The coronavirus pandemic has certainly been a boon for internet usage. Instructed to lock down in our homes, those of us with connectivity and devices have largely decamped online. According to the latest Ofcom figures, UK adults have been spending a quarter of our waking day plugged in to the internet while global internet traffic has seen a 25-30% increase since the virus outbreak. Sadly, it’s not all good news: cyber attacks have risen concomitantly across the world, while reports of child sexual abuse images online has seen an almost 50% increase in since lockdown was imposed, according to latest figures from the UK’s Internet Watch Foundation.
Is there a better moment, then, to take a long hard look at the governance of an increasingly integral digital arena? This incredible technological invention can provide many benefits, but everyone must be able to access them safely and securely, in an environment free from harm. We all have a part to play in making that true, from Government right down to community action groups, and we will take a small step on that path of improvement next month when stakeholders and interested parties will gather for the annual UK Internet Governance Forum (IGF).
This national event, scheduled for mid September, is a precursor to the UN’s IGF in November and will – for the very time this year – be virtual, using the medium of the internet to discuss the governance of it. Yes, there may be a certain irony that it’s taken so long to become a virtual meeting, but there have also been many unforeseen perks from this necessary decision. Connecting to a digital panel is a real time-saver for time-poor speakers and audience members alike, with this flexibility allowing us to attract a more diverse pool of both, which only adds value to the event and makes our discussions more meaningful. We firmly believe in the power of the multi-stakeholder approach, especially when it comes to something so far-reaching as internet governance, and the more voices and minds from across different industries and sectors who participate, the bigger the impact of the IGF.
As usual, we have aligned our themes with those of the UN’s IGF, and the four topics up for discussion are trust, inclusion, data and the environment. These are perennial issues for internet governance, yet all have taken on a sharper significance during the pandemic. For example, the issue of digital inclusion has become ever more crucial as stark inequalities have been revealed by the crisis, reminding us of how much the country stands to lose if connectivity and digital skills are not available to all.
Considering its link to all the topics up for discussion, we decided to add Covid-19 as an additional theme for our national IGF. That said, it won’t be handwringing but solution-seeking, exploring what role the internet could take to mitigate the economic impact of Covid-19 and fuel recovery in the UK. Our digital infrastructure has proved a valuable asset in the past few months and it’s crucial to use it as we move forwards into more uncertain times, as the UK negotiates a seriously challenging economic picture.
As it will have done for many of us on a personal level, the pandemic has provided an opportunity to pause and consider the future of internet governance – do we slip back into the ‘old normal’ or build back better? At Nominet, we are always trying to move towards better, making continuous refinements to the governance of the .UK domain, such as our recent .UK consultation and the clarification of our criminal practices policy, but this is still a singular moment to stop and take stock. This crisis has also shown us just how interdependent the world is today and how we can – and should – work together more effectively in good times and bad. This applies to the internet just as much as vaccines, goods and the movement of people.
The UN reminded us of this fact earlier this year when they published their Roadmap for Digital Cooperation, stressing that, while the internet may be in part governed nationally by government laws and regulation, we should all keep an eye on the bigger, global picture. The internet is borderless and endlessly influenced by geo-politics and international trends and we all have a role to play. One of the key actions from the UN report was to build a more effective architecture for digital cooperation and it’s clear that the IGF represents one cog in this machine. It’s more important than ever that we discuss internet governance issues that impact the world, taking national discussions up to an international arena to share with other countries and instigate global debates on how we might face these challenges – and build solutions – together.
This is the multi-stakeholder approach at its most complex but also, potentially, at its most powerful and it is for this reason that I relish the UK IGF each year. Bringing together some of the most influential, thoughtful, and passionate people operating across all levels of the digital industries always makes for insightful keynotes and lively discussions. We may be sharing digital instead of physical space this year instead – no networking drinks to further bash out the ideas of the day, sadly – but I have no doubt the event will retain its significance. Will you join us, and add your voice to the debate over future governance of the space you spend a quarter of your waking life inhabiting?