Close the digital divide, and defend online rights – UNESCO call

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Frank La Rue, UNESCO's Assistant Director-General for Communication and Information
© UNESCO
17 May 2017

We have to extend access to the internet, and protect our rights on it at the same time. This was the message this week to the Stockholm Internet Forum by UNESCO’s Frank La Rue, Assistant Director-General for Communication and Information.

“Expansion of connectivity has to be with clear social policies, it is not just a question of connectivity,” he said to an audience of 500 civil society representatives at the fifth edition of the Forum.

The Assistant Director-General noted that it is relatively easy to expand access to urban areas for business reasons. Yet, it is also important to recognize the needs of rural communities, or the digital divide will simply grow bigger, he added.

Policy for language and culture online, and indigenous peoples, and local empowerment are essential elements of the Internet debate, emphasized the Assistant Director-General.

La Rue also expressed concern that many security laws were being passed without adequate protections for the right to privacy. In addition, “more and more of our personal information belongs to someone else,” he stated.

These challenges highlighted the need to defend human rights on the Internet, said the Assistant Director-General.

Referring to the abuse of internet for disinformation and discrediting of news, he cautioned against both regulation or algorithms “to tell us what’s true”.

The UNESCO official also pointed to the significance of Sustainable Development Goal 16, which recognized that there would be no development without public access to information and fundamental freedoms.

“We need this information, in gender sensitive format, for local communities; we need space for content created by citizens, and we need privacy.”

La Rue noted that the emerging Internet of Things could combine with personal information to reinforce individual detailed profiling of persons. This in turn raised questions about who is handling, storing, selling or providing this information to the state under what conditions.  “Transparency is fundament for guaranteeing privacy,” argued the Assistant Director-General.

“Internet should be driven by policies designed via multi-stakeholder dialogue, and yet this is not happening enough and the result is a set-back for regulation”.  This problem could be partly addressed by having national Internet Governance Forums, proposed La Rue.