Back in 2014, when I was leading USAID’s Digital Inclusion Practice, I was invited by the U.S Department of State to present on the importance of information and communication technology (ICT) in driving economic growth. The cyber training was intended to equip foreign service officers with the knowledge and tools to represent the broad range of policy priorities enumerated in the President’s International Strategy for Cyberspace: Prosperity, Security, and Openness in a Networked World.
My presentation was followed immediately by one on cyber crime, delivered by a high-ranking military officer who drew on recent headline-making cyber attacks—such as the 2012–2013 Operation Ababil that targeted U.S. financial institutions with distributed-denial-of-service attacks—to paint a dire picture of escalating risks in the virtual world. That presentation was followed by others on cyber warfare, online fraud, the use of online platforms for state-sponsored surveillance, and other nefarious activities of the digital age.
By the end of the training, it was clear to me that the message of digital risk had resonated with participants far more than the message of digital opportunity. At best, the policies for promoting digital access and the policies for preventing cyber risk appeared as disconnected issues and, at worst, as fundamentally at odds.
Digital Risk vs. Digital Opportunity
In the years since that experience, I have grappled—personally and professionally—with the tension I observed during the training: On one hand, nearly half the world’s population remains offline—a status quo that should be unacceptable to anyone concerned with supporting economic growth, social inclusion, and new opportunities for historically marginalized populations. On the other hand, low-income countries, where most offline populations are found, are the least prepared to respond to cyber threats, potentially putting at greater risk the very populations that internet access programs seek to connect.
With this tension in mind, it was helpful to see Sir Tim Berners-Lee pose two frank questions about his creation in a letter he published on the World Wide Web’s 29th birthday earlier this year:
- How do we get the other half of the world connected?
- Are we sure the rest of the world wants to connect to the web we have today?
There’s a lot packed into each of those questions—from technology considerations to concerns about advertising-based business models, the power dynamics of who mediates content, and how the internet is perceived by those coming online for the first time today—but the frankness of the questions was illuminating to me in a fundamental way:
The international development community is tackling Sir Tim’s first question head-on, having fully embraced the digital revolution both as an enabler of traditional development outcomes in health, education, agriculture and as a development objective in its own right. Universal access to the internet has become the focus of numerous international efforts—such as the World Economic Forum’s Internet for All project—and is enshrined in the Sustainable Development Goal 9C.
We, the development community, therefore have an increasingly large role in shaping the nature of the networked society in emerging markets. Yet, as a community, we have not addressed in any systematic way Sir Tim’s second question.
I’ve spent the last few months thinking about the second question, in hopes of kick-starting this conversation on the international development stage. My thoughts, culminated in the publication of a report commissioned by DAI’s Center for Digital Acceleration. I’ve summarized some of my thoughts here, and hope you find the full report thought-provoking.
Focusing on Trust
There is increasing urgency for the international development community to play an active role in shaping the kind of internet people experience when they go online for the first time. With cyber crime growing exponentially and the internet becoming a platform for spreading misinformation, inciting hatred, and exerting control, we see a significant erosion of trust online globally and people are starting to change how they engage online.
Ultimately, the development goals of inclusive economic growth and expanded access to information are best served by an open and inclusive internet. Achieving this vision should remain the objective of the development community, but it must take seriously the risks presented by expanded access. Getting the cybersecurity environment right will require collaboration among different communities—law enforcement, defense, intelligence, diplomatic, and others. But the development community should exert its interests and resist pressure to adopt an entirely risk-averse position that prioritizes security over inclusion.
Instead, development programs, particularly those investing in expanded internet access, must start to take a more intentional approach to building trust in the internet while also bringing more people online. In doing so, the development community can ensure the internet remains a force for positive socioeconomic development while also contributing to the overall security environment.
From the 'Digital Inclusion and a Trusted Internet' report.
What Can Donors Do?
Fortunately, international development donors already have tools and models for cultivating trust in digital inclusion programs but they must be deployed with a more intentional focus in three areas:
- Empowering users to be dynamic participants in the digital space by ensuring they have a clearer understanding of their privacy and consumer rights, greater ability to assess online risks, identify misinformation and efforts to manipulate, and more agency in their online lives.
- Supporting governments’ capacity to develop and implement integrated national digital strategies that balance access and security based on local needs. By focusing on standardization of capacity-building programs and local ownership, the development community can help establish parameters that underpin a free and open internet while building a more trusted digital ecosystem that responds to local context.
- De-risking digital inclusion investment in emerging markets to catalyze innovation and competition to build an ecosystem with a greater number of trusted partners.
This guest post was written by Jonathan Dolan, an independent consultant and a New America Cybersecurity Policy Fellow specializing in digital inclusion and data governance. Jonathan co-founded the Center for Digital Development at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and led its Digital Inclusion Practice.