Reflections on IGF 2019 in Berlin


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High Level Session on Internet Governance at IGF 2019

I have been quite critical of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) process in the past, arguing that it was created essentially as a talking shop and a palliative to civil society following the original WSIS meetings in 2003 and 2005 (for details see my Reclaiming ICT4D, OUP, 2017), and that it has subsequently achieved rather little of substance.  I still retain the view that there are far too many “global” ICT4D gatherings that overlap and duplicate each other, without making a substantial positive difference to the lives of the poorest and most marginalised.  Likewise, I have been hugely critical of the creation and work of the UN Secretary General’s High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation (HLPDC), despite having several good friends who have been involved in trying to manage this process (see the UNESCO Chair in ICT4D’s response to the original call for contributions).  I retain the view that it is poorly conceived, duplicates other initiatives, and will again have little positive impact on the lives of the poorest and most marginalised.

So, it was with much interest that I arrived at the IGF in Berlin on 25th November in response to three invitations: to participate in a session on ICTs for people with disabilities, to support colleagues involved in the EQUALS initiative intended to increase gender digital equality, and also to participate in a side event on Many Worlds.  Many Nets.  Many Visions, for which I had contributed a short piece on our TEQtogether initiative designed to change men’s attitudes and behaviours towards women and technology.  To this end, it is salient to note the largely elderly white male dominance on the key opening plenary panel on the future of Internet governance shown in the picture above – more on that later!  I had many interesting discussions during the week, but want here to share five main reflections and challenges in the hope that they will provoke dialogue and discussion.

IGF (plus?)…

Water stationms

Water Station at IGF 2019

It was rumoured that the German government had put aside some €10 million to cover the costs of this year’s IGF.  Whilst that may well be an exaggeration we were certainly hosted in great luxury, and it would be churlish not to thank the German government for their generous hospitality.  In compliance with increasing concerns over plastic and climate change, there was even a very impressive water station in the exhibition area!  They had also done much to encourage the participation of many quite young people, and to get the gender balance better than at some similar digital technology events in the past.  The IGF 2019 outputs are already available and make interesting reading.

UN SG speaking in IGF 2019 Opening Ceremony

UN SG speaking in IGF 2019 Opening Ceremony

However, I was struck by the relative absence of people from China, India and Russia, as well as from many of the poorer countries of the world who were unable to afford the travel costs or who had difficulties in obtaining visas.  This absence set me thinking of the wider global geopolitical interests involved in the IGF process.  At a time when the ITU is unfortunately being increasingly criticised by North American and European countries for being too heavily in the pocket of Chinese organisations and companies (recent criticism of China’s efforts to influence global standards on facial recognition is but one small example), free-market capitalist governments have turned ever more to the IGF as the main forum for their engagement on Internet issues.

Angela Merkel in IGF 2019 Opening Ceremony

Angela Merkel in IGF 2019 Opening Ceremony

The theme of this year’s IGF One World.  One Net.  One Vision. says it all (and hence why I was so eager to be involved in the innovative and creative Many Worlds. Many Nets.  Many Visions initiative).  The IGF is about maintaining a unitary free open Internet in the face of perceived attempts by countries such as China and Russia to fragment the Internet.  It is no coincidence that next year’s IGF is in another European country, Poland, and that the last two IGFs have been in France and Switzerland.  The messages of the UN Secretary General and the German Chancellor (shown in the images above) were equally forceful about the kind of Internet that they want to see.

Moreover, this hidden war over the future of the Internet is also being played out through the HLPDC process which has suggested that there are three possible architectures for digital cooperation.  The presence of such high-level participants at this year’s IGF very much conveyed the impression that the IGF Plus option is the one that they prefer as the main forum for policy making over the Internet in the future.  This is scarcely surprising: all but two (one Chinese and one Russian) of the 20 members of the HLPDC Panel and Co-chairs are from free-market capitalist-inclined countries; 8 of the 20 are from the USA and Europe.

The sale of .org by ISOC to Ethos Capital

Another major issue that raised its head during this year’s IGF was the very controversial sale by the Internet Society (ISOC) of its non-profit Public Internet Registry (PIR) which had previously managed the top-level domain .org to a for-profit company, Ethos Capital, for the sum of $1.135 bn.

Key elements of the controversy that were widely mentioned during the IGF, and are well summarised by The Registry, include:

  • ISOC’s decision under a new CEO to shift its financial structure from benefitting from the variable profits derived from .org to creating a foundation from which it would then use the interest to fund the activities of its various chapters (the new Internet Society Foundation was created in February 2019);
  • The lifting of the cap announced in May 2019 by ICANN on prices of .org domain names, which would enable the owner of the .org registry to impose unlimited price rises for the 10 million .org domain name owners; and
  • The observation that the former CEO of ICANN had personally registered the domain name used by Ethos Capital only the day after the cap had been lifted (it appears that he and a small number of his close affililates linked to ICANN are the only people involved in Ethos Capital) .

The lack of transparency over this entire process, and the potential for significant profits to be gained by certain individuals from these changes have given rise to huge concerns, especially among civil society organisations that use .org domain names.  As a recent article in The Register concludes, “The deal developed by former ICANN CEO Chehade is worth billions of dollars. With that much money at stake, and with a longstanding non-profit registry turned into a for-profit with unlimited ability to raise prices, the internet community has started demanding answers to who knew what and when”.

Inclusion, accessibility and people with disabilities…

Absence of people in IGF 2019 Main Hall for High Level Session on Inclusion

Absence of people in IGF 2019 Main Hall for High Level Session on Inclusion

It was good to see a considerable number of sessions devoted to inclusion, accessibility and people with disabilities at this year’s IGF.  However, it was sad to see how relatively poorly attended so many of these sessions were.  The exodus from the Main Hall between the High Level Session on the Future of Internet Governance and the High Level Session on Inclusion, for example, was very noticeable.  The content of most of these sessions on disabilities and inclusion was generally interesting, and it is just such a shame that the wider digital community still fails to grasp that digital technologies will increase the marginalisation of those with disabilities unless all such technologies are designed as far as is reasonably possible to be inclusive in the first place.  Assistive technologies can indeed make a very significant difference to the lives of people with disabilities, but such persons should not have to pay more for them to counter the increased marginalisation that they face when many non-inclusive new technologies are introduced.

IGF 2019 Session WS#64 on empowering persons with disabilities

IGF 2019 Session WS#64 on empowering persons with disabilities

I was, though, hugely challenged by my own participation in one of these sessions.  Having been invited by Brian Scarpelli to be the penultimate speaker in a session that he had convened on Internet Accessibility Empowering Persons with Disabilities (WS #64), I just felt that it needed a little livening up by the time it was my turn to speak.  I therefore decided to take a roving microphone, and did my presentation walking around inside the cage of desks around which everyone was seated.  I wanted to engage with the “audience” several of whom did indeed have disabilities, and I tried hard to involve them by, for example, describing myself and the venue for those who were blind.  The audience seemed to welcome this, and I had felt that I had got my messages across reasonably well.  Afterwards, though, someone who is autistic came up to me and in the nicest way berated me for having walked around.  She said that the movement had distressed her, and made it difficult for her to follow what I was saying.  She suggested that in the future I should stay still when doing presentations.

This presented me with a real challenge, since I have been encouraged all my life to deliver presentations as a performance – using my whole body to engage with the audience to try to convince them of my ideas.  So, what should we do when making presentations to an audience of such varied abilities?  Can we cater for them all? Clearly, I don’t want to upset those with one disability.  Should I ask if anyone in an audience minds if I walk around?  But then, someone with autism might well not want to speak out and say that they did actually mind?  Should the preference of one person with a disability over-ride the preferences of the remaining 49 people in a room?  There is no easy answer to these questions, but I would greatly value advice from those more familiar with such challenges than I am.

Exclusion in the midst of diversity: being an elderly, white, grey-haired, European man…

"Many Worlds. Many Nets. Many Visions" gathering held during IGF 2019 at HIIG

“Many Worlds. Many Nets. Many Visions” gathering held during IGF 2019 at HIIG

Far too many international events associated with digital technologies continue to be excessively male dominated, and it was refreshing to see the considerable gender diversity evident at IGF 2019.  Despite this, as noted above, several panels did remain very “male”!  It was therefore very refreshing to participate in the Many Worlds.  Many Nets.  Many Visions side event held at the Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society (HIIG), and congratulations should once again be given to Matthias Kettemann and Katharina Mosene for putting this exciting and challenging initiative together.

Reflecting on the various gender-related events held during and around IGF 2019, though, has made me very uneasy.  I was particularly struck by the frequency with which presenters advocating plurality and diversity of ideas, behaviours, and self-identification, nevertheless also seemed to castigate, and even demonise one particular group of people as being, in effect, the “enemy”.  That group is the group that others see me as belonging to: elderly/middle-aged, white, grey-haired, European (and let’s add north American and Oceanian as well), men!  Perhaps it was just in the sessions that I attended, but over and over again this group was seen as being oppressive, the main cause of gender digital inequality, and those who are to be fought against.  The language reminded me very much of some of the feminist meetings that I attended back in the 1970s.

I was surprised, though, how sad this made me feel.  Some elderly, white, grey-haired, European (etc.) men have indeed worked over many decades to help change social attitudes and behaviours at the interface between women and technology.  This group is not uniform!  Some have written at length about these issues; some have helped implement programmes to try to make a real difference on the ground.  To be sure, we need to continue to do much more to change men’s attitudes and behaviours;  TEQtogether has been set up to do just this.  What upset me most, though, is that these efforts were rarely recognised by those who were so critical of  this particular “uniform” group.  Too often, all elderly, white, grey-haired, European (etc.) men seemed to be lumped together in a single group by those very people who were calling for recognition of the importance of diversity and multiple identities. There is a sad irony here.  Perhaps it is time for me just to grow old gracefully…

EQUALSIt was therefore amazingly humbling that, almost at the end of the EQUALS in Tech awards, a young woman who I had never met before, came up to me and simply said thank you.  Someone had told her what one elderly, white, grey-haired, European (etc.) man had tried to do over the last 40 years or so…  I wonder if she has any idea of just how much those few words meant to me.

Novelty and learning from the past

Poster about sexual exploitation of children, Ethiopia, 2002

Poster about sexual exploitation of children, Ethiopia, 2002

Finally, the 2019 IGF re-emphasised my concerns over the claims of novelty by people discovering the complexity of the inter-relationships between technology and society.  All too often speakers were claiming things that had actually been said and done twenty or more years ago as being new  ideas of their own.  This was typified by a fascinating session on Sex Work, Drug Use, Harm Reduction, and the Internet (WS 389).  Whilst this is indeed a very important topic, and one that should be addressed in considerably more detail, few of the presenters made any reference to past work on the subject, or appeared to have made much attempt to learn from previous research and practice in the field.  Back in the early 2000s, for example, the Imfundo initiative had spent time identifying how “bar girls” in Ethiopia might have been able to use digital technologies that were novel then to help transform their lives and gain new and better jobs.  I wonder how many people attending Session WS 389 were at all aware of the complex ethical questions and difficulties surrounding the conduct of research and practice on this topic that the Imfundo team had explored all those years ago.  There were important lessons to be learnt, and yet instead the wheel seems to be being reinvented over and over again.

This example was not isolated, and a recurrent feature of the field of ICT for Development is that people so rarely seem to learn from mistakes of the past, and everyone wants to claim novelty for ideas that have already been thoroughly explored elsewhere.  I  must write at length some time about the reasons why this seems to happen so often…


Finally, the artists who created this image of Berlin from tape during IGF 2019 deserve to be congratulated on their amazing work!

Artwork of Berlin made in tape, 25th November

Artwork of Berlin made in tape, 25th November

Artwork of Berlin made in tape, 29th November

Artwork of Berlin made in tape, 29th November

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Setting sun over Brandenburg


A recent visit to an old friend living near Müncheberg in the Land of Brandenburg on a glorious late autumn day provided a wonderful opportunity to experience the special landscape and wide open skyscape of this part of Germany.  The quickly fading light rendered the leafless silver birch trees a rich red colour, contrasting beautifully with the green sown fields alongside.  The sun setting behind a hemispherical tree in the distance also provided a wonderful silhouette against the vast sky beyond.  The pictures below hopefully capture something of this fascinating part of Germany, with its contrasts between wide open fields and dense areas of woodland.

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I couldn’t resist adding one image from earlier in the day: a field filled with a vast flock of migratory geese!

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IGF 2019 WS #64 Internet Accessibility Empowering Persons with Disabilities


Visually impaired girl using Braille in Tunisia

Visually impaired girl using Braille in Tunisia

I’m so glad to have been invited to contibute to the session on Internet Accessibility Empowering Persons With Disabilities at this year’s Internet Governance Forum Meeting in Berlin (Wednesday 27th November, 1500-1650 CET in Room IV of the Estrel Congress Center, Sonnenallee 225, 12057 Berlin).

Hopefully, the introductory pieces by all of the speakers will be short, so that we can have a lively discussion.  I am speaking last, so previous speakers will probably have made all of the important points! However, for those unable to attend, this is what I am hoping to say:

I would like to use this opportunity to make four brief points:

First, unless universal inclusion and accessibility are built into all new digital technologies from the original design stage to end user, they will further increase inequality.  The more and more advanced technologies become, the further they benefit those who can afford and are able to use them, rather than the most marginalised and poorest, especially those with disabilities

Second, it is crucial that we change the design approach mindset so that inclusion becomes of paramount importance for the internet and the use of digital technologies.  This can be done in many ways, but I have always been impressed by the power of the market, and the role that procurement can play, especially by governments and large corporations.

Third, we can all get better at what we do!  I continually get cross with myself that I do not always insert alternative text for all of the images I post on my digital platforms, and in the slide decks that I share of my talks.  It is not good enough, but it takes longer to do, and with a tight schedule I usually forget. I need to do better; we all do.

Finally, and to end on a more optimistic note, of course the design of new digital technologies can indeed be used by people with disabilities to transform their lives.  There are always new things being developed – my latest exciting discovery is OptiKey .  However, we need to do much more to help change developers’ attitudes – and indeed those of the wider tech community.  Smart city technology for example should be being used much more to help the blind and visually impaired.  We must all do more – together with those with disabilities, and not just “for them”.

For more about our work on inclusion and disability, see our small site at Disabilities and ICT4D.

 

 

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Barbarians 31 – Fiji 33, Killik Cup 2019


It was great to watch such a free-flowing and open game of rugby at Twickenham yesterday (16th November 2019).  The referee Tom Foley rarely had to stop the game, and when he did both teams chose to kick for touch and further possession when they were awarded penalties, which added to the entertainment.    Having been behind 17-33, the Barbarians fought back to within two points at the end, making it a very exciting finish.  The handling was impressive, and despite the cold the crowd of 51,213 left invigorated by a most enjoyable afternoon!  I hope that the pictures below capture something of the entertainment and excitement.

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For match reports see:

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The running shoes, girls’ learning in Africa and the gecko: a fable


shoesOnce there was a brilliant young entrepreneur living in Africa.  Let us call him Alfred.  He wanted to make loads of money, but was also very committed to trying to improve the quality of girls’ learning and education.  One evening, drinking probably too much Tusker, Alfred had a stroke of inspiration.  What if he could persuade the government that giving girls high quality new running shoes would transform the quality of their learning experience, and thus their future job prospects.  This was an absolute no brainer.  The government would have to buy his trainers for every girl in the school system!

Children 1

Schoolgirls in Ghana

But how was he to start? Many international donors are eager to support such schemes that might contribute to achievements of SDGs4 (education) and 5 (gender).  So, he set about getting to know the heads of country office of some of the leading European donors, and learnt that at the heart of getting funding was the need to have a theory of change (well, really not a comprehensive “theory”, but just a basic description of how running shoes would improve girls’ learning).  This was easy: good quality running shoes would enable the girls to get fitter, and it is well known that a fit body creates a fit mind; then, if they ran to and from school each day they would have more time to do their homework; and with good shoes on their feet they would not suffer as many injuries or catch diseases that might impair their learning.  Alfred had to think of an inspiring name for these shoes, so that everyone would want a pair.  How about “Jepkosgei” after the great young Kenyan runner who had just won the New York Marathon?  She was very happy to lend her name to this incredibly exciting initiative that could transform girls’ learning.

Malawi classroom bright

A school classroom in Malawi

The stage was set.  His friends among the donors recommended a great European university research team who would do the baseline survey as part of one of their research grants, and then they would do a follow-up evaluation at the end of the first term.  The shoes would be randomly allocated to girls in classrooms in a small set of pilot schools, and the purpose was to show that giving girls smart new running shoes would indeed improve their results when compared with those in the classrooms that were not given the shoes.  At the end of term, the researchers returned.  Everyone was on best behaviour.  What would they discover?

The results were extraordinary.  In just one term, the girls had improved their scores by 20% in Mathematics and English.  The researchers checked and re-checked their resuts, but there was absolutely no doubt.  The President got to hear of Alfred’s great success, and eager to do well in the next elections he ordered all schools immediately to supply girls with Jepkosgei running shoes. Demand outstripped supply, but Alfred set up new factories to produce them, providing much needed employment and contributing to the country’s economic growth.  Soon neighbouring countries got to hear about the impact of running shoes on girls’ learning, and they too sent in orders for tens of thousands of shoes.  Alfred became a superstar.  He won numerous awards at prestigious international events, and was fêted by the likes of Bill Gates and António Guterres.  Alfred was an African hero transforming African girls’ learning.  Why hadn’t anyone thought of this before.  It was so simple.

Gecko 2

A friendly and wise gecko

Back at the school where this all began there was a wise old gecko.  He had watched and listened as the changes took place.  He knew why learning had changed.  When the girls had first been given their runing shoes they were so proud!  They were going to be like Joyciline Jepkosgei!  People were paying attention to them.  For the first time in their lives they had felt appreciated at school.  They wanted to respond positively.  But it wasn’t just this.  Other children in the school knew that if the pilot was a success, they too would be given smart new running shoes.  So, they did everything they could to help ensure that their peers with the shoes would learn especially well that term.  They did extra chores for them so they could concentrate on their work.  They provided advice and help when something wasn’t understood.  They gave them quizzes and checked they knew the right answers.  The teachers also wanted to ensure that these girls did really well as a result of the running shoes, and so they put extra effort into preparing their classes, and ensuring that the girls had the best opportunities to learn, despite the limited resources.  Some even helped them with the answers in the tests when the researchers came to evaluate the scheme.

It was all a wonderful success.  Alfred was happy and rich, the President was happy and re-elected, the donors were happy because they could show how they delivered on the SDGs.  But the girls weren’t happy, and their exam results gradually declined over the next few years.  Girls’ feet grow, and their lovely bright shoes were soon too small for them.  There was no way to hand them on or recycle them, and in any case after a couple of years continual use by their younger sisters they were wearing out.  The government couldn’t afford to buy new shoes for all the girls.  Once everyone had them, those who had been in the pilot no longer felt special, and no-one helped each other to try to improve results.  In any case, the government was now more interested in the 4th Industrial Revolution, and how they could use it to control their people and further advantage those who were already rich and powerful and living in the burgeoning constantly surveilled smart cities…

The gecko, though, continued to enjoy catching insects, and watching the children play.  Occasionally, he wistfully wondered why no-one had asked him how to improve girls education and learning.

Malawi school children small

A school in rural Malawi

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Short guides to literature on technology use in education: both the positives and the negatives…


Infant school

Infant school in Cocody, Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire

Far too many initiatives using technolgy in education fail to learn from the experiences of others as they seek to be innovative and novel.  Consequently, the same mistakes tend to be replicated over and over again.  Far too many researchers likewise fail to read but a fraction of the vast literature that has been published on technology and education, and bibliographies in PhD theses in the field are increasingly often only sketchy at best.

In 2017 and 2018 I had the privilege of being asked to write a report for UNICEF on how the organisation might respond to the future interface between technology and learning.  This involved reading hundreds of reports, interviewing numerous people, and drawing on my experiences across the world over the last quarter of a century.  It made me realise how little I know, and how much still needs to be done.

However, in order to help others on this journey of discovery and learning, I thought it might be helpful to share a shortened version of the footnotes (34 sides) and a short summary bibliography (10 sides) that I included in that report.  Many of the links to the original literature or examples are included (please let me know if any are broken so that I can try to update them!).  Not least, I hope that this might reduce the flow of questions I receive from people beginning to get interested in the field, either for research or because they have a great idea that they would like to introduce in practice on the ground – most of whom have never actually read much before asking me the question!  These are but starting points on a lifetime of learning and discovery, but I hope that people may find them useful.

I have previously posted summaries of some of the content of my UNICEF report elsewhere on my Blog as follows:

I must stress that these are very much my own views, and in no way represent the opinions of UNICEF or those with whom I have previosuly worked.  They are offered here, though, to get us all to ask some of the difficult questions about ways through which some of the poorest and most marginalised can benefit from the use of technology in education, if indeed that will ever truly be possible (at least in a relative sense).

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Filed under Africa, AI, Education, Higher Education, ICT4D, technology, United Nations

Marching for a “People’s Vote”, 19th October 2019


Panorama

Today is the first day that Parliament has sat on a Saturday since 1982, and only the fourth time it has done so since the end of World War II.   The gathering had been called to discuss Prime Minister Johnson’s new Brexit deal with the EU.  It was also the day chosen for the latest People’s Vote march.  It is estimated that around a million people joined the march which wound its way from Hyde Park Corner to Parliament Square,

Central London was brought to a complete standstill, but despite the much larger police presence than previously, it was generally good humoured and festive.  Marchers came from all corners of the UK and beyond; they were young and old; men and women; people from all different background, religions and colours; in wheelchairs and on their feet…  They carried a wide array of amusing, clever, and sometimes challenging posters and banners.  The atmosphere was full of trepidation; Parliament was set to accept the deal.  The day started brightly.  England had thrashed Australia at the Rugby Union World Cup in Japan, and the sun was shining brightly over London.  As the afternoon progressed, though, the clouds began rolling in. After hours of discussions, Members of Parliament (MPs) were voting on the so-called Letwin Amendment, which would withhold approval of the deal, until it had been fully discussed by Parliament and the legislation passed to enact it.  This would have the effect of triggering the “Benn Act” which would force the Prime Minister to request a further postponement of Brexit until 31 January.  The rain started in Parliament Square, and the big screen revealed the tellers coming back into Parliament.  Everyone held their breath, hoping that the ayes would have it.  And so it was, by 220 votes to 206, a majority of 16.  The square erupted in cheers.  Prime Minister Johnson’s rotten deal, widely seen as being worse for the UK than that brokered by his predecessor May, had been delayed, if only for a while.

I hope that the pictures below capture something of the diversity and passion of those marching for a people’s vote, most of whom wish to remain in the EU.  It was a wonderful example of democracy still being alive and well in the UK.

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I have often been a critic of many of our MPs, and their failure to serve our citizens, but the quality of speeches by MPs and others from the platform today was of very high quality: passionate, committed, eloquent, accurate, and above all advocating the democratic principles that lie at the heart of our country.  It was a very special, indeed an inspirational, day.

See also my reflections on the People’s March on 20th October 2018.

[In most instance where I photographed an individual close up so that they are easily recognisable, I specifically asked if I could share the picture on social media and permission was readily granted.  It was impossible, though, to ask everyone in crowd scenes.  Where possible, I tried to take photos primarily of people’s backs, but again this was not always feasible.  Should anyone wish me to remove an image please let me know and I will do so.  I do hope that none of these images cause anyone concern]

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