Is This The Internet We Truly Want?: Reflecting on IGF Kyoto 2023

The recently concluded Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in Kyoto, held from October 8-12, 2023, was a dynamic platform that brought together voices from around the globe to discuss the pressing issues surrounding internet governance. While the forum made admirable strides in embracing diversity, it was evident that there is still room for improvement in representing the marginalized context.

It is always an inconvenient truth that the voices of marginalized communities, including those in Southeast Asia, are frequently sidelined in international events. In regions where weak governance and institutions prevail, coupled with self-serving laws that favor those in power, marginalized communities find themselves in a web of repression. This intensifies their already dire plight of grappling with digital rights suppression, such as restricted access to crucial information, censorship, and targeted harassment. Tragically, these communities often face a dual problem, lacking both the means and platforms to effectively champion their rights in the digital realm.

In Southeast Asia, governments persist in censoring dissenting content, leaving political dissidents at risk of constant state scrutiny, potential imprisonment and harassment merely for expressing their opinions or actions. Imposing internet restrictions further illustrates the authorities’ readiness to assert control, especially in political contexts. Addressing these issues is compounded by the presence of weak governance and a legal framework defined by authoritarian regimes.

During the first day’s main session, in which the topic of “Evolving Trends in Mis- and Disinformation” was discussed, five speakers were invited to talk about the persisting global situation. These were Tatsuhiko Yamamoto (Professor of Keio University Law School), Maria Ressa (CEO of Rappler), Vera Jourova (European Vice President for Values and Transparency), Randi Michel (Director of Technology and Democracy at the White House National Security Council), and Nic Suzor (Member of the Meta Oversight Board).

The panel’s discussion was notably dominated by a Western perspective during the overall talk on generative AI’s advancements and their implications on disinformation and misinformation. While probing into the increasing complexity of generated content, questions regarding the impact on disinformation garnered significant attention. The conversation then delved into the evolving landscape of combating misinformation online, especially in the context of political campaigns. Additionally, the discourse touched upon regulatory measures, with a particular emphasis on what individuals from marginalized and discriminated groups can do to safeguard themselves in an age of digital information.

Indeed, the issue of information disorders is a worldwide challenge, with marginalized communities often bearing the brunt of its impact. In addition to weak governance, there’s a shortage of organizations dedicated to countering this problem. Fact-checking groups and independent media outlets face constant harassment, and there is a dearth of adequate tools to address the situation. While English-speaking regions may have more resources, the diversity of cultures and languages in other areas presents a serious obstacle in combatting information disorders.

In the lineup of speakers for this session, Maria Ressa, the distinguished CEO of Rappler and a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, stands out as a representation for the marginalized voices. Her unwavering dedication to journalism, despite relentless harassment from the Philippine government, grants her a unique and invaluable perspective. Ressa’s presence in forums like IGF is pivotal in ensuring a more inclusive dialogue, countering the prevalent dominance of Western viewpoints.

Ressa’s shared perspective at the forum played a vital role in bringing attention to these issues. Through her experiences, she provided a zoomed in account of the challenges faced by marginalized communities—highlighting the urgent need to prioritize the voices and concerns of these communities in discussions about digital rights and freedoms.

One main discussion revolved around misinformation and disinformation, and its effects on shaping the political landscape. Ressa talked about how the phenomenon of disinformation heavily influences democratic processes, especially elections. What happened in the Philippines was given as an example, as a country that has been widely documented on how social media platforms were weaponized to manipulate the election and democracy, it provided a significant perspective to the discussion. Still, there was a glaring lack of emphasis on the specific contexts of marginalized people under oppressive regimes in general.

She highlighted several concerning aspects of online platforms and disinformation. Relaying that the structural design of these platforms seems to favor the rapid spread of falsehoods over facts. She also emphasized the real-world impact of online violence, asserting that a person’s experience on a phone is equivalent to their experience in the physical world.  

Ressa countered the Western perspectives of her fellow panelists that ultimately negatively affects the marginalized. In reference to the Meta Oversight Board, she criticized the platform’s reponse to such issues, noting a pattern of denial, deflection, and delay, which ultimately benefits the platform financially. With Randi Michel’s statement detailing voluntary commitments gathered by the Joe Biden and Kamala Harris administration, Ressa said that voluntary measures to combat disinformation and misinformation have proven ineffective on the ground, stressing the urgency for more proactive and comprehensive actions. She then acknowledged the EU laws presented by Vera Jourova, but said she believes they may be insufficient given the rapid evolution of technology. Calling for swift action and emphasizing that relying solely on tech companies, driven by profit motives, is inadequate. It underscored the vulnerability of marginalized communities, particularly those under authoritarian regimes, as well as the critical role of informed citizens in countering disinformation.

In other discussions, the marginalized perspective was generally absent. For example, the discussion involving the risks associated with generative AI notably lacked the perspective of the influence of AI development in marginalized communities where technological advancements are often limited. In light of Big Tech’s active lobbying efforts with both U.S. and EU governments regarding AI regulations, their substantial influence in shaping regulatory frameworks can wield significant impact. This influence may ultimately result in policies that prioritize their own interests and the broader global market.

This dynamic inherently poses a threat to marginalized communities, as their unique concerns and needs may not receive the attention they deserve in the discourse surrounding AI ethics and governance. As such, it becomes imperative to bridge this gap and ensure that discussions surrounding the risks of generative AI are inclusive, considering the perspectives and vulnerabilities of all communities.

Overall, a key aspect contributing to the western leaning tendencies of IGF is the dominance of Western tech giants in the conversation. The presence of representatives from Google and Meta, which are headquartered in the West, hold significant sway over online services and platforms. Even though the IGF tries to serve as an avenue to amplify some of the unheard voices, these companies’ policies and practices often reflect Western cultural norms and legal frameworks, potentially neglecting the unique needs and concerns of marginalized communities and countries from other regions.

Another contributing factor is the disproportionate influence of Western governments in global internet policy-making. Government officials from the West (EU, US, New Zealand) tend to exert stronger voices in shaping discussions on topics like privacy, cybersecurity, and digital rights as they dominate sessions arranged by IGF itself. This can lead to a lack of representation for the interests and perspectives of marginalized countries and communities.

Additionally, cultural, linguistic, and economic disparities play a role in shaping the dynamics of the IGF. Non-Western countries and communities may face challenges in participating fully in discussions due to limited access to resources.

For example, Gbenga Sesan from Paradigm Initiative, an organization dedicated to linking underserved young Africans with digital opportunities and safeguarding their rights, highlighted a poignant contradiction during a panel discussion on human rights and freedoms. He raised that labeling the discourse as “multi-stakeholder” is inaccurate when not every stakeholder is afforded the opportunity to partake in the forum. This inequality arises from absurd visa requirements and the dehumanizing experience of having to substantiate one’s capabilities and expertise to prove the intent to join the conference. These factors can contribute to a sense of exclusion and underrepresentation in the forum.

However, while there are lapses and concerns, it is important to note that the IGF conference was also able to exhibit a commendable ability to curate some workshops and discussion sessions submitted by stakeholders that were intellectually stimulating and deeply insightful. Some sessions that we attended were thoughtfully structured, providing a comprehensive exploration of diverse topics. Expert speakers and participants brought a wealth of knowledge, fostering an environment conducive to a dynamic exchange of ideas.

The discussion on digital security and surveillance, with a particular emphasis on the MENA region, was led by women leaders in the field and had an overall inclusive discussion. An initiative to proactively respond to the escalating use of commercial spyware and digital surveillance tools in the region was shared in the discussion. The said collective effort has been crucial in uncovering the widespread and systematic targeting of human rights defenders, journalists, lawyers, and civil society members across countries like Bahrain, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Jordan, and Egypt. The collaboration between local and global organizations is a testament to the urgency and gravity of this issue. 

Furthermore, the discussion on the role of big tech companies was refreshingly inclusive, with a focus on Latin American countries. The panel delved into critical topics such as the significant impact of social media platforms and content moderation on the very fabric of democratic elections. This entailed a thoughtful examination of how these platforms influence and potentially shape the democratic process.

There was also a call for more stringent requirements from social media companies, with a spotlight on streamlining practices and prioritizing human rights. The discourse emphasized the pressing need for additional mechanisms to safeguard users, acknowledging the urgency of addressing these issues on a substantial scale.

Moreover, the discussion scrutinized the concerning trend of political processes being weaponized, leading to politically motivated violence. This candid examination of the interplay between technology, democracy, and societal well-being exemplified the depth of perspectives brought forward. The spotlight on Latin American countries underscored the importance of a global dialogue that transcends regional boundaries.

Yet, amid the intellectually invigorating discussions, a lingering question persisted: would the exchange of ideas within the confines of a conference hall suffice to create tangible change on the ground? The divide between discourse and implementation remained a sobering reality, underscoring the need for sustained, collaborative efforts to translate rhetoric into meaningful progress in policy and practice.

The inclusion of marginalized voices amplifies understanding for audiences and stakeholders, providing a broader perspective beyond the dominant narratives of powerful Western geopolitical entities. Regions under authoritarian regimes often face heightened challenges in effecting meaningful change. This underscores the pressing need for genuine inclusivity to pave the way for progress.

Furthermore, the announcement of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, as the host city for the next IGF introduced a contentious debate and raised legitimate concerns. This decision seemed a mismatch with the very principles the IGF seeks to uphold. Saudi Arabia has an infamous reputation for authoritarian governance. The assassination of a Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, was officially stated to be under the order of Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Crown Prince and current Prime Minister of Saudi Arabia. It was also found that people around Khashoggi was infected with Pegasus spyware, a sophisticated state-affiliated cyberweapon that is often used for surveillance for political purpose. The country’s inclination towards internet censorship, such as the 32 trials against activists and journalists for peacefully sharing their viewpoints on social media that was recorded by Amnesty International, made the choice of host country notably ironic. It prompted critical reflection on the integrity and purpose of the IGF, emphasizing the necessity of meticulous consideration when selecting host countries.

Opting for countries with clean human rights records sends a powerful message about the IGF’s commitment to its principles. This decision not only bolsters the credibility of the forum but also creates an environment conducive to safe and open discussions. It encourages participants to freely express their perspectives without fear of retribution, ultimately fostering a more robust exchange of ideas.

The IGF 2023 in Kyoto was a pivotal event that brought together a diverse array of voices to engage in critical discussions about internet governance. While commendable progress was made in fostering inclusivity, there remains a pressing need to better represent the nuanced contexts of marginalized communities including Southeast Asia. These regions face unique challenges stemming from weak governance and oppressive laws. Bridging this gap requires concerted efforts to amplify the voices of the marginalized and provide them with the platforms they need to advocate for their rights in the digital space.

It is imperative that these conversations continue, with a renewed focus on inclusivity, particularly from those in marginalized communities. As we reflect on the IGF 2023, we must acknowledge that the exchange of ideas within conference walls is just the beginning. Sustained, collaborative efforts are required to transform rhetoric into tangible policy and practice, ensuring that the internet we shape is one that truly reflects the values of diversity and inclusivity for all.

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