The ninth edition of the WSIS Forum opened yesterday in Geneva, under the overarching theme Information and knowledge societies for the SDGs. As in previous years, the event brings together the ICT for development and the Internet governance communities, for discussions and exchanges of experiences on how information and communications technologies (ICT) can contribute to achieving the sustainable development goals (SDGs).
More than 40 sessions were included in the programme on the Forum’s first day. They featured discussions on a wide range of topics, from development to cybersecurity and data protection.
In the field of development, several sessions focused on the role of ICTs in environment protection, sustainable exploitation of resources, and disaster prevention and recovery. Several initiatives were showcased – such as the Climate Service Information System, the ERA-Planet project, and the Copernicus Emergency Management Service – as an illustration of the potential of ICTs in achieving the environmental SDGs (session 228). There were also discussions on the need to leverage ICTs in an accessible way to ensure that persons with disabilities and other vulnerable groups are included in disaster preparedness, response, and recovery actions (session 229). And in a time when the world was facing the largest humanitarian crisis of modern times, technology was also empowering refugees to rebuild their lives, their skills, and the integration into society (session 287).
It was underlined during the discussions that ICTs are important not only in implementing the SDGs, but also in assessing the progress made in this direction. ICT indicators, as well as science, technology, and innovation indicators (STI) are relevant for many SDGs, but their use is dependant on whether they are well defined and accurately collected at national level (session 259). Innovative tools could also help keep SDG implementation costs down. Collaboration was key (session 264).
Access and the digital divide were recurrent themes across many sessions. It was said that computers and the Internet are ‘magic bullets’ for poverty reduction (session 255), but the digital divide is still a barrier that needs to be overcome. Contributing to the divide is the fact that ICT investment is concentrated around urbanised areas, leaving rural and remote areas unconnected (session 372).
The deployment of ICT infrastructure alone does not solve the problem. Complementary solutions are needed, such as promoting local content in local languages (e.g. through e-government and e-commerce applications) and building digital competencies at individual level. Emphasis was put on multilingualism as a key to enabling access to the knowledge society. It was underlined that the Internet should not be seen as a threat to language diversity, but as a tool for preserving it (session 256). It is important that all stakeholders work together on the development and implementation of policies aimed at fostering positive digital transformation across communities (session 236).
The growing number of online users is generating a significant amount of data, which in turn raises many issues related to privacy, protection of other digital rights, and the use of big data (session 268). The role of open data in facilitating access to information and empowering end-users and start-ups to develop new information society services was highlighted. Several intergovernmental organisations presented their open data policies and initiatives (session 245). The connections between e-science and sustainable development were also explored (session 273).
As more and more Internet of Things and artificial intelligence applications rely on and generate huge amounts of data, questions related to who processes such data, how it is processed, and for what purpose, become increasingly important. All these questions are related to the concept of data governance, and there is a need for governments, intergovernmental organisations, and other stakeholders to equip themselves with the adequate skills allowing them to take full advantage of the enormous data potential, while preserving anonymity and personal data protection (session 261).
Discussions revolved around the contribution of the digital economy, in general, and e-commerce, in particular, to achieving sustainable development. While the digital economy is enabling the democratisation of global markets, it is also generating new requirements for business, in areas such as new job skills, taxation, e-payments, privacy, and cybersecurity (session 239). Initiatives such as eTrade for All aim to assist countries in developing their readiness to become part of the global digital economy. When it comes to start-ups, the role of collaborative environments, innovation and start-up policies, and business incubators, can offer important support for new businesses (session 275).
While the growing digital society brings numerous opportunities, new challenges are emerging, too. Cybersecurity is one of them; all stakeholders need to work together to address the growing cyber-threats. A major concern is the darknet, an online space commonly used for illicit activity (session 257). Trust is an important aspect when it comes to e-commerce and e-government services, and there is an increasing use of blockchain technologies and encryption tools as enablers of trust (session 267).
Companies, big and small, need to pay more attention to implementing information security across their business practices (session 365), while more awareness-raising efforts are necessary among end-users on issues such as keeping their software updated and creating back-ups of their data. The technology industry has its share of responsibility when it comes to keeping products and services safe for users, but this often ends up being an issue of liability. If companies are not held liable for data breaches, they do not have ‘incentives’ to avoid such incidents. Governments, therefore, should have proper mechanisms in place to hold companies liable in case of security breaches (session 242). Concerned with national security, governments often initiate discussions on data localisation; yet data flow-limited practices can be viewed as protectionist (session 272). When it comes to policy responses to cybersecurity challenges, some actors believe that there is too much concentration on national frameworks and legal case-studies. Global cybersecurity challenges should be addressed by global solutions (session 254).
Technological convergence and advancements in the field of artificial intelligence and robotics were also looked at. Particular attention should be paid to issues related to accountability and responsibility when it comes to algorithms based on big data, as well as automated systems and their use as day-to-day applications, such as self-driving cars (session 252).
The protection of human rights in the digital space was also tackled during the discussions. Privacy and data protection were underlined as key aspects to be taken into account by the tech industry when developing applications that benefit the end-users (session 236). At the same time, it is no longer a matter of whether offline human rights apply online, but rather a matter of how their protection evolves over time and becomes increasingly ingrained in the development of standards and services (session 269).
Several sessions focused on various dimensions of the global Internet governance architecture. National and regional Internet Governance Forum (IGF) initiatives were mentioned as good examples of multistakeholder Internet governance processes that are mindful of regional and national specificities and that help consolidate local Internet governance communities (session 249). The importance of open, transparent, and inclusive digital policy processes was also underlined during a session which showcased the work of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) on elaborating its strategic plan for 2020-2023 (session 411). There were also discussions on the role of capacity building initiatives (such as those undertaken by DiploFoundation and the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), among others) in empowering stakeholders, especially in underserved regions, to actively participate in Internet governance and digital policy processes (session 241).