2021 was a busy year on the internet governance and digital policy scene – reflecting and aiming to catch up with fast-evolving practices and changes in the broader digital ecosystem. From digital skills support to e-learning, online safety awareness and facilitating access to e-government services, libraries continued to advocate and work towards a more inclusive and fair digital environment.

What are some of the key internet governance discussions and focus areas we can expect to shape 2022 – and what new opportunities are there for library engagement and participation?

Towards a people-centred internet and connectivity

The discussion around digital inclusion – one that libraries are traditionally actively involved in – the past year saw some mixed news. On the one hand, ITU estimates suggest that the number of people who have used the internet saw a sharp rise, from around 4.1 billion in 2019 to 4.9 in 2021. While valuable progress has been made in addressing stubborn digital inequalities, a vast ‘connectivity chasm’ persists between and within regions. For example, the number of internet users in LDCs grew by more than 20% in the last 2 years (compared to 13% in developing countries and 10% globally) yet 96% of those still offline today live in developing countries.

Crucially, the ITU points out the “glaring gap between digital network availability versus actual connection”. Many – as much as 95% of the global population – can access a 3G or 4G broadband network, but do not do so – for various reasons, such as prohibitive costs of connectivity and devices, varying levels of digital, literacy or numeracy skills, or a lack of trust, confidence, interest, or locally relevant content and services.

That is why 2021 saw a strong call for a people- and user-centred approach to connectivity and bringing people online. As the State of Broadband report summarises, a people-centred digital transformation would focus, inter alia, on inclusivity, digitisation impacts and connectivity challenges from a user perspective and on an individual level. Ahead of a 2021 UN GA High-level Thematic Debate on Digital Cooperation and Connectivity, a joint statement by signatories from diverse sectors also called for an approach to meaningful connectivity which puts people at the centre. The statement also emphasised, inter alia, affordable technology and connectivity solutions, and maintaining human rights at the heart of digital inclusion efforts.

That’s why, heading into 2022, IFLA will continue to work to gather evidence, good practices and lessons learned around the ways libraries have been supporting the key dimensions of people-centred connectivity.

Part of this work will continue though the Dynamic Coalition on Public Access in Libraries (DC-PAL). The Coalition will update and finalise the working draft reviewing recent evidence around the impacts of public access to the internet and ICT in libraries. Further in 2022, there is also scope to explore ideas discussed during the 2021 DC-PAL IGF session – i.e.  better understanding and measuring connectivity needs at a community level, and the unique value that public access solutions in places such as libraries bring to the table.

Global library field members interested in digital inclusion work are always welcome to get involved: you can subscribe to the Coalition mailing list to receive updates on publications and engagement opportunities, or respond to the latest call for comments to get in touch!

IFLA will also continue to build a strong community and library presence at key internet governance multi stakeholder dialogues and platforms. There is of course the main Internet Governance Forum – which is planned to be hosted by Ethiopia in 2022 and Japan in 2023; as well as a range of local, regional and national Forums – e.g. with the next European Dialogue on Internet Governance already confirmed to take place on 20-22 June 2022.

Another key platform for engagement is the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) Forum. The special tracks for WSIS Forum 2022 also give a good indication of what key internet governance discussions libraries can contribute to, drawing on their own expertise and experiences: these include ICTs and gender mainstreaming, and the ways ICT can support and help meet the needs of young people, seniors, and persons with disabilities or special needs.

A little further down the line, the internet governance community will be looking out for more news about WSIS+20. A 20-year review of the outcomes of the World Summit on the Information Society – which included a target to “Connect all public libraries, archives, museums, cultural centres and post offices” and other key actions in areas like e-learning, cultural and linguistic diversity in digital content, digital skills-building – is due to take place in 2025.

The work done around the previous review milestone, WSIS+10, also included a Final Target Review in 2014, which outlined both the progress made towards connecting libraries and their roles in supporting access to ICTs, learning and digital content. We are looking forward to more news about the 2025 Review process!

In addition, it’s worth highlighting that, over the course of 2021, the focus on the impacts of mis- and dis-information continued. In the recent Report on Disinformation by the UN Human Rights Council Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, the key recommendations towards addressing these concerns while preserving fundamental rights include both media literacy and access to reliable and diverse information. Both of these are of course aligned with the actions libraries have been taking to counter misinformation to date.

Within this area, one of the activities IFLA will focus on in 2022 is following up on the recent Media Literacy project that saw pop-up ML interventions carried out in several public libraries across Europe, and further explore the scalability and replicability of such library-based initiatives. IFLA is also planning to engage with this year’s Mozilla Festival, where tackling mis- and dis-information wil be one of the key topics for learning and exchange.

We encourage libraries, associations and information professionals to get involved in these internet governance platforms and discussions – you can find crucial dates and more information on how to take part on the IGF, WSIS and Mozilla Festival websites. For example, interested stakeholders are now invited to respond to a call for thematic inputs to shape the agenda of the 2022 IGF – so global library field members can share ideas based on their experiences and perspectives.

For library-specific engagement opportunities and discussions, you can also keep an eye for announcements on the Information Society webpage!

New policy and regulation initiatives

The overall trend towards intensifying regulation and new policy initiatives in internet governance looks likely to continue – in the EU alone, for example, 2022 is set to see further steps in the legislative processes around the Digital Markets and Services Acts, the AI Act, and in data governance regulation. In these, digital inclusion continues to be one of the thematic areas for libraries to keep an eye on as these policy frameworks evolve.

A particular area of focus will be how dedicated funds for connectivity are allocated. The new instalment of the annual Affordability Report by the Alliance for Affordable Internet, for example, offers a deep dive into the roles of Universal Service and Access Funds as catalysts towards equitable connectivity – and points out the correlation between universal and public access strategies and overall affordability of internet connectivity in a country. As such, one of the goals of IFLA for 2022 is to collect further evidence around the kind of enabling policy environments and measures which have been effective in supporting libraries’ digital inclusion work.

The calls for multistakeholder and cross-sector partnerships and collaborations towards digital inclusion and a safe and equitable digital environment have also been voiced strongly. The 2021 IGF saw calls for such cooperation in many areas, from digital skills-building to accessibility and digital content in languages which are currently less present on the internet.

These echo one of the proposals outlined in the UN Secretary-General’s 2021 report Our Common Agenda: the idea to create a Global Digital Compact to improve digital cooperation. The Agenda proposes a digital technology track which would bring together public, private and civil society sectors to agree on such a Compact, tackling a range of complex digital issues – from digital exclusion to internet fragmentation and the need for more accountability around discrimination or misleading content. This is mirrored in new practical initiatives as well, of course – one example being the Partner2Connect Digital Coalition recently launched by the International Telecommunications Union.

In 2021, IFLA had an opportunity to start taking a closer look at what such collaborations look like for libraries across the world – for instance, those between libraries and city and local governments. We look forward to further exploring good practices and scope for more collaboration towards digital inclusion – both within the global library field and between libraries and stakeholders from other sectors.

Digital rights and fundamental human rights online

Digital rights and fundamental rights in the digital environment remain at the very heart of many internet governance dialogues. 2021 was punctuated with many developments around these, both good and bad, such as the Pegasus spyware revelations, new legislative efforts aiming to protect workers in the gig economy, or UNESCO’s new Recommendations around the ethics of AI. The latter, notably, emphasise the protections of both fundamental rights and human dignity.

The library field, of course, continues to see crucial discussions about the fundamental rights of their users when it comes to digital – from privacy concerns around the way vendors handle patron data to efforts to ensure the safety and wellbeing of young users online.

This will continue to be among the key areas of IFLA’s work in the area. One of the examples is a newly-established Internet Governance Working Group of the FAIFE (Freedom of Access to Information and Freedom of Expression) Advisory Committee.

To follow or get invovled in this work, you can find out more on the FAIFE landing page, and sign up for updates or get in touch to share questions, ideas or insights through the FAIFE listserv.

These are just a few of the key themes that can shape library involvement and work in internet governance in 2022 – and we look forward to engaging with you around these throughout the year!