The 2021 Internet Governance Forum (IGF) took place in the week of 6 December. As always, this annual event offered libraries an opportunity to take part, listen in and contribute to crucial discussions shaping today’s digital environment.

IFLA at the 2021 IGF

As a member of the Dynamic Coalition on Public Access in Libraries (DC-PAL), IFLA co-organised a session to explore the role that access to the internet and ICT in libraries plays in supporting community-level connectivity and development.

The session highlighted good practices and library perspectives from different parts of the world:

  • The Perpuseru program in Indonesia leveraged ICT to support vibrant learning centers in libraries – creating positive impacts in both digital and information literacy and income generation.
  • Meanwhile in Africa, a partnership between AfLIA and Wikimedia has had a powerful impact on local open content creation – with hundreds of Wikipedia articles and hundreds of thousands of references added, as well as a rise in community Wiki-events which engage library partners and patrons.
  • In Poland, digital skills training and activities are a longstanding part of libraries’ offer, from Hour of Code and Open Access Week to Senior Academy, Safer Internet Day and many other initiatives.
  • And in Peru, the National Library leveraged remote, face-to-face and virtual service delivery to power access to knowledge and information – from virtual lectures by invited scholars to Transcription, an initiative that engages the community in transcribing and interacting with digitised heritage materials.

All these reflect the wide diversity of ways in which libraries are already leveraging ICT for digital inclusion and development – and put these efforts into the broader internet governance context.

The session also outlined possible innovative approaches and paths forward for public access in libraries – for example, leveraging low-earth orbit satellite connectivity in hard-to-reach areas, and the scope for collaboration with community networks.

All in all, the session highlighted how public connectivity is deeply entwined with the fundamental right of access to information and helps meet unique local needs, particularly for more vulnerable user groups. It pointed to the importance of understanding and measuring connectivity at a community level alongside the more familiar metrics of individual connectivity.

You can re-watch the DC-PAL session recording on the IGF Youtube channel.

DC-PAL also released a working draft report about the impacts of public access in libraries – exploring evidence from studies and publications over the past few years, and various methods of capturing and measuring such impacts.

Finally, the Silesian Library and IFLA co-organised an informal learning and exchange meeting to bring together representatives from the Polish and global library fields working in the field of digital inclusion. The dialogue highlighted the diversity of information and digital skills needs of different library user groups, and the flexibility of library-based approaches to learning and education in this area.

Internet governance discussions on the library field’s agenda

Alongside these, the 2021 IGF featured many new and continued conversations which have close links to the work, interests and values of libraries. These include, for example:

What does it mean to be meaningfully connected? Metrics, definitions and interventions. Broadly, 63% of the world are now estimated to be internet users (a rise from 54% in 2019) – but what inequalities and unique experiences hide behind this number? This discussion continues today – i.e. in a proposed conceptualisation of meaningful access by an IGF Policy Network, which explains it as a combination of affordable access, meaningful connectivity, and an enabling social environment. The second dimension encompasses the more technical characteristics of connectivity – how often can the internet be accessed by a user, the speed and type of connectivity and of access devices at their disposal. The third element, in turn, looks at a broad range of elements that enable meaningful use and benefits stemming from it – elements like content, digital skills, language, capacity, digital rights and other key contextual factors.

A related conversation takes a closer look at the concept of a people-centric connectivity. It encourages policy-makers and practitioners to explicitly focus on the perspectives of individuals using the internet and how they experience barriers to connectivity – including e.g. social and demographic factors, trust, relevance and others.

  • What does this mean for libraries? As Anriette Esterhuysen, the IGF Multistakeholder Advisory Group Chair, pointed out: “Access is ultimately about people, and to get people to be able to benefit from this, you are going to need a complex different system of solutions that is context-relevant and context sustainable. […] It has to be an ecosystem, and all of these things: commercially-driven access, local non-profit access, local small business-driven access, public access in schools and libraries – all of that has to be a part of the solution.”

It’s also worth considering what unique insights libraries have about their communities’ connectivity needs, thanks to their work to provide public access. Such appreciation and knowledge of the community context can help inform local and sustainable solutions for connectivity.

Dialogue also continues around effective ways of building digital literacy. A recurring point highlighted during several IGF sessions was the importance of cooperation and collaboration for delivering digital skills learning opportunities for all. Some of the delivery models and elements which participants pointed out include: peer-based training, public-private partnerships, the importance of role models (particularly for groups and cohorts who might be less confident with their use of ICT) and of troubleshooting the possible barriers users may experience in accessing digital skills training in the first place.

  • These mirror the various digital skills learning delivery models and practices which libraries are exploring today. Also on the topic of skills-building, one of the IGF 2021 draft takeaways highlights the value of digital educational curriculums tailored to specific target groups, their skills levels and local languages. This is also of course an area where libraries have been active, especially for informal and lifelong learning – both as providers of access to third-party educational content, and as creators of such content themselves.

Discussions around digital and internet commons also generated interest and grabbed attention at the IGF. More than a year ago, the UN Secretary-General’s Roadmap for Digital Cooperation called for, inter alia, promoting digital public goods. Where does the internet governance dialogue around this stand today?

First, it’s worth noting that the ‘commons’ concept can entail many different initiatives and formats – from connectivity-as-commons (e.g. community networks), to open-source software and technologies, to open knowledge and data.

Recent discussions highlighted how these can act as a counter-force to centralised data flows and traffic online, helping foster diversity and self-determination for users and communities. However, it was also highlighted that implementing these in a way that meaningfully benefits users requires free speech and intermediary protections, privacy protections, interoperability – and a strong focus on human rights impacts.

  • It was highlighted that building such commons is an ongoing practice – it is certainly an important part of libraries activities, through championing open data and open access, hosting hackathons to foster open source software communities, engaging with Wikipedia and Wikimedia projects, or supporting public digital goods in other ways. This is a conversation worth staying engaged in, to share and understand emerging good practices and build a common understanding on how to protect and promote digital public goods.

Freedom of expression and content moderation online continue to be hot topics at the forefront of many IGF discussions. One of the recent developments in this area is an update of the international Santa Clara Principles developed by digital rights advocates and academics (including organisations like Access Now, Article 19, Electronic Frontier Foundation). The initial set of recommendations set out baseline standards for transparency and accountability around online platforms’ moderation of user-generated activities.

The revised principles, drawing on a global consultation, set out overarching principles that should guide all content moderation (e.g. Human Rights and Due Process, Cultural Competence, etc) and operational principles – e.g. around statistics required for transparency (from total number of content reviewed to numbers and outcomes of appeals and content removal statistics during crises like the COVID-19 pandemic), notice, and appeal processes. The principles also highlight key considerations around governments’ and state actors’ possible impacts on freedom of expression and fundamental rights by influencing content moderation by platforms.

  • This is a conversation that continues to be of interest for libraries both in light of their commitment to intellectual freedom, and as part of the broader discussion on the diversity and pluralism of digital content. As pointed out during one of the sessions, media diversity on an individual level is about freedom of expression – and on a collective level, it is about the right to participate in society and democratic processes.

These are just a few of the ongoing Internet Governance dialogues that continue to shape the digital space libraries work and advocate for their values in. As ever, the regional and global IGF events remain open for all – so we encourage all interested libraries to get involved and join us in these dialogues – read our Get Into IGF guide for more!