2020 may be a disappointment – the UK IGF 2020 was not

16th November 2020


Nick Wenban-Smith
General Counsel and Head of Stakeholder Engagement

The months since the UK Internet Governance Forum 2020 has given us time to take stock of those engaging and interesting few days of discussion – in unique circumstances for this unique year. It has enabled us to compile our post-event report but also to reflect that, all things considered, this year’s event could just be one of the most successful yet.

Our ongoing ambition is to make the UK IGF bigger and better each year, which we certainly achieved in terms of figures. Our first virtual event attracted 286 people, the highest number ever by an impressive margin: this is double the attendees in 2019. While it was notable in terms of international reach – we had people dialling in from 29 different countries – the majority were from the UK, which is important for a national forum. Encouragingly, 80% of attendees being ‘new’ to the UK IGF; at an event where multi-stakeholder collaboration is key, it’s fantastic to be reaching new audiences and minds, engaging yet more people in the crucial issues that impact us all.

Clearly holding the event virtually removed many of the barriers to attending and allowed us to attract a diverse group of speakers too. Our gender balance was equal and 20% of our speakers were from BAME communities, this latter percentage better than the national average representation in the population of 14%.

Diversity, reach and engagement are some of the elements that matter most when it comes to the UK IGF because we are discussing and driving internet governance, an area which impacts us all. The wider the variety in the room, the better the discussions we can have and the broader the potential reach. The event is, after all, a means of exchanging ideas and discussing best practices; this facilitates common understanding and will help us all drive forwards together for the same aim. We also hope that our discussions will influence wider policy decisions, including UK government policy – we invited representatives to share in the UK IGF this year as we always do – and support their thinking as they work towards ensuring the digital infrastructure that underpins our society is fit for purpose – for today.

Timing matters, of course; 2020 has been a year like no other, one that may have irrevocably changed lives, livelihoods and our digital society. This recent IGF saw discussions that recognised how UK citizens have become digital citizens in record numbers over the past six months – driven by necessity – and how this has dramatically accelerated changes that were already being seen across society and the digital economy. Sadly, this transition has been uncomfortable for many; digital inequalities we have observed in previous years at the UK IGF have been further exacerbated over the past year. Many have been compelled to get online for lack of an alternative, but many have been unable to do so, finding their digital exclusion coming at a higher cost than ever before.

In this context, it was agreed, the need for online and offline behaviours to be treated the same – in regulation and in practice, another recurring discussion point at the IGF – is more pressing today, not less. This will require continued protection for human rights, innovation and freedom of speech, as digital spaces become public spaces and connectivity plays an ever-more central role in the way we live our lives.

There are clear opportunities in this transition, the forum felt, but only if the community is ready to take them, supported by genuine public confidence and trust. Trust, of course, is an ongoing area of challenge; it’s a key reason why digital tools may not fulfil their potential. Our discussions identified that more outreach, education and some sort of ethical code could help increase public trust in – and so uptake of – digital tools that could make an impact on our livelihoods. For example, consider the NHS Covid19 contact tracing app, which has great potential in terms of reducing spread of the virus and allowing some level of normality to return to life, has not worked as well as it might. Government figures of September showed over 10 million people had downloaded to app, in a population of over 60 million. If we can fully harness the potential of technological changes, we might be able to provide much needed support for our economy; key as we recover from the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Another pivotal moment of the recent IGF was the environment appearing on the national and international agenda for the first time; a very positive step in the right direction to ensure that our technology ambitions are not delivered at the cost of our planet. This could be incentivised by Government, but industry must also take responsibility, decarbonising existing and legacy technologies for a digital age and considering its own role in ensuring the free and open internet – and all the devices connected to it – are sustainable.

Despite the difficult year the world has faced in 2020, it would be remiss to not recognise how the internet has demonstrated its ability to materially benefit us all. The challenge now will be to ensure it does so on a fair and equitable basis as we build an inclusive, sustainable recovery. We can use this foundation and the identification of issues – from inequality and digital exclusion to trust – to help us move towards a better model of internet governance and rise to the ongoing challenges we will continue to face in the months ahead.

One crucial consensus as we closed the IGF was the need to focus on outcomes, not just problems and processes, and the importance of a holistic approach to the challenges: we need infrastructure, both physical and social, to succeed. It is also crucial to remember that this is a collective responsibility. If we use the internet and inhabit the digital society being created here in the UK – and most you reading this will certainly do so – we have a role to play in shaping governance of it in the future.

Find out more about the UK IGF 2020 in our new post-event report and the highlights video. All keynote and panel sessions can also be streamed in full.  

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