time that discussion at the IGF would tend to reduce ICT4D/development down to technical/access matters. This in turn would divert the discussion away from the broader issues of governance in support of applications and effective uses which I consider to be the primary concern when viewed from the perspective of grassroots users particularly in “development” contexts.
However, I did feel the need for some post-WSIS framework to carry forward a multi-stakeholder discussion in the ICT4D policy area–which of course, was the primary objective and primary desired outcome of WSIS. I, along with a number of others were active in attempting to channel this discussion and the energy in this area into the Global Alliance for ICT and Development (GAID) which initially seemed to offer a more appropriate forum for these efforts. That little of any lasting relevance either in the form of specific outputs or even in the form of useful multi-sectoral engagements (a la the IGF) resulted from the 4 years of “activity” by the GAID even after a quite considerable effort at promoting constructive reform in this area by a broad and quite deep cross section of GAID participants, need hardly be noted or commented upon by any of those who at least initially put some stock in the GAID. (For information I, along with a number of others have “served” on the High Level Panel of Advisers of the GAID since its inception.)
My brief comments on the “Access and Digital Divide” panel here in Hong Kong were responded to very favourably by a senior Bangladeshi representative and were echoed further by representatives from Laos and Cambodia both of whom noted the issues of extreme lack of access (and thus availability for effective use) in both of their countries. Markus Kummer (Executive Coordinator, Secretariat of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF)) concluded the comments on the panel by remarking from the floor that the IGF was not in a position to address the broader issues of ICT4D/Digital Divide questions but that these should be left to the agencies designated for this purpose–the ITU and the GAID.
It is my understanding that the ITU has in fact, been active in supporting activity in its primary area of expertise which is around technical and regulatory issues with respect to ICT4D. However, this still leaves an enormous and extremely damaging gap at the very centre of the global discussion post-WSIS which is the substantive issues concerning access and use of the Internet in a developmental context.
A close colleague argued with me following the earlier discussion that the IGF should be left to develop the discussion and the implicit mechanisms for Internet Governance as per the previous 4 years of activity and that ICT4D would be in the longer term benefited by a favourable set of multi-stakeholder practices and outcomes from the IGF.
On reflection I must respectfully disagree that these issues can be left waiting for a future outcome of the IGF or for some magical awakening on the part of the GAID. Rather I am sincerely hoping that an outcome of the AP-IGF will, as some have already suggested, be a call for the larger IGF, in the absence of active and effective alternatives, to begin to address in its multi-stakeholder forums the very considerable outstanding ICT4D access and effective use issues in such areas among others as:
*extending low cost access into rural and low income areas in low Internet penetration countries
*developing effective developmental applications linking cell phones and the Internet
*strategies for successful grassroots based implementations of developmental Internet applications
*strategies for the digital inclusion of last quintile non-users in high Internet penetration countries
*strategies for developing access and effective Internet use by indigenous peoples in low Internet penetration countries and others