More than 500 participants from civil society, the activist and technical communities, the business and political spheres came together at the Mayinternational conference. Held for the fifth time, the conference offers a forum for discussing how a free a secure Internet can promote human rights and development worldwide. Hosted by SIDA, the Swedish development cooperation agency, the focus this year was on the interplay of access and power.
What's the next step for increasing access?
Although online access to information is a prerequisite for achieving freedom of information worldwide, more than half of the world's population lacks an Internet connection. It was clear at the conference that there's still a long road ahead, with many aspects to consider.
The mobile revolution was long seen as a solution to increase Internet access but the growth of mobile networks is slowing down, especially in rural areas. Still, it's not just a question of infrastructure. Other factors limiting Internet access include people not having online skills, a lack of relevant content, and barriers related to gender, poverty, language or social norms.
People need to be aware that being connected to the Internet is in their own interest, said speakers at a session on community access. Ritu Srivastava, head of the Indian non-profit Digital Empowerment Foundation, stressed that it's not enough to build infrastructure. "People need to have a connection to the Internet in a way that they see the need to invest in hardware and data in order to be connected," she pointed out. "People need to know about their personal benefit of an Internet connection."
How do we foster an inclusive Internet that enables participation?
Although people are increasingly being connected to the Internet, to what extent can they use it to its full potential? Speakers at a session on "Equal access – Distributed power"said Internet access should not be limited to content alone: it also offers users opportunities for self-expression, participation in the digital economy, and the chance to be active citizens online.
However, obstacles for creating an inclusive Internet were also discussed, such as governments blocking websites or shutting down the entire Internet in their own country, or telecommunication and social media corporations offering zero-rated mobile schemes where customers can only access a handful of websites.
Which measures are effective for achieving gender equality?
Women are especially vulnerable online. When it comes to power and the Internet, gender does play a role. Women are much more likely than men to be the targets of insults and intimidation, with methods ranging from the spreading of private images and videos without the woman's consent, to online harassment or blunt threats. Women journalists are also more likely to be threatened online than their male colleagues.
"Normally," said Frane Maroevic, Director of the Office of the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, "threats come to the office by mail, but today women receive them in the privacy of their home." Given cyberbullying, civil society risks losing important voices.
Various measures to counter this were discussed at a session on gender based violence. One priority is to ensure that those bullying online face the same legal consequences that they would for bullying offline. Another is for online communities to show solidarity, become active and speak out against harassment. Participants also called for more research on the subject in order to lay the groundwork for formulating better policies.
How can civil society become a more important stakeholder?
Whether it's algorithms, artificial intelligence, biometric identity systems or the like, tech elites create products for profit. But at the same time, these techs play an important role for the public. How can civil society help assure that a human right such as privacy, or a fundamental principle such as inclusiveness, is respected?
Panelists at a session on digital rights stressed that to avoid harm or the exclusion of certain communities, techs need to take human rights into consideration when developing new products. At the same time, civil society should not be afraid to engage in technical questions. Questions need to be raised at an early stage if rights-based and inclusive products are to be designed.
What does digital citizenship mean?
The Internet faces serious challenges: corporations dominate closed platforms, government surveillance is on the rise, and digital security is declining. Despite these trends, participants at the Stockholm Internet Forum 2017 stressed that citizens need to step up and seize the opportunities the Internet offers. In the ongoing struggle for digital rights, users need to acquire new skills. But there's also a need for new software and platforms to be designed, and for new ideas and content. According to Nnenna Nwakanma, senior policy manager at the Web Foundation, "You always have to make a choice. We should not sell ourselves to one platform – it is dangerous," she warned. "Access and the use of platforms needs to be distributed, otherwise we are in trouble." She encouraged participants to counter this, saying "Be a digital citizen. Be an active citizen. Contribute."