The 17th Internet Governance Forum (IGF) has just wrapped up in Ethiopia. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) and other global and regional internet governance groups have had approximately 2,000 representatives in Addis Ababa for the meeting.
On display at UNECA sites from November 28th to December 2, 2022, were over 300 sessions, the vast majority of which focused on artificial intelligence (AI). Professionals from all around the world who are considered to be internet experts presented their findings.
Addis Ababa opened for business again after two years of domestic strife that ended at the beginning of the month after a peace agreement was signed in Pretoria. Despite the efforts of four committees led by the Ministry of Innovation and Technology (MInT) over the past year, they were unable to secure a more suitable location for the event than ECA.
Technology-rich Katowice, Poland, hosted the previous IGF conference. The 16th edition, held in Katowice, saw a record-breaking turnout of over 10,300 participants from 175 different nations. This year’s IGF theme is “Resilient Internet for a Shared Sustainable and Common Future,” which stands in stark contrast to Ethiopia’s history of internet shutdowns.
The fact is, however, that Ethiopia has joined Egypt and Kenya as African hosts of the IGF. However, about three billion people still do not have access to the internet, 17 years after it began. The majority of these individuals may be found in Africa. While 60 percent of Africa is offline, 89 percent of Europe is connected, according to UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA). 62 percent of men worldwide are online, compared to 57 percent of women.
“We must reach the three billion people currently offline. The majority of whom are living in the global south,” stated Antonio Guterres, UN chief, virtually airing his remarks. “Technologies are outpacing regulations and exacerbating inequality.”
According to the UN report, there is a huge disparity in coverage between nations with high and low incomes, with the former having 87 percent coverage and the latter only six percent coverage. After deciding to do so the year before, the UN officially launched the IGF in 2006.
However, very little of what has been learned, decided upon, or recommended in past IGF editions is really put into practice. It is important to note that the IGF is not a governing entity but rather a forum for debate and the gathering of ideas. National policymakers and the international organization tasked with regulating the internet appear less concerned with actually putting the suggestions into practice.
The Global Digital Compact, which will be ratified at the 2024 United Nations Summit of the Future, will make extensive use of the outcomes of this year’s IGF. The government of Japan has agreed to host the 2023 IGF.
Internet access is still mostly a luxury in developing nations, despite its meteoric rise in the developed world over the previous three decades. Because of this, it has become a symbol of power and a new dividing line between the global north and south, the wealthy and the impoverished.
Data from the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) shows that by 2022, 66 percent of the world’s population would be online, up from 54 percent in 2019.
In developing economies (other than China), the pandemic prompted a jump in the use of digital financial services, with 4 out of 10 people making their first digital payment after the outbreak. Globally, the goal was reached in 2021, with 64 percent of people aged 15 and older using digital payment methods, up from 52 percent in 2017.
Obviously, reliance on internet connectivity has increased since COVID-19, especially in low-resource areas like Ethiopia. Everyone, from the youngest to the oldest, is becoming increasingly reliant on the internet. However, internet abuse and misuse are currently ahead of internet control.
Despite having the advantage of being late to the party, developing countries have yet to fully embrace the internet and other internet-based technologies, digitization, and AI. The potential for e-learning, e-governance, digital health, and other advantages is still in its infancy.
Although the internet has been lauded for its ability to promote free speech and democratization, its full promise has not yet been realized in Africa. There is a lot to be done about infrastructure investments, data abuse, online privacy, and many other issues. Unfortunately, cyber security threats can also affect Africa. The African Internet Governance Forum (IGF) is expected to accomplish a great deal.
Ethiopia has recently taken commendable steps by permitting international private telecom operators for the first time and eliminating the state telecom monopoly after a century. Safaricom’s entry, together with the anticipated arrival of other licenses, is expected to improve the country’s dismal connectivity.
“We are grateful to our platinum sponsors, Safaricom and ethio telecom. Ethiopian Airlines provided a discount of 15 percent for anyone attending the event. The Addis Ababa event attendees rode in taxis provided by both Hello Taxi and O’clock,” Huria Ali, the state minister of MInT and the driving force behind IGF 17, said. However, the cost of organizing the 17th IGF is covered by the Ethiopian government, while private sector participation is minimal, according to Huria.
A quarter of Ethiopian population has internet coverage, according to PM Abiy, speaking at the IGF in Addis.
Others, though, feel that Ethiopia has yet to fully benefit from the internet. More work is needed to lure global tech companies, support local businesses, and improve the web. Investment in areas like data centers, ISPs, and startup activity is still in its infancy in Ethiopia. Even the legal underpinnings are mostly unknown.
Across urban-rural, gender, and income lines, the digital divide is widening in Ethiopia. In developing nations, the cost of internet access remains high. Data-savvy investors are flocking to Ethiopia, although concerns about data security persist.
Huria acknowledges that frequent disruptions to the internet make Ethiopia an unattractive destination for international investment in the sector.
However, Ethiopia is still one of those countries in the world where free speech is threatened and internet shutdowns are commonplace amid political upsurges.
The KeepItOn group, which tracks internet outages worldwide, found that 931 outages occurred in 74 different nations between 2016 and 2021. In spite of aid to improve their Internet access, at least 27 of the 46 least developed countries have instituted shutdowns between 2016 and 2021. In 228 occurrences recorded by civil society in 55 nations, the official rationale for the shutdowns was unknown.