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Measuring Digital Rights for the Attainment of Internet Universality

Measuring the information society in order to achieve development goals is a challenge and a necessity to ascertain progress made in terms of ICT sector development and socio-economic growth. Many intergovernmental, governments, non-profit and private organisations have sought to tackle the challenge through setting targets, defining indicators, and applying research methods to measure progress. Nevertheless, ambitious goals and targets relate mostly to the achievement of physical connectivity to ICT, while the attainment of users’ digital rights including capabilities and liberties, are being overlooked by global UN frameworks on ICT development.

Since 2009, the challenge of measuring the information society has been tackled, among others, by ITU who publishes annually a Measuring of the Information Society (MIS) report. The report presents a comprehensive set of supply-side ICT indicators and the ICT Development Index, which aims at capturing the level of ICT developments in 166 economies worldwide and compares progress made by these countries in terms of ICT infrastructure development, and ICT access and use. The MIS report seeks to “highlight the relationships between ICT development and the Millennium Development Goals, a contribution to the ongoing discussion on the potential of ICTs as development enablers”. Despite good intentions, the report and the underlying dataset of supply-side indicators have been criticised as inaccurate and problematic especially with regards to ICT indicators from developing countries. In addition, the role of ICTs in enhancing economic growth and socio-economic development is only investigated in terms of progress made towards physical connectivity to electronic communication networks, while questions around enabling individual capabilities and individual rights have had very little consideration, if any.

The recognition of ICTs as transformational technologies and as important enablers for social and economic development, was sanctioned by the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS). In accordance with the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the Geneva phase agreed on a Declaration of Principles and a Plan of Action, with ten targets and several action lines to be achieved by 2015. The Summit established that tracking, monitoring, and addressing the digital divide needed attention in order to measure the fulfillment of the targets. To this end, the Partnership for Measuring ICT for Development was created to improve the quality and quantity of ICT statistics worldwide, to help develop better tools to support countries to collect ICT data, and to raise awareness of the importance of measurement. In 2015, the WSIS targets have been reviewed based on the progress made in the implementation of the WSIS outcomes. 2015 is also the target date of the achievement of the MDGs which during the year where reviewed and re-established in the form of Sustainable Development Goals. The Sustainable Development Goals define a common agenda for the achievement of inclusive growth, end poverty, and protect the environment by 2030. In order to measure progress made towards the attainment of these new goals, in February 2015, the Partnership has agreed on a joint proposal of ICT indicators for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) framework. In addition to the join proposal of ICT indicators, the 79th UN General Assembly at the end of September 2015 launched a Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data. The Global Partnership’s goal: to mobilise a range of data producers and users—including governments, companies, civil society, data scientists, and international organisations, to achieve and measure the Global Goals.

On a similar note, during the 2014 Plenipotentiary Conference ITU Member States set four additional goals as an ambitious vision for the ICT sector for the year 2020: The Connect 2020 Agenda, which includes growth, inclusiveness, sustainability, and innovation and partnership.

Most of these UN goals, targets, and indicators of global initiatives on measuring progress made on ICT development, refer to quantify physical access to ICT, including supply and demand indicators on household, individual, and SMEs access and use of ICT, cost to communicate, and quality of service. On the other hand, capabilities and liberties online, which affect internet access from a users’ rights perspective, are often neglected by targets, indicators and methods to assess progress made by the information society. Issues around trust in the information society in terms internet users’ respect of fundamental rights of freedom of expression, privacy protection, and safety and security, are ignored by current UN global frameworks drawing from sustainable development goals. As more and more people gain access to the internet, physical access and trust in the information society go together. Issues relating to creation of content in local language, to protection of freedom of expression, to data protection and respect of privacy, to consumer protections and the creation of a safe and secure online environment, are all important elements for the development of an Internet that users can trust.

In UN circles, these issues have been taken forward by the UNESCO’ internet study “CONNECTing the Dots: Options for Future Actions”, which includes a human-rights based approach for the attainment of Internet universality. In the draft definition of indicators, the report includes rights-based indicators such as freedom of expression and freedom of belief, freedom of association online, safety and security, data protection and privacy, and consumer rights. Similarly, the 2015 Internet Governance Forum policy options for connecting the next billion emphasise the importance of enabling users’ online through promoting human rights.

Internet use and internet access, from a rights-oriented perspective, should be measured as the capability to retrieve, produce and distribute information (text, visual, audio and video) over the Internet, which translates to freedom of expression, in civil and political participation, in freedom to enhance literacy, in freedom to improve economic conditions, and in freedom to entertainment and leisure. In this sense, internet use may be constrained not only by high prices and poor quality of service but also by users’ anxiety over restrictive measures to govern the internet, such as non-transparent surveillance, content regulation or content filters, more formal limitations on freedom of expression, and retrogressive cybersecurity measures, or the absence thereof. “Offline” denial of human rights in semi-authoritarian regimes may also have an impact on individual capabilities and therefore on the enjoyment of many possibilities that internet use and internet access can offer. Therefore, a safe and secure internet environment, where individual rights are respected and protected, becomes a goal and target that cannot be ignored for the attainment of Global Sustainable Development Goals. In order to measure progress made towards Internet universality, global connectivity goals and targets need to consider also digital rights online to realise an information society underpinned by the respect of human rights. Progress made by the information society in the realization of Internet universality targets should be tracked and monitored to support the development of societies where civil and political rights as well as individual liberties, are respected and promoted.

By Enrico Calandro, Senior researcher

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