The 2020 IGF – the first to take place in a fully virtual format – has drawn to a close. With over 250 online sessions, many issues that were raised are relevant for the global library sector.

Across a two-week programme, IFLA took part in discussions at the Internet Governance Forum (IGF – or vIGF, standing for virtual IGF), working to highlight the work and potential of libraries in bridging the digital divide, identify and advocate for supportive policy environments, and take stock of current internet governance issues and challenges.

How has the world progressed with digital inclusion?

This year marked an alarming milestone – despite one of the Sustainable Development Goals targets being to aim for universal and affordable access to the internet in least developed countries by 2020, global internet use is still only estimated at about 57% of the world population, with just 23% of the population of least developed countries being online.

One of the IGF tracks this year – Inclusion – therefore focused on the challenges of bringing more people online.

Broadly, there is wide agreement on the urgency of connecting more people. To help achieve this, complementary providers and alternatives to traditional commercial internet service provision can have powerful potential.

As one of the speakers at the High-Level Leaders Track Wrap Up session highlighted, a number of possible solutions are available – spectrum regulation that can drive broader access, community networks, and, importantly, public access solutions. These, paired with public sector investments in skills and content, could help more people make meaningful use of the internet.

As the Dynamic Coalition on Public Access in Libraries session highlighted, libraries can be a valuable tool in helping deliver such an intervention. Among the takeaway messages from this session, speakers highlighted the importance of:

– taking stock of both available (library and connectivity) infrastructure, resources and community needs;

– accelerated rollout of infrastructure which helps connect priority endpoints like libraries – which can in turn bring more people online;

– and building up the skills and capacity of library staff, so that they can offer equitable access solutions for their communities.

An Equal Internet?

Vulnerable and marginalised social groups have been particularly affected by the rapid digitisation of society associated with the pandemic, exacerbating existing digital inequalities.

For example, much remains to be done to ensure accessibility for people with disabilities. While the Marrakesh Treaty was pointed out to have had a crucial impact on access to information for people with visual and print disabilities, much more needs to be done to ensure access for people with different types of disabilities.

This leads to another point raised during the vIGF2020 – access to content is crucial. The topic of access to digital content emerged several times over the course of the IGF – and IFLA has reiterated the importance of policies and practices that ensure equitable access.

Access to local, relevant and high-quality content is a crucial element of meaningful digital inclusion. The IGF offered a platform to highlight that supportive policies and practices – from addressing the issues around e-book pricing to digital-ready copyright exceptions and limitations – are urgently needed.

Without this, access to quality digital content may be yet another dimension of digital exclusion that magnifies existing inequalities, with fewer people being able to afford and access quality materials online.

Digital skills, as ever, were reiterated as another key dimension of digital inclusion, with different crucial skills and capacities highlighted over the course of this IGF. Alongside traditional ICT skills, various participants highlighted critical thinking, users’ knowledge and understanding of their rights online, skills for participating in the online digital economy.

In light of libraries’ continued work to support digital literacy, it is worth keeping track of the ongoing discussions on what skills people today need to use the internet effectively and safely.

Misinformation concerns were once again prominent in the discussions this year, with the worrying trends of dis- and mis-information pertaining to COVID, electoral processes and climate change, among others.

Several participants pointed out that media literacy initiatives are an important part of the solution; meanwhile, libraries’ work in the area is of course ongoing.

Online education was also high on the IGF agenda this year, with several sessions examining the experiences of students and educators with the rapid shift to digital during the pandemic. Some of the common (and severe) challenges faced around the world include not just a lack of access to the internet or appropriate devices for students and digital skills (of both students and teachers), but also, as was pointed out in one of the sessions, the need for social infrastructure that supports online education. This speaks to such issues as students’ difficulties with concentration or motivation, or the need for support for parents or educators.

This has a relation to the library sector’s ongoing work to support education throughout the pandemic. While libraries are of course only a part of the education infrastructure, many took up various efforts to help deliver on people’s right to education – beyond simply providing access to content.

These initiatives ranged from homework help resources or tutoring and information literacy sessions to helping students carry out research online and to various informal virtual educational activities. That is why it is worth examining good practices and the potential of libraries to help support online education, especially for those who need it most.

Innovation in online education and learning. Another point highlighted by some of the panelists was that simply transporting traditional classroom activities into an online environment may not yield the most effective results. Instead, the shift to digital in education should entail innovative approaches to teaching and learning, models and curricula that best suit the online mediums.

The emerging good pedagogical practices and ideas that can follow this push for digital could also be of interest for all libraries working to offer virtual programming for less formal learning.

From virtual conversation classes to online storytimes and beyond, many libraries have already adapted their learning programming, and it can be useful to keep an eye out on the online learning and education discourse for more ideas or inspiration.

A closing statement by the United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Gutteres highlighted, among other key challenges, the online ‘pandemic of disinformation’, the urgent need to narrow the digital divides, and using digital data for the public good. All these are areas where libraries – from public to academic, from school to National, special, and beyond – can offer valuable help.

Leveraging the Internet and ICT in support of an effective societal response, recovery and development can be achieved by strong cooperation and contribution of many stakeholders. Libraries are well placed to help realise this potential.