Invited to deliver remarks, virtually, at the "Web Summit" held in Lisbon (Portugal) from November 1 to 4 - UN Secretary General, Antonio GUTERRES, did not hide his concern. "Half of humanity – in particular women and girls in developing countries and vulnerable populations – don’t have access to the Internet and those who are online are facing threats that have been amplified by the pandemic," said the UN Chief, of Portuguese origin. This is particularly true on the African continent where, despite real progress in recent years, many challenges related to digital access persist (deficiencies in the existing network, low connectivity rate [15% in 2020 against nearly 80% in Europe] ...). This is not to mention the financial burden associated with this challenge: a joint report by the World Bank and the United Nations Broadband Commission estimates the cost of closing the digital divide in Africa by 2030 at $100 billion.
“A vast library of information is being assembled about each of us. Yet we don’t have the keys to that library”
But beyond the need to work towards a wide and equitable access to internet connectivity, many other themes were discussed during this 2021 edition of the web summit, such as online harassment, disinformation, cybercrime but also, and above all, the exploitation of digital data, which is now a global economic issue. In fact, the growing reach of digital platforms and the misuse of data would be among the greatest perils, according to the UN Chief. “A vast library of information is being assembled about each of us. Yet we don’t have the keys to that library. We don’t know how this data has been collected, by whom or for what purposes. But we do know that it is being mined to influence opinions, manipulate behavior and violate human rights. This erodes trust, threatens the social contract, and undermines democracy”.
Executive Director of the NGO Internet Without Borders and Digital Civil Society Fellow at Stanford University (USA), Julie OWONO from Cameroon says nothing different as she explains that large digital companies "take essential data for individuals, including for States, without necessarily contributing in a proportional way, locally, so that their platform can have a positive impact in terms of respect for individual freedoms.” Especially in Africa, where "there are very few counter-powers" to these powerful companies. This African civil society figure considers, therefore, that "the lack of respect for privacy can appear as a neo-colonial exploitation of data.”
In his remarks, the UN Secretary General, however, ended on an optimistic note, calling on summit participants to " move beyond the current fragmented landscape of digital governance to harness data for the global good.” For her part, Julie OWONO believes that the best way to change this is to "engage with the companies [involved]". Indeed, many of these organizations are actually "open to change and sometimes directly implement the recommendations," the Director of Internet Without Borders agues, while deeming "action by such regional organizations as the African Union” necessary.
“More than ever, technology brings people together, let us unlock its promise to shape a safer, more sustainable and inclusive world”
On its part, the UN has, since last year, presented a Roadmap for Digital Cooperation, with a strong ambition: “a more open, free, diverse and safe digital future for all”, where the Internet would be a basic human right. But in the shorter term, the UN teams have set a first destination: A Global Digital Compact among governments, the private sector and civil society, at the Summit of the Future in 2023. “More than ever, technology brings people together: Let us unlock its promise to shape a safer, more sustainable and inclusive world”, Antonio GUTERRES said as he concluded his remarks to the World Web Summit.