What citizens think about the Internet and its future

We the Internet was conducted in over 70 countries around the world. This global deliberation on the future of the Internet has one main objective: to test, improve and institutionalize internet governance with and for citizens. During the 15th edition of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), we revealed preliminary results to decision-makers at global level.

Among this high-level panel of speakers: Vint Cerf, Internet pioneer and vice-president of Google, as well speakers from Facebook, the Swiss Federal Office of Communications, the German federal Foreign and more.  Although qualitative, regional and national results have yet to be analyzed, as some countries are still undergoing their dialogues, we can already present powerful and relevant preliminary results. All the speakers stressed the need to engage in this type of process and to integrate this data into strategic decisions.


Data, equally an opportunity and a threat

What is the occupation of over 5,000 participants around the world? From white collar job to manual works, and unemployed people, non-expert citizens took part in the process and were informed through balanced documentation throughout the deliberation. 51.2 % of participants were female and 26.7 % are aged from 25 to 34.

According to the global results, 50 % of citizens in the world think that data is equally an opportunity and a threat. 25% think it is more an opportunity than a threat. This reflects a positive position from citizens on data. Who should control the collection, access and use of data? If citizens give strong support to their personal responsibility of the people who want to make decisions by themselves including decisions to sell the data and the right to access and use the data, over 15 % believe we should stop collecting data in the first place. 58 % say they should be able to make decisions by themselves, including that of selling their data. 22 % believe they should have the right to access and use data about me.

For Vint Cerf, vice-president of Google, “There are a set of data that are necessary, but the user should have the knowledge and decide whether they want to share it or not (…) I see that transparency in decision-making here is a critical element (…) However, if 58 % of citizens want to take the decisions by themselves, the number also reflects that an important percentage of people probably prefer not to have immediate and direct control over every incidence of sharing of our data (…) Yes, data is needed. The real question here is: what happens to it?

After the discussion, we asked participants if they would change their behavior: the answer is overwhelmingly yes! 66 % of them say their understanding of data has improved because of the informed deliberation and 53.9 % say they will share less data in the future, hence change their behavior following the discussion, whereas only 23,2% say they will go on as before.

More citizens’ power over disinformation

76.6 % believe that the technical community (organisations that manage critical parts of the Internet’s infrastructure) should take the lead in fighting disinformation.

Because of the Covid outbreak, accessing the right information at the right time has become in many parts of the world a lifesaver. From the very beginning, UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, denounced the “massive infodemic” of disinformation and misinformation swirling amidst the COVID-19 pandemic as a driver of the crisis itself. How do we ensure trustworthy sources and reliable information online? How can we fight disinformation when access to information has become vital in many cases?

Key quantitative findings include that over 50 % feel exposed to disinformation in their own country. 43 % said that speech should be controlled so that people are not harmed. Rules should be the same in private and public spaces. 33 % said that freedom of speech should be determined by the nature of the online space while public spaces should be controlled. 19 % prefer there to be no restriction whatsoever, freedom of speech should be total. Users should be able to say anything online without any control.

When we asked citizens who should be leading the efforts, there was a very high support for a multistakeholders’ process.

For Erlingur Erlingsson, from Facebook, this question is crucial and is a global issue: “Taking a wider view, we are at a moment where the future is far from assure. We know there is a rise of Chinese models segregated from the rest of the Internet with extended surveillance. This presents risks to the open and accessible Internet that we got used to and that we have enjoyed in the past. We see similar moves from other countries such as Russia and Turkey to build digital walls around citizens and expert data sovereignty. As we move forward, it’s important that the right to free expression, digital privacy, digital human rights are protected. We hope that multistakeholders stay at the heart of that conversation”.

Education to fight disinformation

Citizens clearly see a necessity to regulate or act on freedom of speech. When we asked them on their level of exposure, citizens have the feeling that they are less exposed themselves than the people in their own country in general. 36 % of people said that they felt exposed or very exposed to disinformation. 57.9 % of people believe that people in their own country are exposed or highly exposed to disinformation. 51.9 % believe that people from other countries in the world are exposed or highly exposed to disinformation. This shows that they have the feeling they are much less exposed themselves than the people in their country.

When studying the tools to fight disinformation, we proposed them categories of solutions. We gave participants time to work on these tools and assess the urgency and the usefulness of these solutions. Among 6 tools, e.g. new legislation, human or technical based intervention to ensure high-quality online content, the number 1 priority and urgency for citizens was education and empowerment: users must learn how to handle the accuracy of information. They decided that literacy programs was the most relevant solution for public bodies, “positive nudging” and awareness raising for the private sector (companies, social media platforms, software developers…) and for civil society at large (research and academia, journalists and media, individuals). The urgency of education and the greater impact it may have is greater, according to participants, among public bodies and civil society (69 % think that education is urgent and useful and will have a huge impact if it comes from public bodies).

At the end of the discussion on fighting disinformation, 83 % of citizens said they would be more cautious regarding the information they read, hear or share on the Internet. This is just as much a learning process than a deliberative process.

As Germany assumed the presidency of the Council of the European Union (EU), Simon Kreye from the German foreign federal office commented on the results and committed to using the overall findings to inform european level : “When we see that people think that their country and other countries are affected by the spread of disinformation, we understand it as a confirmation of our view that disinformation happens across boarders but also happens inside boarders. This is again confirmed by the answer that people give when asked what tool is best to fight disinformation: they spoke of education a top priority. I would not have expected this. For me, this is too soft an answer to disinformation but awareness raising and media literacy can have huge impact and this is why we are implementing such activities in third countries”.

A strong support for “academia and research community”

79 % agree to giving research and academia more power in policymaking, over other actors (technical community follows, then civil society, ordinary citizens, regional organizations, national governments and private sector), followed by civil society with 70.1 %.

We also asked them what topic, challenges and at what level of decision-making should digital issues be implemented. Citizens response was that Artificial Intelligence (72 %), Internet governance (66%) and Access (64 %) should be considered at global level. On the contrary, disinformation and data are considered to be topics submitted at more regional and national levels.

And should citizens’ dialogues become part of the normal way of making decisions regarding the Future of Internet? All panelists, whether from private sector (Google and Facebook) or members of governments said yes and an overwhelming 87.1 % of global citizens agreed.

Livia Walpen, from the Swiss Federal Office of Communications, expressed her support for institutionalizing citizens and stakeholders’ dialogues as a permanent feature of Internet governance, in line with the IGF+ spirit “Global governance models must be ready for the challenge we are facing today. We support institutionalizing citizens dialogue as a permanent feature of internet governance. Perhaps we can start with a representative selection of citizens from the world to express views on thematic tracks of the IGF, which will foster openness and inclusion”.

Lynn St Amour, former Chair of IGF, took the opportunity to call out to private sector to rethink their policy processes by reaching out to citizens : “Never in the history of the world have we as citizens ever had the opportunity to make our voices heard. Moving this to a global platform, will be critical to build the broad base activity that we need.  These processes can have an impact for government circles but also private sector (…) This is an opportunity for private sector to look at their own decision-making processes”.

This democratic experience is proof that global deliberations are a new way of finding common ground and taking action in global governance. It is also part of the United Nations’ and IGF’s efforts to become more participatory and open to informed citizen input and collective intelligence.