What started as an idea for people to share information went on to be a basic human right. Nnenna Nwakanma is Chief Web Advocate for the World Wide Web Foundation (WWWF), she reflects on the web’s creation, the necessity of co-creating it with citizens through We, the internet and the power of thinking the UN Global Digital Compact through a gender-perspective lens.
Missions Publiques. What in your experience drove you to fight for an open, meaningful access to the web at the World Wide Web Foundation (WWWF)?
I grew up in a village in the eastern part of Nigeria and my parents didn’t have a phone at home. I was limited in to information, limited in my world view, limited in my capacity to interact with others and in my personal development. So, where I come from is the direct opposite of what the web is. Why do I work towards access, meaningful data and open government? One word: opportunity. The opportunity for personal and economic growth, for education, for information, for rights to be respected. Meaningful internet access, not only basic access, is a driver for all human rights. It is also the power to have our voices heard: as an African woman, I don’t have the same opportunity like others to have my say. I see in the WWWF the capacity of the Internet to give opportunities.
As the citizens from the We, the Internet Citizens’ dialogues stated, a meaningful internet access is a fundamental human right. Indeed, the pandemic has highlighted that access to the web is a lifeline, not a luxury. Our mission is that the original vision of the World Wide Web remains; in other terms, that everyone can connect, have access, use it, benefit from it, contribute to it and help co-create the future of the Web.
Missions Publiques. Why is co-creating the web such a big deal? Why is multistakeholder participation so important in building bridges?
When the pandemic started, people called it “the Chinese virus”, now we know for a fact that a disease that may have started in China has led to illness, death and mass change in every corner of the planet. That means that we are an interconnected world. It’s the same for the Internet, everything and everyone is connected with everyone else, hence we cannot have a safe and open Internet without it being interconnected. Whatever happens in Kuala Lumpur affects Durban, whatever happens in Lagos affects Paris and whatever happens in Indonesia ultimately will affect Ireland. That is why everybody has to be part of building it. In terms of an open, secure and free Internet, my freedom is tied to my neighbors’, my privacy is tied to their privacy and my safety and security are tied to their digital wellbeing. You cannot be safe on your own because it’s an interconnected world, that’s why we all need to be a part of it.
In that sense, we advocate for a multistakeholder’ participation: everyone who can contribute, should be able to join and have a voice. Those who will benefit from it should also be part of its development. We don’t want to create for others, we want to co-create. Everybody benefits or we all lose.
Likewise, we don’t want to create solutions for people without understanding what their challenges are. As an international developer expert, I know how development can be a risky business and I know of a story that depicts how risky it can be: a development professional goes to a village somewhere in Africa and observes women who tirelessly walk kilometers to wash their clothes in a river. She makes the following assumption: the women need a washing machine. So, she buys the washing machine believing that it would solve the problem of having to walk long distances to clean clothes. The machine was sparkling, brand new and high-tech! Everyone in the village was happy and it seemed like the problem was solved. She came back to that same village a couple of months later and saw that the women were still going to the river and asked why. So, they invited here along on their 20 to 30min trip to the river and showed her that the washing machine was placed beside the riverbend, without any electricity. “We use it all right, don’t worry!” they said. And explained: they had never complained about walking to the river. The village does not have basic electricity nor has it running water. The infrastructure analysis was not done right, when the women walk together to the stream, that time is a precious networking moment where they can exchange, chat, train each other and laugh. “We love the walk, it’s good for our health and we don’t want to give it away!”. They also told her it was a way to fetch water and take a bath. The machine was used by the women who hit their clothes on it to get the water out. They used the machine in their own way.
That’s also why we need to involve everyone to find the most adapted solutions to people’s needs, and this goes for the future of the world, not only the future of the Internet.
"Everyone impacted by the Global Digital Compact should have a say in its creation.
Chief Web Advocate for the World Wide Web Foundation (WWWF)
Missions Publiques. Involving everyone can have many aspects among which are Citizens’ Dialogues and assemblies. We, the Internet, the World Wide Web Foundation and our partners are working towards a Citizens’ Dialogue to feed the UN Global Digital Compact in 2022/2023. Why in your eyes is this a timely project?
A little bit of context first. Antonio Guterres, Secretary general of the United Nations, proposed to agree on a new “Global Digital Compact to be agreed upon among governments, the private sector and civil society, at the Summit of the Future in 2023.” The global collaboration of Missions Publiques, the WWWF and many other key actors from governments, private sector and civil society believe that the right ideology for Internet governance is for everyone to have a say. That is why we support citizen dialogues, consultation and assemblies; why we encourage governments to consult their citizens and encourage civil society to come together through multistakeholder roundtables.
When Tim Berners Lee, creator of the World Wide Web, was asked why he preferred to gift the web to the world instead of licensing it to himself, he said it was because he wanted it to be #ForEveryone. That is why we work with the UN and the office of the UN Tech Envoy, the Office of the Secretary General, the Office of the President of the General Assembly in making the world better through the gift of the Web.
We, the Internet answers to the call to feed the Global Digital Compact with global citizens’ input. The UN Secretary-General’s vision of an open, free and secure digital future for all also underpins his Roadmap for Digital Cooperation, which was partly fed by the citizens’ dialogues from We, the internet in 2020. In the report on Our Common Agenda, the UN Secretary-General advocates for a so-called “Global Digital Compact” – a multi-stakeholder understanding between Member States, the private sector and civil society, with the engagement of the private sector.
This Global Digital Compact is a universal format of the contract for the web that the Web Foundation has already worked on with many stakeholders. It falls naturally that as the Chief Web Advocate of the Foundation, I bring the wealth of knowledge from the global community to the global Internet community. Everyone impacted by the Global Digital Compact should have a say in its creation. Let’s not be like the development professional whom I spoke about earlier; but let’s understand, listen and let’s hear from all the voices to make the Digital Global Compact global, participative, open, gender-responsive, and sustainable.
Missions Publiques. What priorities in your opinion should the participating citizens deliberate upon to make the Digital Global Compact open, meaningful and secure?
The Global Digital Compact is not something new. In 2000, the UN started getting interested in knowing how will the Internet affect the future. So, in 2003 we had the World Summit on the Information Society which was led by Kofi Annan. We had what we called the Tunis Agenda for the Information Society and between 2005 and 2020, there has been a lot of improvement in the digital system within the Internet Governance Forum, the UN, and all digital policy actors. So, what we’re doing now for 2023 with the Summit for the Future, is not just to try and adopt a Global Digital Compact but also many other issues that affect the future of humanity in the framework of sustainable development. The Global Digital Compact is only one section of the digital corporation landscape, and it has already highlighted 7 priorities (it doesn’t aim to solve all humanity’s problems, only 7 priorities linked to existing challenges today).
The first is connecting everyone. It’s hard for those of us who have unlimited access to the Internet at the tips of our fingers to imagine life without connectivity, but that’s the reality for half the world’s population. Africa has the lowest number of Internet connections—only 22 percent of the continent has meaningful access. Then, internet fragmentation. In 2021, Internet fragmentation was not perceived as a problem. But with the war in Ukraine for example, the question of cutting of Russia from Internet appeared and set a global challenge in the very nature of the web we want. We believe it was built as an interconnected, non-fragmented open and free infrastructure. Avoiding internet fragmentation is one of the key things we want to address with citizens. Over the years, we’ve seen people’s privacy being threatened online. The protection of data is one of the grave dangers we need to agree upon. We’ve heard about Internet shutdowns, about using Internet itself against human rights. Applying human rights online is one of the key pillars of the Global Digital Compact. Curbing disinformation, misleading content during the pandemic or in a political space like the ongoing Russia-Ukrainian war is also a priority. Some governments are practically shutting down credible news. It’s a crazy world out there and we need to talk about it. But there’s also the metaverse and artificial intelligence: people are afraid and don’t know how to engage with it, so we need understand people’s concerns and agree on it. Finally, the Internet shouldn’t belong to some rich countries, platforms, continents or individuals, but to all of us: let’s start talking about the fact that it should be a public good. We need to set some action points to ensure that the Internet remains for everyone as the original creators had as ideology.
I also have a personal agenda: as an African woman, I cannot emphasize the importance of having the gender-mainstream perspective to the entire Global Digital Compact. You can call me a feminist if you want to, I believe that gender-divides should be taken into account when creating the Global Compact. Across the globe, fewer women than men use the internet and research from the Alliance for Affordable Internet found that globally men are 21 per cent more likely to be online than women. This gap increases to 52 per cent in the world’s least developed countries and keeps widening. This reality is worrying because if no appropriate measures are taken to achieve gender digital equality, women and girls are likely to miss out on the economic and social opportunities that the internet offers. And of course, people from the LGBTQ+ communities are not safe online. More women and gender minorities are likely to be left behind. During lockdown, when we told people to go and work from home, women were more likely to have no connectivity or the skills to work from home, they didn’t have the devices. As caregivers of their own homes, they end up having double the work because we’re also asking them to teach their children. In times of crises, the digital divide doubles and the gender digital divides quadruples. If we’re looking for a gender balanced world, we have to pay attention to the social, cultural, economic and digital gender divide. That’s why we need to bring this scope into the Global Digital Compact.
My call to us all is to join forces, participate in citizen consultations and assemblies, support the Office of the UN Tech Envoy, bring ideas to our governments and do what it takes, as digital citizens to co-create a Global Digital Compact that captures our aspirations and addresses our digital cooperation challenges. This is #ForEveryone or as they say in UN spaces… Leave no one behind!