- Abstract of Research Project – June 2019
- Working Paper 1: ICTs and Democracy – a review of the Literature
- Working Paper 2: The Internet and Democratization revisited in the wake of the third wave of authoritarianism
This blog note has also been published on CircleID in January 2020.
Digital Development and Freedom on the Net
On the 5th of November 2019, the release of the first of ITU’s Measuring Digital Development series coincided with Freedom House’s unveiling of its Freedom on Net 2019 report. This serendipity prompted me to write this blog note after carefully examining both reports.
On one hand, ITU’s analytical publication, with its new friendly format, emphasizes that Internet use continues to spread, warning however that the digital gender gap is widening. The estimated 4.1 billion people using the Internet in 2019 reflect a 5.3 per cent increase, confirming the trend of slowing global growth rates. More men than women use the Internet in every region of the world except the Americas, which has near-parity and 97 per cent of the world population now lives within reach of a mobile cellular signal, reveals the report, offering interesting snapshots of other important ICT indicators. With its global and regional perspectives, ITU’s Facts and Figures 2019 also recalls that most of the offline population (46 per cent of the world population) lives in least developed countries, Europe and Africa having the highest and lowest Internet usage rates, respectively.
On the other hand, the Freedom on the Net 2019 focusing on ‘the Crisis of Social Media’ comments that the Internet, once a liberating technology, has opened new conduits for surveillance and electoral manipulation. Internet Freedom Declines outnumber gains for the ninth consecutive year with Ethiopia recording the largest gains in 2019 following the election of a new Prime Minister Dr Abiy Ahmed, winner of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, who loosened restrictions on the Internet and unblocked 260 websites. “Digital platforms are the new battleground for democracy and Internet freedom is increasingly imperiled by the tools and tactics of digital authoritarianism” notes the report recalling that of the 65 countries assessed, 33 have been on an overall decline since June 2018. The future of Internet freedom rests on our ability to fix social media, predicts the report offering series of recommendations to ‘fairly’ regulate a technology now pervasive in business, politics and personal lives.
The more we connect the World, the less free it becomes?
Ethiopia saw an 11 point improvement in its internet freedom score recording the biggest improvement this year in Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net Index.
The April 2018 appointment of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed led to an ambitious reform agenda that loosened restrictions on the internet. Abiy’s government unblocked 260 websites, including many known to report on critical political issues.
Insightful and thought provoking discussions among distinguished panel members:
- Brad Smith, president of Microsoft;
- Doris Leuthard, former president of the Swiss Confederation;
- Amandeep Singh Gill, former co-executive director of the High-level Panel on Digital Cooperation’s Secretariat;
- Jovan Kurbalija, head of the Geneva Internet Platform and former Co-Executive Director, Secretariat of the High-level Panel on Digital Cooperation
Amidst the conversations on the role of Geneva in Digital Cooperation, it was mentioned that:
- the Swiss Digital Initiative (including GAFAM) to promote ethics in the digital world will to be officially launched on World Economic Forum 2020
- Geneva is where ‘Technology meets Humanity’ referring to the early technologies, the birth of the Red Cross
- ‘De-ideologizing’ the issue of data which ranges from private data, scientific data, business data and that emphasis on those specificities is important when discussing regulation on data
- Inclusiveness is one of the most pressing challenge in view of ‘not missing out on opportunities’
- only 5% of articles about Africa on Wikipedia are written by Africans yet optimism was echoed about Africa’s growth and digital transformation
Interestingly, alluding to the Cloud Act (a United States federal law enacted in 2018) and bilateral agreements, @Jovan Kurbalija referred to the creation of the ITU (International Telecommunication Union) in 1865 after bilateral agreements could not properly address issues relating to Telegraph Exchanges. The International Telegraph Convention was indeed a precursor of multilateralism, many decades before the creation of the League of Nations.
The recording can be found here .
Kitaw works in Geneva for the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the United Nations specialized agency for Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs).
Born and raised in Addis Abeba, Ethiopia, he holds an MBA in Management of Technology from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL) and is currently a PhD Fellow in Governance and Policy Analysis at the University of Maastricht – UNU-MERIT researching on the role of the Internet in pathways to democratization of authoritarian regimes.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog and extracts of research work are solely those of the author and may not necessarily reflect the official position of his employer and the academic institutions he is affiliated with.
I just watched an interesting 10 minutes talk in TEDx format by Patrick Walsh with an appealing title “Everyday Citizens and the UN 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda”.
He covered in a brief yet comprehensive, attention captivating style important and complex points ranging from the genesis of the UN 2030 Development Agenda to YOU and what YOU can do for the success of its implementation.
I particularly appreciated his novel example of a women, stranded on a desert island, who sets up a company, a household and a government and how she would not knowingly harm herself or the environment around her for her grandchildren. He depicted this fictional instance to illustrate the ‘disconnects’ in the current world we live in and how ‘stakeholder partnerships’ could address these issues as we go along the implementation of the 2030 agenda.
In short, his key message was to recall the responsibility for implementation by the people and to induce successful stakeholder partnership at local, national, regional and global levels.
- Internet freedom around the world declined in 2016 for the sixth consecutive year.
- Two-thirds of all internet users – 67 percent – live in countries where criticism of the government, military, or ruling family are subject to censorship.
- Social media users face unprecedented penalties, as authorities in 38 countries made arrests based on social media posts over the past year. Globally, 27 percent of all internet users live in countries where people have been arrested for publishing, sharing, or merely “liking” content on Facebook.
- Governments are increasingly going after messaging apps like WhatsApp and Telegram, which can spread information quickly and securely.
Interestingly, the report displays a chart showing Internet Freedom vs Internet Penetration and GDP without providing any comment.
The chart triggers a variety of questions ranging from the linkages between Internet Freedom and GDP up to the correlations between ICT growth, development and democracy.
Indeed, the Internet presents the ‘Dictator’s dilemma’ for authoritarian regimes.
On one hand, shutting it down can hurt their economy. On the other, leaving it open and unrestricted can threaten their power grip as it facilitates their citizens’ ability to access and share political information and engage collectively.
Most often respond to this dilemma through sophisticated and opaque ways, taking advantage of the tool, by for example promoting e-government as a means to strengthen their authoritarian rule while tightening control and surveillance. (see figure from the World Development Report 2016 – Digital Dividends)