Sorina Teleanu   13 Jun 2017   Internet Governance

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Day 2 at the WSIS Forum 2017 started with the official opening of the event, and continued with eight high-level policy sessions which were mostly focused on issues related to access, the digital divide, and sustainable development. In addition, one session was dedicated to the launch of the International Telecommunication Union’s (ITU) toolkit for strengthening ICT-centric ecosystems, aimed to serve as an instrument for stakeholders to analyse their ecosystems and take measures to improve the state of their digital development (session 406).

The opening session (part I and part II) featured interventions from representatives of different stakeholder groups: intergovernmental organisations, the private sector, the technical community, and civil society. An overarching message from the session was that information and communications technologies (ICTs) can significantly contribute to achieving sustainable development and advancing human rights, but that continuous efforts are needed to create the enabling conditions for this potential to be fully explored. Challenges such as lack of connectivity and other forms of digital divides are still present around the world, and actors need to co-operate to better mobilise technical, financial, and capacity development support for digital inclusion. Deployment of infrastructure is important, but physical access needs to be complemented with relevant content and digital skills. It is a joint responsibility of stakeholders to ensure that all people can access and use the Internet and other ICTs, and that these technologies act as enablers across all sectors of society.

Digital inequalities are also present when it comes to the private sector. One illustration is the case of e-commerce: although it enables job growth and poverty reduction, many SMEs, especially those in developing countries, are absent from e-commerce channels. E-commerce needs to grow in an inclusive manner, to make sure that no one is left behind and that the goals of local development are met.

The value of multistakeholder co-operation in fostering ICTs for social and economic development was underlined during the discussions. National and international policies and programmes in this area need to be developed in a bottom-up, open, and inclusive manner. And they should be focused not on the technology alone, but on what technology can do for people, business, and the public sector.

During High-Level Policy session 1, emphasis was put on the need to strengthen the interconnections and synergies between the WSIS action lines and the sustainable development goals (SDGs), as an essential element in advancing the ICTs for development agenda. At the same time, enhanced coordination is needed between the different organisations working on various ICT-related issues, as well as between the international discussions taking place in Geneva, and the regional and local realities around the world. The session emphasised, once more, that ICTs are a powerful tool for inclusion and poverty eradication, and that it is imperative to empower everyone to make use of these tools.

Modalities for promoting inclusiveness and access to information and knowledge were discussed in session 2 and session 4. Access to information is one of the most important tools for empowering people to exercise their human, economic, and cultural rights, and ICTs are essential for facilitating such access. Physical infrastructure, digital literacy, language diversity, accessibility for persons with disabilities, gender equality, and respect for fundamental human rights such as privacy and freedom of expression are some of the pre-requisites for an inclusive and sustainable information society. All of these require adequate regulatory and policy frameworks, as well as the commitment and engagement of all stakeholders. The role of open data in enhancing access to information, both for citizens and companies, was also underlined, and emphasis was put on public open data policies.

Session 3 showcased actions taken by several countries towards achieving the SDGs. Examples included making ICTs a key pillar of the economy; promoting universal access by expanding fibre optic networks, establishing telecentres in rural areas, and having a dedicated universal service fund; setting up a solid e-commerce infrastructure; and investing in smart technologies. Other discussions revolved around the role of young professionals in implementing Agenda 2030, as well as the need to promote equal opportunities for men and women in ICT professions.

Session 5 and session 7 discussed policy approaches for bridging the digital divide. As pointed out in other sessions, some of the factors that are essential when addressing the digital divide include building or expanding physical infrastructures, developing knowledge and skills, and promoting local content. Public-private partnerships and policies aimed at encouraging market competition were seen as particularly important when it comes to access to infrastructure. As the Internet has become vital for innovation and the advancement of the digital economy, investments are needed in the roll-out of high speed broadband networks that can support fast and reliable connections. A point was also made in support of community networks, and policy makers and operators were encouraged to consider supporting such models.

The role of capacity building and e-learning in building sustainable knowledge societies was addressed in session 6. E-learning is increasingly accepted as being complementary to traditional education. While there seems to be an increasing political will to promote e-learning, and favourable regulations are being adopted, challenges related to the availability of ICT equipment and the lack of digital skills continue to act as impediments.

The last high-level policy session of the day (session 8) discussed good practices and challenges related to ICT applications and services. E-government services and the use of e-ID cards and e-signatures were showcased as examples of good practices, given their contribution to increasing the efficiency of the public administration, while saving costs and improving the interactions with beneficiaries of public services. The role of ICTs in disaster management and environmental protection was also underlined.

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