Events Growing the Internet Internet Governance

Muhammad Shabbbir Awan: Reflections on the WTDC17

It’s been 5 months since WTDC17 concluded and I had time to reflect on the outcomes of the conference and the experience itself. WTDC sets the ITU’s development agenda and in Argentina last October over 1000 government delegates from close to 135 countries gathered during the two-week period. They were there to discuss a range of issues and shape the development sector’s priorities for the next four years. For me, it was a trip of many firsts: my first experience as an observer participating in a multilateral conference; my first trip to South America; and, as a visually impaired person, the eighteen hours flight duration was my first such experience.

To recall, I was a member of the Internet Society delegation as a Fellow. For me, the two motivators to apply for the fellowship opportunity were: first, the theme for WTDC17 (“ICTs for Sustainable Development Goals”) and possibility to make a difference. Second, my quest to learn even more about Internet Governance processes and to participate in the discussions.

WTDC17 had a packed agenda that included ceremonial events marking the 25th Anniversary of the Development Sector and side events on a range of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) topics.

My blindness posed a challenge, but not enough that we could not overcome it except in a few cases. Nonetheless, one challenge that we could not bridge was related to the accessibility of the “ITU Sync Tool” with my screen reader. It is the tool participants can use to access the conference documents. Despite the efforts by the ITU technical staff there was no immediate fix. The only solution was to rely on my fellow delegates to share the documents with me. I hope the issue has been fixed in the 6 months since then, because it was disappointing not to have the required updated documents available while they were being discussed in the sessions.

Another misperception that I tried to change was the low expectation that people had about people with disabilities (PWDs). With my participation I hope that more people understand that PWDs are just people who cannot see, hear, or have physical impairment. Any impairment is a physical characteristic, but it is not the characteristic that defines them or their capabilities. Plus, it is the societal barriers that turn an impairment to disability. Therefore, policy makers and technologists should work with PWDs to remove the ICT-related policy and technical barriers in our quest to shape a better tomorrow.

At the same time, a sad fact that I observed during the conference was the very low participation of PWDs. There was a lot of discussion on accessibility-related issues in a number of resolutions, which would not have been possible without input from PWDs. However, there was not a single organization that highlights mainly issues of PWDs. Therefore, PWDs should also realize that they need to come out of their comfort zones; get themselves composed and united; participate in such conferences and forums; and raise their voice to resolve their issues. I am a firm believer of the dictum “nothing about us without us” meaning that no one can express the problems and issues of PWDs better than PWD themselves and no solution should be implemented or can be successful without our active participation. However, PWDs themselves need to be fully prepared and participate in these discussions actively. Policymakers have a role to play as well. They should include PWDs on issues related to PWDs in their national preparatory processes and on delegations.

Despite all this, it was a wonderful experience. Most importantly, it was collectively a challenging, thought provoking and exciting opportunity. It led me to think about how I could best improve myself. and what more can be done to improve ICT accessibility for PWDs. It also taught me how to make the best of whatever opportunity and circumstances you have. One of the most exciting parts about this experience was sharing my WTDC17 experience with members of the Internet Society’s Islamabad, Pakistan Chapter.

Having navigated the ITU system for about a year and having attended WTDC and experienced most of the accessibility related issues myself, I believe that it is high time that the ITU designate a focal point for telecommunication/ICT accessibility for persons with disabilities to strengthen the Digital Inclusion programme and to make ITU conferences more inclusive and accessible for us. This will allow PWDs to raise the accessibility-related issues within ITU and will save them the time and resources to log their request at the right forum. The issue emerged during WTDC17 under Resolution 58 (“on telecommunication/information and communication technology accessibility for persons with disabilities, including persons with age-related disabilities”) and consensus was reached to take it to the 2018 ITU Plenipotentiary Conference (PP-18) in October as this body adopts the ITU’s four-year strategic and financial plans.

Since regional and national preparatory meetings for PP-18 are underway, one can hope that a focal point is designated within the ITU to deal with accessibility related issues. Moreover, to achieve the goals for ITU’s Connect 2020 global agenda and the SDGs, which reference ICT accessibility for PWDs, the issues need to be identified and highlighted. And, I am sure that having a focal point for accessibility would ease the process.

In a nutshell, I am happy to say that the promise that technology holds for enhancing people’s lives is extraordinary. However, it is equally true that technology, if not appropriately-designed and implemented, is the biggest threat to an inclusive digital future. Harnessing the extraordinary promise of technology is within our reach, but it will take leadership, commitment, and ongoing oversight. The alternative is a future where we spend our time, money, and innovative capacity retrofitting bridges to patch the digital divide rather than enjoying the economic and social advantages gained by the increased usability of technology and the increased leveraging of human capacity that results from technology that is designed and built to be accessible to all. I would reiterate my earlier statement that “if we want to build a digital future where people come first, accessibility needs to be at the heart of Internet policy, planning and design”.

Read more about Digital Divides in the 2017 Global Internet Report: Paths to Our Digital Future.

Take action! Help shape a digital future that puts people first.

Growing the Internet

Accessibility Needs to Be at the Heart of Internet Policy, Planning and Design

The Internet Society’s 2017 Global Internet Report: Paths to Our Digital Future shows that new digital divides are emerging. It’s not just about accessing the Internet, but our ability to make the most of it.

One only has to look at the UN DESA 2015 Global Status Report on Disability and Development to start putting the pieces together. Not only does the report show a significant gap between people with and people without disabilities when it comes to things like education, employment, and health, but also, that those who are doubly disadvantaged (women, refugees, indigenous communities) experience the lowest level of inclusion and participation in society.

What does this mean for the Internet and information communication technology (ICTs)? They’re tools that help us bridge space and time, can start a business with the spark of an idea, and help kids stay in school.

If we want to build a digital future where people come first, accessibility needs to be at the heart of Internet policy, planning and design.

This means accessibility is first in. Not last out. It is always smarter, less expensive, and more functional to build accessibility into technology at the start rather than as a second-class add on. Anyone, regardless of their abilities, should have access to the same technology at the same time, and at the same price.

I’m here at the International Telecommunication Union’s World Telecommunication Development Conference (WTDC-17) in Buenos Aires this week to tell policy and decision makers from around the world that, together, we can make this happen.

All stakeholders should collaborate and encourage the transfer of accessibility-related technologies for Persons With Disabilities (PWDs), particularly from developed to developing countries, in order to make ICT accessibility a reality. This collaboration is necessary because, although ICT accessibility for PWDs in developed countries remains a challenge, it’s multiplied several times in developing countries due to various social, economic and cultural barriers. Like everyone else, people with disabilities are equally capable and should, therefore, be given the same opportunities to take advantage of ICTs.  For people with disabilities, accessibility means the ability to use products or services in the same way that those without disabilities can. However, there are challenges that need to be addressed. These include the availability of technology, its cost to consumers, and the willingness of the industry to adopt accessibility standards.

These are not things that happen when accessibility of Internet and ICTs is an add on.

What We’re Getting Wrong

Accessibility standards are vastly misunderstood to just benefit people with disabilities. In actual fact, adherence to these standards is the panacea to most ICT challenges for people of all backgrounds. How? Just think about improved access from mobile platforms in low-bandwidth environments as well as significantly better content usability.

Some Personal Reflections

During the last week or so, I have come to know and appreciate that world leaders who have done a lot of work for PWDs. Yet more needs to be done, particularly in developing countries. For me, the opportunity to participate as an Internet Society Fellow at WTDC-17 has enabled me to experience and observe the policy development process in the international arena and to make a stand for what I believe needs to happen.  It is enlightening and exciting to see and observe the ITU development agenda taking shape along with the politicking and negotiations being done at an international forum.

Being a visually impaired participant, there were and are a number of challenges to make the experience an utmost success. These range from the accessibility of the contributions prior to the conference, the accessibility of the texts being discussed during the sessions, mobility between the sessions and sometimes using the equipment within the conference rooms. But, thanks to the wonderful cooperation and excellent support of fellow Internet Society delegates and to some extent ITU staff, a number of the aforementioned challenges have been overcome or where possible, an alternate way has been found to reduce the impact. 

But Now It’s Time for Action

At the WTDC, and conferences like this, the time for talking about issues is done. We need action.

When it comes to accessibility we need clear resolutions that we can measure. Where are we going and what will tell us, by the time the next WTDC comes around, if we accomplished what we set out to do?

To do this we need to increase participation of PWDs and their representative organizations in ICT Policy Formulation, planning, design and implementation processes.  Pakistan’s National IT policy 2017 titled “digital Pakistan” can be considered a case in point: People with disabilities were not only invited for discussions, but a complete section was dedicated to addressing their needs.

Additionally, a truly inclusive meeting requires that PWDs should be enabled to actively participate in much the same way as people without disabilities. Just consider the range of resources and tools available that ensure active participation at such a meeting. For example: Accessibility of tools being used to navigate, sort and access the documents prior to and during the meeting; accessibility of texts during the deliberations; ease of mobility between the sessions; and, accessible equipment within the conference rooms – to name a few.

To sum up, why do I say that accessibility for people with disabilities should not be considered an add-on venture?  Each and every one one of us can benefit from accessibility. Every day, every time.  During this very conference, I overheard participants asking to change the background color of the screen, change text font and/or size, and witnessed postponing the discussion on the documents because some of the delegates were not able to access the document under discussion. So, ICT accessibility is something that we all need and considering the unpredictable nature of the future, may end up needing it sooner or later.

Read more about Digital Divides in the 2017 Global Internet Report: Paths to Our Digital Future.

Take action! Help shape a digital future that puts people first.

Community Networks

New Policy Brief published on Community Networks and Access to Spectrum

Yesterday we published a new policy brief: Spectrum Approaches for Community Networks.

Access to affordable and available spectrum is critical for Community Networks. Policy makers can play a key role in ensuring adequate access to spectrum. The policy brief examines the various ways that Community Networks can gain access to spectrum, including:

  • the use of unlicensed spectrum,
  • sharing licensed spectrum, and
  • innovative licensing.

Network operators also play a key role in helping Community Networks. The policy brief outlines recommendations for operators which include:

  • access to backhaul infrastructure at fair rates,
  • equipment and training partnerships, and
  • the sharing of infrastructure as well as spectrum.

Please read our press release for more information about this new paper.  Also visit our World Telecommunications Development Conference (WTDC) 2017 page for more about what our team is doing there in Buenos Aires this week.

The policy brief is also available in Spanish and French.

Women in Tech

Solutions needed! It’s time to close the digital gender divide

If you could sneak peek a future in 10 years in which the Internet is everywhere, would it still be the same access for men and women, boys and girls?

The latest Internet Society report focused on the future of the Internet Society shows that new digital divides are emerging. One of them is a gender divide.  Today 250 million fewer women than men use the Internet. If we don’t act now to close this gap, we will lose out on a digital future that includes everyone.

Closing the digital divide and bridging the gender gap is a promise the world made to itself in 2015 when world leaders ratified the Global Goals for Sustainable Development.

This week more than 100 Ministers and 1,500 delegates are attending the World Telecommunications Development Conference, a 10-day meeting dedicated finding new solutions on how Information and Communication Technologies can advance development.

We’re here to send a message that to shape a digital future that benefits all of humanity, we need new thinking, new approaches and new tools for this rapidly changing world around us.

We need your help.

If you’re at the World Telecommunications Development Conference register now for the side event dedicated to finding solutions to techs gender gap not through building relationships, sparking inspiration and offering concrete solutions for policy and decision makers.

If you’re not in Buenos Aires we still need to hear your ideas! Go on Twitter and tag @internetsociety with your ideas.

Don’t wait. The time to take action is now.  If we don’t, we risk loosing generations of women who can contribute to shaping the Internet’s future.

Photo: “Women of Takalafiya-Lapai village” © 2010 World Bank Photo Collection CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Development Events Growing the Internet

Support New Ways of Working to Connect the World

The World Telecommunications Conference (WTDC) begins today. This is a key moment to remind the world that together we can shape a digital future that puts humanity at the heart of the Internet.  But to do this we need your help.

Help send the message that to close the digital divide we’ll need new ways of working, new ways of thinking, and new policies support it all.

Much of what we are speaking on at WTDC serve as real-world examples of the kinds of things we need policy and decision makers to support – community networking being a key focus.

We will keep you up-to-date on what is happening and what we need to do next the conference.

Here’s how you can help:

Take part in a Pre-Event Roundtable

On Sunday, October 8, 17:20 UTC (4:20 PM Argentina Local Time) Internet Society’s Vice President, Global Engagement Raúl Echeberría will speak on the importance of community networks at a Pre-Event-Private Sector Roundtable on Partnering for the SDGs. Watch it here.

 Share Raul’s Blog

Raul’s wrote a critical blog to launch our WTDC message.  Please share it across your channels.

“Every Connection Matters – Shape Tomorrow and Help Close Digital Divides.”

Use your social media channels:

If you’re on social we need your help! Please join us in reminding the world that together we can build a digital future that includes everyone, everywhere.  Hashtags: #ShapeTomorrow #WTDC17 

Other Resources: