The coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis has impacted all areas of digital policy this month. These developments were covered during March’s just-in-time briefing on Internet governance – our monthly appointment on the last Tuesday of every month – which took place on 31 March 2020. They will also be summarised in the Issue 48 of the Geneva Internet Platform (GIP) Digital Watch newsletter. The briefing was led by DiploFoundation’s Director of Cybersecurity and E-diplomacy Programmes Vladimir Radunović. He was joined by DiploFoundation’s Executive Director Jovan Kurbalija, Research Officer Natasa Perućica, Researcher Katarina Anđelković, Digital Policy Senior Researcher Marília Maciel, and independant consultant Sorina Teleanu.
A look back to events in March
Due to the circumstances, many events have been either cancelled or postponed. However, there is an emerging trend of event organisers turning to moving events to online mediums.
Drawing from 20 years of experience in running online events and meetings, Diplo has established the ConfTech Lab to offer support to everyone who is shifting from onsite events to online meetings.
Kurbalija gave three reflections along Diplo’s methodology of covering digital issues: new topics on diplomatic agendas, new tools, and the changing environment and mindset in diplomacy.
At Diplo, the new topics emerging out of the interplay between the COVID-19 crisis, digital issues, and traditional diplomatic issues are discussed through a series of online webinars.
Regarding new tools, Diplo’s ConfTech Lab is experimenting with new tools to mainstream the knowledge Diplo has gained in the last 20 years of running online events. A difference has been noticed between simply starting to run online meetings, which can take up to an hour to learn, and delivering high quality online meetings, which can take up to a month. On 31 March, Diplo started an online course for diplomats, officials of international organisations, and civil society on this topic.
The environment and mindset after the COVID-19 pandemic will certainly change; and it is uncertain how diplomacy, geopolitics, and the global economy will look like. Diplo is starting a series of brainstorming sessions labeled the ‘Day After’ to explore what happens the day after COVID-19 is suppressed.
Kurbalija noted that many institutions have shifted to holding online meetings, but have started questioning the security and privacy of such meetings, as well as how to integrate diplomatic protocol into online meetings. These topics will be tackled during Diplo’s webinar ‘How to ensure the functional continuity of global diplomacy in time of crisis’ on 2 April.
Main developments in March 2020
Since most digital discussions are dominated by the impact of COVID-19, the briefing looked into how the pandemic and overall crisis is impacting different policy areas.
As most of our social and professional life shifts online, the pressure on Internet traffic is constantly increasing at global and national levels, Radunović noted.
On a local level, throttling is noticeable. National Internet exchange points (IXPs) in developing countries that depend on bigger ones may encounter serious problems, such as Nepal’s IXP. Operators in many developed countries, on the other hand, stated they have sufficient capacities to deal with the current surge in Internet traffic.
Global IXPs have noticed a big surge in use, but are confident that they can provide the necessary bandwidth.
Discussion on possible throttling by Internet service providers (ISPs) to reach the quality of service are unfolding.
Different national authorities are asking Internet users and content providers to act smartly. For example, the EU has called on streaming platforms to ease the pressure on Internet capacity.
Governments are taking action to help operators cope with the situation, launching mechanisms and platforms to monitor traffic (BEREC), and ensure the resiliency and availability of telecom networks and services (ITU).
Emerging technologies are being used to help deal with the crisis, Teleanu stated. There are many examples of artificial intelligence (AI) applications, drones, 3D printing, virtual reality (VR), and quantum computing being put to use to navigate the pandemic better.
Read more about the technological implications of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
There is no significant change in the amount of threats in the cyber landscape. However, there are changes in the type of cyber-attacks being deployed. Phishing in particular is being recognised as a big threat, as criminals exploit user fears. EU Agency for Law Enforcement Cooperation’s (EUROPOL) report on trends during the COVID-19 crisis confirms this trend.
Reports also show a large number of COVID-19 related domain names bought for malicious purposes.
A ‘corona antivirus’ has also appeared, and it supposedly prevents users from getting infected with COVID-19 ‘due to an AI development.’
Ransomware attacks against healthcare and hospitals continue; while the cybersecurity community answered by warning they will unite all forces against such attackers.
A number of potential distributed-denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks have also been reported, but it is quite possible that systems have failed due to sudden overuse.
As communications increasingly move online, the privacy of these communications is also brought into the spotlight.
Join the webdebate on ‘Cyber(security) and the shift to online’ on 9 April.
Citizens are stuck in a limbo as they are choosing between the fundamental right to health as well as other rights and freedoms, Perućica noted.
Perhaps most concern is raised on the right to privacy; with regards to tracking apps and surveillance systems implemented to monitor infected individuals to minimise the spread of COVID-19.
Freedom of expression is another right that has been challenged; as a number of countries imposed restrictions on the freedom of the press, and some are issuing prison sentences to individuals and parties who create and spread misinformation about COVID-19.
The censoring of social media and networking platforms is impacting access to information negatively.
Last but not least, there has been a rise in discriminatory and xenophobic attacks against Asian communities in particular, spurred by misinformation and unproven theories, which has also contributed to increased online hate speech and online harassment.
Read more about technology and human rights in times of crisis.
The impact of COVID-19 on the digital economy has been quite uneven, Maciel noted. Start-ups that develop products to help fight the crisis are gaining prominence. Tourism platforms, and transport and accommodation booking services are reportedly hit the hardest economically.
The post-crisis scenario foreseen for big Internet companies is quite different. Many powerful (and mostly Silicon Valley-based) firms have huge financial buffers that allow them to maintain high investment as smaller firms are shutting down or cutting back dramatically. Acquisitions of smaller companies are predicted to increase; accelerating the concentration of money and power in the global and national markets.
Governments are playing a central role in ensuring consumer protection during the crisis.
The biggest question is what the balance of power will look like once the global COVID-19 crisis is over.
Anđelković explained that there is an avalanche of COVID-19 misinformation as social media platforms, international organisations, and national governments try to curb it.
Governments across the globe are also increasingly relying on the digital IDs of citizens to offer public services at a time of isolation and quarantine measures.
Online education became a hot topic as schools in most countries have gone digital by utilising remote teaching technologies; and providing students with free access to online learning platforms.
However, shifting from offline to an entirely online learning environment is posing a major challenge in many countries.
As hundreds of millions of people are in self-isolation or quarantine, this has dramatically increased the use of distant learning, teleworking, and telehealth technologies. This has also highlighted the digital divide, as 46% of the world’s population has no access to the Internet. The digital divide is visible in both the Global North and South, as well as within the developed world; but vulnerable communities that have no access to the Internet and technological equipment are especially affected.
The business digital divide was also in focus, as businesses that have not or cannot transition online are negatively impacted by the sudden switch to online tools.
On the upside, the shift to the online world has positively impacted the environment. Estimates show that over the greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) and air pollution have significantly dropped over the last month.
COVID-19 has also been dubbed as the ‘green virus.’ However, the surge in teleworking, online conferencing, and online learning is far from being environmentally friendly. Often referred to as ‘hidden’ or ‘invisible’ pollution; the Internet, massive data centres, and emerging technologies account for 4% of global carbon emissions, which exceeds emissions by the aviation industry.
Climate change activism has also digitilised; climate change activist Greta Thunberg has called on fellow activists to avoid gatherings and engage instead in ‘digital strikes’.
A look ahead to events in April
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many events have been cancelled or postponed. However, there is an emerging trend of event organisers moving events to online mediums.
Updates from GIP and Diplo
The next issue of the GIP Digital Watch newsletter will be published in the beginning of April. In the first half of April, DiploFoundation will organise a series of online events:
- Webinar – How to ensure the functional continuity of global diplomacy in time of crisis
- Webdebate – Multilateral diplomacy in times of COVID-19
- Webinar – (Cyber)Security and the shift to online
At the end of the month, the GIP will hold the regular monthly Internet governance briefing on 28 April.
The discussion touched upon whether the support packages for developing countries will include digital divide aspects; online learning in developing countries; whether the multistakeholder processes will be affected by the shift to online; and practical problems with using the new tools in multilateralism.
Kurbalija noted that there is a risk of inflation of online communication and events. The ‘How to ensure the functional continuity of global diplomacy in time of crisis’ webinar will look into the issues of interpretation, preparation, and participation of developing countries; as part of ongoing discussions on how to adjust to the new normal. Preparations for these discussions include foresight techniques, data analysis, and AI that will be used for developing simulated scenarios of the Day After brainstorming sessions.
Amrita Choudhury gave updates from Asia, about steps taken to fight COVID-19 misinformation, and governments shifting to online health consultation and telemedicine.
Grace Mutung’u provided updates from Africa, about events being cancelled due to the outbreak of COVID-19; the push in cashless payment to minimise the possibility of the virus spreading through cash; MTN reducing charges to help people be connected; and DStv providing free news channels to help increase public awareness and knowledge on COVID-19.
Hanane Boujemi highlighted developments from the Middle East and North Africa about the impact of COVID-19 on e-commerce and online learning in the region.
Wanda Perez provided updates from the Caribbean, including the launch of the Caribbean Development Foundation; the partnership between the Eastern Caribbean Securities Exchange and BlockStation to trade digital assets; and the creation of the LACNIC’s Computer Security Incident Response Team (LACNIC-CSIRT).