UNIGF Wrap Up: What we talk about when we talk about internet governance

This is the third part of the series on our week at the UNIGF. See part two here.

The United Nations Internet Governance Forum wrapped up almost a month ago now, but I have been digesting the week that was before writing my wrap up blog (and have been enjoying some of the New Zealand sun I missed so dearly).

With the theme ‘Shape your Digital Future’, the UNIGF had over 2000 attendees from 142 nations, and 1,661 people participating online.

The IGF is a supersized, eight plus streamed Forum (resulting in 260 sessions ofer five days), wherein any given moment you need to decide if you are going to attend a session on CERTs and international diplomacy, humanitarian action and the ethics of data collection, the balance between fighting fake news and protecting the human right to freedom of expression, or the weaknesses in automated moderation of social media websites. I spread myself pretty thin and tried to participate in a wide range of sessions, although much of what I attended had a gender and humanitarian lens.

I met dozens of people every day, and their backgrounds varied wildly. Many were local PhD students, while others were full time activists, humanitarian workers, ambassadors to the UN, or were on boards for organizations that represent domain name registers (like InternetNZ).

Attending the IGF cracked open the world of Internet Governance for me, and brought some key international issues to the top. Below are a few themes that I think will be salient in 2018, either in New Zealand or internationally.

Ethics in Artificial Intelligence, automated moderation, and data collection:

The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is regulation from the European Union that is going into to effect this year, and is a data privacy law to strengthen protections and privacy for individuals' data. It will affect any business which handles data of European citizens, which will include many New Zealand businesses, particularly if they operate online.

For more information about how this will affect New Zealanders, check out what NZTE has to say about the GDPR here: https://www.nzte.govt.nz/about/news/news-and-features/new-european-data-privacy-rule-could-cost-4-of-turnover

While this regulation is a concrete change that will affect businesses handling data this year, there is a larger conversation happening about how the acceleration of data collection, and artificial intelligence making decisions with this data, should be handled. Should there be checks and balances about how a machine can make decisions about your life with the data that is held about you? Does there need to be transparency about how this data is used?

Fake news versus the right to the freedom of expression

While "fake news" might be something you are used to hearing from politicians trying to dismiss their dissenters, in many countries fake stories, bots and trolls are having real effects on election outcomes, and are controlling the information citizens can access.

There are many proposed approaches to tackle fake news, from educating people to check sources and be sceptical, to outright requiring users to validate their identity online before posting. But this runs up against the human right to freedom of expression. Individuals should be able to be anonymous online, share their thoughts without validation, and be critical (and even lie) online.

As fake news matures and becomes even more insidious than it already is, we will need to take stock of how much we value the ability to express ourselves online. InternetNZ would argue, we value this ability greatly and it should be protected.

Human rights apply online

The idea that "human rights apply online" is one of InternetNZ's core policy principles, and our current Digital Media and Communications Minister wants to develop a Digital Bill of Rights, so it is important that we understand what this means.

Something I often forget, is that Human Rights were decided upon, and written down, by fallible people, who could not have seen how the internet could upend them. They are not just an idea, but a list of protections all humans should have. We need to think about how they apply to, and interact with the Internet, and ensure they are fit for purpose in the modern world.

Internet shutdowns and site blocking

Internet shutdowns are: 'intentional disruptions of internet or electronic communications, rendering them inaccessible or effectively unusable, for a specific population or within a location, often to exert control over the flow of information.' Site blocking is when governments block certain sites from being accessed by citizens. In Egypt, as of August last year there were 429 websites being blocked, most of which were independent news and journalism outlets. This practice of shutting down parts of the internet is used to control information and stop citizens from communicating with each other.

This is not something we contend with in New Zealand, however, it is something we should be constantly vigilant about.

For more information, check out AccessNow: https://www.accessnow.org/keepiton/

The exacerbation of the digital divide

The digital divide looks very different around the world. Globally, the gap between men and women online is actually growing, as adoption among men in African countries is growing so quickly that it outstrips gender equality gains elsewhere in the world. Access can be limited by governments or communities as they see it as giving people (particularly women) freedom and agency to access information and communicate with others, and this much freedom is dangerous to a regime.

In New Zealand we have generally reached the consensus that being digitally included is a good thing, and it can open up economic, social, and academic opportunities for all. In a world where some regions are not as lucky, it is important we take advantage of our abilities to make the most of the Internet as a tool for good.

No matter what this year brings, platforms like the Internet Governance Forum are about multistakerholderism, that is, bringing different interest groups who have a stake in the Internet's future, including you and me, to collaborate, discuss and come to consensus on decisions that affect how the Internet is treated. If you have opinions on these topics and others, there are channels for you to be involved. Our annual gathering of the Internet community, NetHui is a great place to start.