Personal Blog – APrIGF 2020

By Swaran Ravindra

Swaran Ravindra

As an academic who teaches ICT academia and TVET programs to both school leavers and industry experts, you just cannot help looking at everyday things through a highly “technical”, yet feasible perspective. You tend to continuously look for ways in which ICT could improve the lives of your people. Coming from a background where I have worked with women and young girls, I have the had privileged of spending time in understanding women, our strengths, our fears, our access and limitations, perceived weaknesses, challenges and how we can explore the most unimaginably wonderful avenues and soar new heights.

I am honoured to be selected to represent my country, my home, Fiji in the Asia Pacific Regional Internet Governance Forum 2020- Overarching theme of Internet Governance for Good: Norms, Standards and Mechanisms. I was told that the selected participants were picked after assessing over 350 applications, so one can imagine how grateful I am to be one of the selected participants.

While I prepared for the conference: A few observations during the week

My husband and I planned a trip to see the northern side of Fiji. I thought it would be great to have some peace and tranquillity while I attend the virtual conference over 4 days and to experience the beauty of this quaint little town which I had heard so much about. So we stayed in a nice Airbnb up in the mountains of beautiful Savusavu. To my amazement, every day while I was there, I got to meet people and witness situations which made me realize how important it is for Fiji to have global visibility in every discussion pertaining to Internet Governance. There are so many real-world issues which our people face within their daily lives. Some have resiliently fought on, while some have embraced the disparities and accepted them as their norms.

I met a young grandmother of 36 years, who was also the housekeeper of one of the places where we stayed. On the 4th day, I invited her to have a cup of my specially brewed masala tea. Over tea, she had a few questions for me: “What do you do for a living, why are you on the computer, who cooks in your house, is your husband ok with you working, do you have children”. Most of her questions stemmed from admiration of what she saw as an “independent, working woman”, an opportunity she says many like her see as a luxury. She told me she has 7 children with her abusive ex-husband, and though is now in a happy relationship, she can’t have more kids because she has “had a procedure” done which she thinks is irreversible. I quickly showed her some free apps on my phone which helps me monitor my health. It also tells me my ovulation cycles and is loaded with information about reproductive health, which is customized according to me and gives predictions based on my daily input about simple things such as the amount of water I had, exercise, sexual health etc. She was pleasantly surprised to know that the simple questions she thought had no answers, can be answered through a basic smartphone. She told me that in her house, the boys get to have smartphones and internet access. In the little time that I had with her, I showed her how to use Google, how to get help and support for domestic violence, some simple free apps which are helpful for education, health, farming, DIY projects that could lead to earning some side income. The schools and communities I visited had little to no access to technology. I wondered how challenging it must be for people to get access to timely, accurate information, and how important it is in the wake of the pandemic, and in challenging times such as the hurricane season. It is wonderful how technology can change lives for the better.

The learnings of the APrIGF and its application to the Fijian/Pacific Context (4 thematic areas):

Thematic Area 1: Cybersecurity, Safety and Trust

This set of presentations focused on policies, issues, solutions and repercussions of being part of the digital world. To have good Internet governance, we need all stakeholders involved to discuss the rules, policies, standards and practices that coordinate and shape the global cyberspace, which Fiji is very much part of. As we have increased access to the digital world, we face additional challenges around misinformation and disinformation, which is definitely not needed especially while we battle through the pandemic and its repercussions.

Disruptive technologies including those thanks to the introduction of IoT, 5G, Industry/Education/Agriculture 4.0 and now 5.0, have enormous benefits for the Pacific region at large, but we cannot ignore the need for our people to be completely cognizant of the cybersecurity issues which we are being exposed to. Fiji struggles with cyberbullying, suicide, mental health issues, fraud, and crime which whether technology may have been a part of, either intentionally or unintentionally. In order to leverage technology for the benefit for all, we need legislation and regulations which promote good internet governance. The European Union’s Cyber Diplomacy Toolbox is a good resource for benchmarking can be and needs to be explored by policymakers, universities and organisations in the Pacific. Computer Emergency Response Teams (CERTs) can be set up by organisations as well.

Contrary to the popular yet archaic Top Down approach used in most management structures, a Bottom-up collaboration and cooperation amongst multi stakeholder groups can help developing countries such as ours to form the basic building blocks of trust.

When we create cyber norms, we also set standards of acceptable behaviour in the cyberspace. We need to start identifying and formulating methodologies and tools that are needed to help people use the Internet and digital technology with confidence, and as stakeholders, we need to realise our roles in enabling that trust.

Thematic Area 2: Digital Inclusion, Gender Equality and Diversity

This series of sessions focused on realistic examples of how the digital divide was addressed through the initiatives of key players and stakeholders in the countries who presented their cases. Digital inclusion for everyone is important to help achieve sustainable development goals as envisaged in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) programme. Universal Acceptance (UA) articulates the fundamental requirement for a truly multilingual and digitally inclusive society. For Fijians, this means, our people, as users of the internet have the basic right to have access to it in iTaukei and Fiji Hindi, including the ability to include more languages as we diversify further.

All stakeholders, including the public and private sector, need to collaborate and devise strategies for promoting and implementing digital inclusion activities. Our stakeholders are the very people who form the parts of the Internet infrastructure. Stakeholders should be made of representatives of each group of people to ensure their voices are heard. These are our regulators, educators, suppliers, techies, who all work together to ensure our people are connected. The quality of access we have must reflect the diversity of individual experiences, cultures and legitimate developmental needs in all societies, encouraging people to create local content on the Internet in their own languages. Our education system must be updated to teach young people to use the Internet for good, to understand and respect human rights, and how to create technologies which supports the values of diversity and equity of all our citizens, so NO ONE is left behind.

Information literacy and digital literacy should be understood as life skills essential for citizenship, particularly because Fiji is moving toward eGovernance. Our people need to be able to confidently perform their daily business-critical functions, do research, have access to education, and to participate in government initiatives processes, and at the same time be able to maintain their health and protect the environment against climate change issues. Our internet needs to support us in doing all this and more.

We need to have networks that are affordable, reliable and we need to ask ourselves: Is EVERYONE included.

Thematic Area 3: Human Rights and Ethics

This series of sessions highlighted the fundamental rights of every citizen in terms of access to information and strategies for inclusion. Human rights and ethics must be at the core of our interests when developing online applications and services as well as the design of regulatory approaches and normative frameworks governing the Internet. Good policies must come with self-explanatory definitions which are easier to interpret by any citizen. We need to have explicit laws on protecting digital rights, however, we also need proper definitions to be established and understood universally, and yet in context with our own countries. International agreements need to be formed in collaboration with all countries and a fundamental level of protection for all digital citizens should be discussed. Such discussions should include ethical codes, standards and best practices as well as regulatory approaches which help translate the concerns around human rights and ethics into realistic goals. This needs to be done in ways in which the privacy of all individuals are protected yet issues are addressed. Stakeholders will need to get together in combined, rather than isolated efforts and work with a holistic approach to formulate strategies to remediate wherever possible.

Thematic Area 4: Innovation and Development

This series of presentations focused on leading sustainable technologies and the need to include stakeholders in the discussion for any technology that is designed with the intention to assist them. In Fiji, some of the many issues we are dealing with are misinformation/disinformation, adjusting to the new normal, creating an ecosystem of sustainable ICT, the efforts towards climate change, addressing gender-based violence, the inclusion of the disabled communities, the inclusion of the marginalized communities, LGBT rights, sustainable lifestyles, businesses and economy. Fortunately, ICT can be used to provide solutions to these and many other issues. However, we need to have discussions around digital innovations and transformations and how it can assist in our issues such as remote delivery of social services, online education, social change from the COVID-19 pandemic. We need to continuously develop technology and look for ways in which the internet community can positively impact our communities as a whole. For this, we need our youths, to engage in collaborative dialogues regarding internet governance, as more than 50% of Fiji’s population is under the age of 30. Principles of openness ethical codes of human rights and trusted technical standards, and inclusion for all be embedded into every policy, regulation and innovation of technical solutions which help bridge the gaps for digital inclusion.

In Fiji, over 13.7% of our population lives with one or more impairment. In the Pacific region, over 1 million persons live with impairments. With at least 1 NCD related amputation every 8 hours, the number of citizens who need assistive technologies will increase exponentially. The availability of smartphones, the presence of more than 3 ISPs and the internet penetration rate of 97% should mean that we have the right variables in place to close the gaps of the digital divide. However, we need to learn from international best practices to ensure technological innovations and development is with needful purposes.

Plagues and pandemics have been changing the course of history from as early as 541 AD (Justinian Plague), which killed in multitudes, and centuries later, we are faced with COVID 19 which is perhaps going to be the only pandemic that most people of “this time” may have ever see. However, the experience of COVID-19 clearly showed us that we were never quite prepared to deal with a pandemic. Thankfully, unlike the plagues and pandemics of those days, the internet has had tremendous contributions to ensure many of us can continue to “work from home”, be in safe isolation, been the backbone of many cloud-based infrastructures by providing the frontliners with information for better, and timely decision making. From making an instant clinical decision through cloud-based EMRs to the search for a vaccine, the Internet as well as the many techies who make continuity possible have been unsung warriors which continues to thrive to help us adjust to the new normal. Therefore, from 2020 onwards, we hope to see pandemics in Business Continuity Plans. However, just as we learn about basic safety rules from early childhood to retirement, the use of technology calls for continuous security in the cyberspace. Need for frameworks and standard were highlighted in almost all the topics of discussion. However, these frameworks need to be inclusive, supportive and most importantly in complete cognizance of the issues of the those who are affected the most by such policies and solutions which are made pertaining to those decisions.

To have digital inclusion, digital literacy is crucial, while not forgetting the fundamental rights of the citizen. Technology should not be “imposed”, but rather adaptable, scalable, reliable and transitioned through the inclusion of every person whom it is designed for.

APrIGF is an excellent platform to discuss technical strategies and solutions to pressing issues which the Asia Pacific region faces. It brings together industry experts, policymakers, regulators, vendors, academics and researchers who have substantial experience and knowledge in their areas of expertise. Fiji is blessed with lush rainforests, potent land and oceans. Our people are full of wisdom, humbleness, love and respect. We have a beautiful infusion of different diasporas which has given birth to some rich cultural experiences and ethnic indigenous knowledge. Yet we are well aware of the issues and trigger warnings we have. We need to protect our children, our people, we need to give the best healthcare to our women, elders men, we need to protect our land, our oceans, our culture, heritage and ethnic/indigenous knowledge. And it is a great consolation to know that technology has certainly been helpful in all of these areas and more. While we have said to have 96% internet connectivity in Fiji, I must add that many islands, including where attended the conference from, is still struggling with legacy systems and archaic connectivity issues, which inherently impede the inclusion of our people to the digital world. After attending close to 9 sessions from all the above themes, I came to a realization as to how important it is to involve everyone in the discussions about good internet governance, digital inclusion and digital literacy. All stakeholders have crucial parts to play, and no solution can be developed without including those who need to use it the most. The quest to closing the digital divide needs to be addressed with holistic and multi-stakeholder strategies. However, the most preliminary step towards inclusion for all will be to first gauge the extent of existing disparities of inclusion in terms of ethnicity, socio-economic status, gender, disabilities, culture, traditions, and other factors which could act as indicators of the digital divide. As a researcher in assistive technologies for inclusion, the APrIGF 2020 was an excellent avenue to meet other fellows and experts who helped me understand the technologies that I intend to create. I have been able to identify gaps in my own knowledge, in the policies in my country, and more importantly, I am better prepared to research and carry out projects with other fellows and speakers who I met in the forum. I am looking forward to joining future APrIGFs where I can discuss the progress in the opportunities that I was able to identify in APrIGF 2020.

This article first featured on facebook.
Link: https://www.facebook.com/swaran.ravindra/posts/10223933625152226

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