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Internet Governance 30 April 2018

Future Thinking: Getachew Engida on Digital Divides

Last year, the Internet Society unveiled the 2017 Global Internet Report: Paths to Our Digital Future. The interactive report identifies the drivers affecting tomorrow’s Internet and their impact on Media & Society, Digital Divides, and Personal Rights & Freedoms. In April 2018, we interviewed two stakeholders – Getachew Engida, Deputy Director-General of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), and Augusto Mathurin, who created Virtuágora, an open source digital participation platform – to hear their different perspectives on the forces shaping the Internet.

Getachew Engida is the Deputy Director-General of UNESCO. He has spent the past twenty years leading and managing international organizations and advancing the cause of poverty eradication, peace-building, and sustainable development. He has worked extensively on rural and agricultural development, water and climate challenges, education, science, technology and innovation, intercultural dialogue and cultural diversity, communication and information with emphasis on freedom of expression, and the free flow information on and offline. (You can read Augusto Mathurin’s interview here).

The Internet Society: You have, in the past, stressed the role that education has played in your own life and can play in others’ lives. Do you see technology helping to promote literacy and education in all regions in the future?

Getachew EngidaEducation unleashes new opportunities and must be available to all. If it were not for educational opportunities, I certainly would not have been where I am today. Though coming from a humble and poor family, I was given the opportunity to go to public primary and secondary schools that also had feeding programs thanks to UN agencies. I benefitted from scholarships to undertake higher education that made a huge difference to my career progression.

Technology, indeed, is a great enabler and allows us to reach the marginalized and those left behind from quality education. But while connectivity is increasing at a rapid pace, educational material lags behind, particularly in mother tongues. Appropriate and relevant, quality education, combined with technology, will be a potent weapon to drastically improve access to education and eliminate illiteracy around the world.

How can we ensure that future generations are taught the right skills to flourish in future workplaces, which will demand a thorough command of digital skills?

No doubt, inclusive knowledge societies and the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development cannot be achieved without an informed population and an information-literate youth. Digital skills constitute a crucial part of quality education and lifelong learning.

UNESCO believes in empowering  women and men, but particularly youth, by focusing specifically on what we call “Media and Information Literacy” (MIL). This includes human rights literacy, digital security skills, and cross-cultural competencies. These skills enable people to critically interpret their complex digital information environments and to constructively access and contribute information about matters like democracy, health, environment, education, and work.

As the media and communications landscape is complex and rapidly changing, we need to constantly update the substance of media and information literacy education to keep pace with technological development. The youth need, for example, to grapple with the attention economy, personal data and privacy, and how these and other developments impact them through algorithms and Artificial Intelligence (AI). Facing increasing concerns about the misuse of information and disinformation (‘fake news’), propaganda, hate speech, and violent extremism, we see an urgent need for a concerted effort from all stakeholders to empower societies with stronger media and information literacy competencies. In this way, the targets of malicious online endeavours will be able to detect, decipher and discredit attempts to manipulate their feelings, networks, and personal identities.

What role does the UN in general and UNESCO more specifically have to play in promoting and protecting human rights online? How does UNESCO navigate tensions between different interpretations of human rights online – e.g., first amendment fundamentalism in the US versus more balanced approaches in Europe?

One of the great achievements of the United Nations is the creation of a comprehensive body of human rights law—a universal and internationally protected code to which all nations can subscribe and all people can aspire. In the digital age, the UN General Assembly and Human Rights Council have constantly updated this human rights mandate by issuing a number of resolutions to promote human rights equally online and offline.

UNESCO, in turn, is the UN agency with a mandate to defend freedom of expression, instructed by its constitution to promote “the free flow of ideas by word and image.” UNESCO also recognizes the right to privacy underpins other rights and freedoms, including freedom of expression, association, and belief. We work worldwide to promote freedom of expression and privacy both online and offline.

UNESCO has taken a lead to flag Internet freedom issues at a number of key conferences and events such as the upcoming RightsCon gatherings, the annual WSIS Forum, and the Internet Governance Forum. We also do the same at UNESCO World Press Freedom Day celebrations each year on May 3, and meetings to mark the International Day for Universal Access to Information, on 28 September every year. To provide member states and stakeholders with cutting-edge knowledge and policy advice, UNESCO has commissioned a number of pioneering policy studies, the Internet Freedom series, too. They shed light on issues such as protecting journalism sources in digital age, principles for governing the Internet, and the evolution of multistakeholder participation in Internet governance.

How do you see emerging technologies, such as IoT or AI, impacting sustainable development and the future of our world? As we promote connectivity, do we risk cultural and linguistic diversity?

AI could profoundly shape humanity’s access to information and knowledge, which will make it easier to produce, distribute, find and assess. This could allow humanity to concentrate on creative development rather than more mundane tasks. The implications for open educational resources, cultural diversity, and scientific progress could also be significant. In addition, AI could also provide new opportunities to understand the drivers of intercultural tension and other forms of conflict, providing the capacities to collect, analyze, and interpret vast quantities of data to better understand, and perhaps predict, how and when misunderstandings and conflict may arise. In turn, these can all contribute to democracy, peace and achieving the SDGs.

However, AI and automated processes, which are particularly powerful when fuelled by big data, also raise concerns for human rights, especially where freedom of expression and the right to privacy are concerned. Internet companies have begun to use AI in content moderation and in ranking orders for personalized search results and social media newsfeeds. Without human values and ethics being instilled from the start during the design stage, and without relevant human oversight, judgement, and due process, such practices can have a negative impact on human rights.

AI is already beginning to shape news production and dissemination and shifting the practice and value of journalists and journalism in the digital age. Internet and news media companies, especially whether they intersect, need to consciously reflect on the ambiguities of data mining and targeting, as well as Big Data business models for advertising in the attention economy.

There is therefore a crucial need to explore these issues in depth and to reflect on ways to harness Big Data and AI technologies in order to mitigate disadvantages and advance human rights and democracy, build inclusive knowledge societies, and achieve the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda. Current societal mechanisms including moral and legal frameworks are not geared to effectively deal with such rapid developments.

What are your hopes for the future of the Internet? What are your fears?

I hope to see a free and open Internet which is accessed and governed by all, leaving no one behind and making the world a better place for future generations. To do this we have to continuously counter emerging divides, such as linguistic capacities of computer recognition of speech which is making great strides in English, for example, but which leaves many other languages on the periphery. We need a proportionate response to the problems on the Internet which does not  damage “the good” in countering “the bad.” We should expand and maintain connectivity as the default setting in the digital age, and do everything possible to avoid the increasing tendencies of complete Internet shutdowns in certain regions or places. We need better respect for personal data and privacy from both corporate and state actors who track our online data. We need strong journalism online to counter disinformation, and we need heightened media and information literacies for everybody.

My fear is that Internet as a double-edge sword: if not properly harnessed, it might end up being used to regress, rather than to advance, those classic values we cherish such as a private life, transparency, and public-interest journalism. Without dialogue amongst all stakeholders, we could see the Internet and related technologies being exploited to pose severe challenges to peace, security, and human rights. Such fears need to be offset by maintaining a sense of proportion whereby the good of the Internet significantly dwarfs the bad, and where we can increasingly utilise existing and emerging digital technologies to achieve the planet’s agreed development goals by 2030.

What do you think the future of the Internet looks like? Explore the 2017 Global Internet Report: Paths to Our Digital Future to see how the Internet might transform our lives across the globe, then choose a path to help shape tomorrow.

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