Building Resilient Internet

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Amandeep Singh Gill and Vinton G. Cerf (Photo: Anteneh Aklilu)

The 17th annual Internet Governance Forum (IGF), under the overarching theme ‘Resilient Internet for a Shared Sustainable and Common Future’, was successfully held at the UN-ECA Conference Center in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia from 28 November to 2 December 2022. The meeting programme was guided by five themes drawn from the IGF’S Public Call For Inputs and was aligned with the Global Digital Compact of the UN Secretary-General’s Common Agenda Report.
At the forum, Capital’s Metasebia Teshome caught up with Amandeep Singh Gill, Technology Envoy at the United Nations, under Secretary General, and Vinton G. Cerf, vice president and Chief Internet Evangelist for Google; for insights on the forum, outcomes thereof and their views on the overall landscape of the internet in Africa. Excerpts;

 


Capital: What is your overall view of the 17th Internet Governance Forum that has been hosted in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia for the past five days?
Amandeep Singh Gill: The Internet Governance Forum meeting for 2022 has been very well organized by our Ethiopian host. The participation was excellent; not only did people come together from all parts of the world, but they also came together representing very diverse communities, including the youth, parliamentarians, governments, the private sector, and the technology community at large. So I’m very, very pleased with the preparations, conducted meetings and the overall participation.

Capital: There were a lot of sessions in this year’s forum, with issues also being raised. What kind of outcomes do you expect in the future?
Amandeep Singh Gill: There are already quite substantive results. Moreover, there has been a thorough discussion of all the challenges faced with regards to the growth of the internet connectivity as well as in addressing the digital divide.
As your readers might know, there are nearly 3 billion people who are still not connected to the internet. And of those who are connected, they aren’t able to use the internet due to the usability gap, particularly in Africa where this gap is quite high. That gap may be because of costs or even lack of availability of content in local languages, and many other reasons; but nevertheless, the gap is there and that gap needs to be addressed. So this is one of the main outcomes coming from this meeting, that is, a clear call for addressing the digital divide.
The second outcome is a call for contributing to the global digital compact. There will be a summit in the near future in 2024 in New York, at the United Nations, at which a global digital compact is proposed to be adopted. So this will be a significant document that will help us build shared principles on an open, free, secure and inclusive digital future for everyone. This meeting has been very instrumental in gathering inputs and perspectives for that particular document.
The third out outcome that I can highlight from the previous four days of discussions is the intention and the first steps to take the Internet Governance Forum to the next level. In a sense there has been 17 years of good work, but there are areas that need to be improved.

Capital: How is the transition from the current model of working to the next model ferrying on? Who are the leaders who will lead this transition?
Amandeep Singh Gill: Various leaders who will spearhead this met in a panel led by the father of the internet, Vint Cerf, who was present here along with Maria Ressa, Nobel Prize winner, and prominent civil society activist from Southeast Asia. The hybrid meeting had a virtual call from the UN Secretary General, Mr. Antonio Guterres to set up the panel and the effort to take the IGF to the next level of functioning was also started at the meeting. So in some ways, I see Addis Ababa’s IGF 2022 as a historic meeting.

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Capital: What are the improvements that are needed on the internet?
Amandeep Singh Gill: I think the improvements that are needed in terms of the discussion had at the forum are essentially about ensuring that the outcomes of these meetings are more action oriented. We can talk about the digital divide as well as the connectivity problems, actionable items need to be emplaced to the specific issues for governments and other decision making bodies to implement it. So that is one area that needs clear improvement.
And then I think the IGF community has grown a lot over the last few years. Regional as well as national IGF communities have been set up. Thus to facilitate the participation, a lot of work needs to be done since the secretariat is quite small. There is need for more resources and therefore that is one area that needs improvement as well.

Capital: Africa takes the major share in having a large number of unconnected populations to the internet. Why do you think that is? How can Africa up its internet coverage and infrastructure?
Amandeep Singh Gill: First I’d like to focus on the positive side. Connectivity has improved quite a lot. And during the COVID pandemic connectivity got a boost and we were able to access health services, education services, and simply go to work thanks to internet connectivity. Also the businesses being built on top of the internet there are a lot many startups in Africa, the Fin Tech scene in particular, whether you look at Nigeria or Kenya, or you look at artificial intelligence and machine learning in Tunisia and South Africa. A new generation of African entrepreneurs is taking advantage of the opportunities offered by the internet.
On the other side I think there is a gap. First, the connectivity gap, and within that there is a rural urban gap. There’s a gender divide, women are not enabled to access the internet as much as men do. And there is the cost. If we do not have enough smart phones and devices; similarly with data costs being high, then people cannot participate in the digital economy. The businesses that are being built on the internet cannot make their markets grow beyond a certain point. So I think that’s the first challenge.
The second challenge is that there is a lack of digital public infrastructure, that is, digital public goods in the form of common rails. What I mean by that is digital identity. A lot of people are not able to participate in the financial system because they cannot open bank accounts or cannot access credit cards or other payment mechanisms unless they have the basic identities. In this case, governments and the public sector have to take a lead to seamlessly integrate this.
Likewise, there is need for data protection to make sure that privacy is protected. Data should neither be exploited nor misused. So again, the public authorities have to take the lead. So there is a need to invest in those kinds of issues. Digital identities, payment systems, data protection, privacy, protection through regulation through legislation are areas that need to be keenly looked into. And finally, the third area that needs to be worked on is the data economy. In some sense, the data flows today are insufficient for meaningful applications to be built upon the data infrastructure. Thus local data ecosystems have to be encouraged and capacity around data science, human resource around data science, and machine learning has to be augmented. Local data has to work for local problems, which means you have the human resource infrastructure and the datasets to work with. Data also helps in clarification. It helps you measure progress. It provides government with a means to check on the progress of different projects. We keep citizens engaged in a transparent way. So data has multiple benefits, and it’s important to cultivate the data.

Capital: In your stay in Addis Ababa did you get the chance to see the digital Ethiopia 2025 plan?
Amandeep Singh Gill: I look forward to reading it. I have had discussions with the Minister and State Minister in charge. I look forward to learning more about the plan and then also coming back to Ethiopia to discuss cooperation between the UN tech envoy office and the government of Ethiopia

 

 

Capital: How did you find the meeting? What are your overall views of the forum?
Vinton G. Cerf: Well, first of all, this is one of the biggest forums we’ve ever had with 4000 people signed up to the 17th IGF. So this is one of the biggest IGFs we’ve ever had and probably the most important thing is that we’re starting to see a turn from simply describing problems to trying to figure out how to solve them. And the leadership panel is an example of an attempt by the Secretary General to promote solutions getting into implementation.
So all of the insights that we get from the IGF meetings during the course of the week, plus the national and regional IGF meetings, we’re trying to take all of that, and turn that into practical solutions to the problems that we want to solve.
We want to connect the unconnected; we want the internet to be a safer place. We want the internet to provide a trusted environment where people can use it and feel safe. We want it to promote human values and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We need to build into it a reinforcement of those rights. We want the technology and the policies for its use to essentially underscore the importance of universal human rights. And so I’m, frankly, really encouraged by what I’m seeing with this particular IGF. It’s the 17 that we’ve had and it has by far and large been an exciting forum.
And I think the desire to promote concrete solutions is more palpable now than it ever has been. And I think there is a real desire to measure our progress. Up until now we’ve been satisfied to talk about and characterize the challenges that we see. I think now we’re getting to the point where we’re asking ourselves, what have we done to solve those problems? What progress have we made? And how should we measure that progress? This is a very good sign, because it means we’re testing ourselves to see if we’re making a difference.

Capital: What are the main problems that have been described on the forum?
Vinton G. Cerf: Well, first of all is that not everyone has access to the internet. That is problem number one. Problem number two is that even if you do get access, it might not be affordable. Problem number three is that even if it’s affordable, it might not be reliable. Problem number four is that it might not be safe. It might be that when you get online and you go to a website and you end up ingesting malware, and somebody hacks your bank account. So we don’t want to get people hooked on the technology if it isn’t safe for them to use it. And if there are too many stories of harm, people will run away and they won’t use it, in which case we lose all of its benefit.
If you go back now 50 years since the beginning, there is a huge amount of value that’s been created by the input limitation of the internet. New companies have been created, new businesses have been created, new applications have been created and we shouldn’t forget that.
So I’m really excited. It feels like we’re in a renewable potential state and this group especially, just listening to the questions should tell you that they want to make something happen.

Capital: What kind of improvements do you expect in the future?
Vinton G. Cerf: Well first of all I expect to see as more investment in infrastructure, that is, the physical infrastructure and the network. We are seeing more undersea cable being built to connect the continents together. We’re seeing huge expenditures in the earth orbiting satellite systems to provide access to the internet where it’s not been affordable before.
We’re witnessing massive increase in the number of applications and people or buildings for mobiles. We’re seeing a new business called ‘Internet of Things’ and programmable devices that are part of the network. Some of them have very elaborate voice activated interfaces. At Google for example, we have a product called Google Assistant which is a smart speaker with a little microphone on it. You can talk to it and it talks back. You can say take a note for the shopping list or you can say please play this particular piece of music.
The limit of the internet is limitless. We did a session describing how you could expand and the way the internet works to run across the solar system. You might say why would you do that and the answer is we’re exploring the solar system. Now we’re going back to the moon we’re sending people to the moon.
We are starting to commercialize what’s going on the moon, there’s mining that NASA is paying for, so the notion of private property on the moon is really quite an amazing concept. Now, we need to have a jurisdictional framework to allow that to happen. So this is turning out to be a tip what we would call ‘terra incognita’, that is, a place we’ve never been before and so it means that we get to explore and invent new ways of dealing with privacy and jurisdiction, in an area that we’ve never been to before because we’ve never lived on the moon. So it’s just amazing, it’s like we’re now entering a new era.

Capital: Africa takes the major share in having a large number of unconnected populations to the internet. Why do you think that is? How can Africa up its internet coverage and infrastructure?
Vinton G. Cerf: What I would say the most rapid way in which to get online is going to be through mobile, because the mobile is a very powerful device.
There’s a natural effort to make mobile communications available and since mobile and internet are now the same thing, that’s the fastest way to get online. Eventually though people are going to demand more bandwidth than you think, and investments need to be done on optical fibers to the home.
Of course the cost of purchasing these items comes into play, but once the greater masses buy the device, they will note the importance of the internet. This then in turn gives room for the private sector to invest in higher speed technologies thereby improving the infrastructure.

Capital: Do you think Africa can be at par with the world in terms of internet availability?
Vinton G. Cerf: You have an opportunity to leapfrog everybody, here’s why. You don’t have to start and go through everything that the rest of the world has gone through to get where it is. You get to get the latest technology, you get to install at first. And so you have an opportunity to get to where everybody else is faster than they did. And so you should go do that.