After dealing with the long queues and accreditation process at the United Nations (UN) Palais Des Nations, the first session on the radar was titled ‘E-Commerce: Good or Bad for Development?’. Readers may recall that World Trade Organization (WTO) has a 1998 Work Programme on E-Commerce. This Work Programme provides for the discussion of trade-related issues relating to electronic commerce to take place in the relevant WTO bodies: the Council for Trade in Services; the Council for Trade in Goods; the Council for TRIPS; and the Committee for Trade and Development. The General Council was envisaged to play a review or oversight role. From July 2016, the debate on Electronic Commerce at the WTO intensified when several Members proposed to negotiate new rules in addition to the existing ones in the WTO Agreements. This suggestion for negotiations was opposed by many developing countries because it goes beyond the 1998 mandate. With e-commerce worth about $25 trillion without any new rules, the question being asked is whether the rules being proposed in the WTO would be helpful or harmful for economic development.

In the e-commerce session, one of the key take-away points was the following statement: “It is funny that we need e-commerce rules, but we don’t want digital society rules. (…) we need to therefore understand what is it that is happening society wide. What does it mean in terms of economy. And where do Developing Countries stand in terms of that. All sectors of the country are changing and interrogate what in Digital Economy, what is digital group, what are the codes with this model and where do they flow while people in Developing Countries I look at it in this manner. I think it is as big as industrialization. Industrialization puts machine power at the center of Digital Economy, at the center of the economy. The machine power was around what all technology information reorganize themselves. That’s what industrialization was. And equally now digitalization is when digital intelligence becomes a fulcrum of all digital relationships. Actually what the central economic administration industrialization era platforms working on data for digital intelligence is the institution of the Digital Economy. And it is not e-commerce.”

The next session was ‘Internet and Big Data Governance for Poverty Alleviation and Environment’. Although Internet and Big data provide an unprecedented opportunities for remote areas to achieve leapfrog development, the issues of poverty and environment fragility greatly threaten the well-being of the people living there. As a result, it is vital that we establish the internet infrastructure with customized internet governance structure in mind, which demands close collaborations between private and public sectors and other multi-stakeholders. Using technology (internet, big data etc) to address the issues of poverty and environment is consistent with UN new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) agenda.

In this regard, the Indian experience shared during the panel discussion was insightful. As readers may know, India has the second largest population in the world and a fast-growing economy with the average GDP per capital at about $2,000. India is also greatly affected by poverty, digital divide and environmental issues. There’s 100 million people who have little access to the education and healthcare and public resources are helping them to support their daily life and support their possibility to be away from the poverty. So, India’s government is giving around 6 million to 7 million of mobile phones of people living in poverty. In addition, the government offers financial support of 100 rupees per month so that people get infrastructure, equipment, resources online. With regard to access to the internet, the government is working with other actors to cover more remote areas in poverty and providing the low cost of internet access. On the environmental front, the government is using technology to monitor pollution and thus is able to set the policy based on the detection reports so that every penny and dollar spent on pollution and environmental protection will be the best return on investment. There are also plans to set up some public index on pollution to ascertain the status, the root causes, to supervise the behaviors and actions of people. The goal is to encourage the people, encourage not just government, but the whole society to take action against the industrial pollution and to take action on the protection of the natural environment.

The next session was on ‘How Devices, Content & Innovative Business Models Shape our Digital Future’. The panel discussion focused on the link between innovative business models for access provision, innovative device designs that contribute to access provision and local content generation to engage local communities as a shift to the paradigm of infrastructure ownership to support under-served communities worldwide. With regard to devices, the Libre Router project was presented. This project aims to design and produce a high performance multi-radio wireless router targeted at community networks needs. According to AlterMundi, the entity behind the Libre Router, community networks have been depending since their inception on modifying existing off-the-shelf routers to adapt them to their particular needs.
Software development originated in community network groups and the free software movement as a whole, has pushed the barrier of innovation and helped commercial enterprises develop new products over the years. AlterMundi claims that this status quo between hardware vendors and the community has been threatened by new regulations from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the U.S – which has led vendors to globally close up their routers to third party modifications, hindering open innovation and effectively closing the door to Community Networks in terms of access to the hardware they depend on.

On the content side, Ajitora was presented. Ajitora is a flagship initiative by DotAsia (https://www.dot.asia), a not-for-profit organization that operates the “.Asia” top-level domain (TLD) as a core global Internet infrastructure. Ajitora is DotAsia’s cyberspace tiger and the mascot of its successful content-driven awareness campaign to double the number of tigers (#doubletigers) in the wild by 2022. DotAsia Ajitora’s campaign is in collaboration with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and support from domain registration and e-commerce storefronts like global network of “.Asia” domain registrars, including in India (BigRock and ResellerClub), Vietnam (PA Vietnam), Indonesia (Rumahweb). Through content, the campaign aims to raise awareness for tigers in the wild and promote sustainable development in Asia alongside promotion of the “.Asia” domain.

Before the Opening Session late in the afternoon, there was an interesting session sponsored by Global Network Initiative (GNI): Content Regulation in the Digital Age: A Conversation with the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression’. Alongside David Kaye, UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, other panelists were Emma Llanso, Director, Free Expression Project at Center for Democracy and Technology, Chinmayi Arun, Research Director at Centre for Communication Governance, National Law University, Delhi, Nicole Karlebach, Global Head, Business and Human Rights at Oath and Jason Pielemeier, Policy Director at GNI. 

Earlier in the year, the UN Special Rapporteur for freedom of opinion and expression David Kaye presented the 2017 Report to UN Human Rights Council. The “Report of the Special Rapporteur to the human rights council on the role of digital access providers” maps the human rights responsibilities of the information and communications technology sector in responding to these threats, identifying best practices for companies. Critically, the report also outlines steps that all States can take to meet their responsibility to protect freedom of expression online. According to GNI, the report is a timely warning on the escalating threats to digital expression and Internet freedom, including increasing pressures on private actors to share user data and to restrict and monitor communications.

Three crucial points from Kaye were: First, IGF should celebrate and protect the internet’s role in facilitating the exercise of human rights. Governments are obliged under international law to protect the rights to freedom of expression, privacy, free assembly and association. Instead, governments regularly assault them, arguing—as they often do in times of terrorism and other threats—that compromise is necessary. Second, IGF should promote diversity and inclusion online. The U.S. Federal Communications Commission’s vote to repeal net neutrality is just one example of policies that threaten free speech online, placing more power in the hands of big telecom companies worldwide. Equal access means more information available to individuals, something that should not be left only to corporate actors. That said, governments and companies alike must better address issues such as online harassment, which prevent equal participation online.
Finally, IGF should encourage broad participation. Indeed, the need for public participation in global internet governance has never been more important. The IGF’s model of governance represents the most advanced effort at giving everyone a seat at the table when it comes to defining the future of the internet.