Why safe access to the Internet is a development issue

Internet access is vital for the growth of developing economies, yet not even half of the world’s population has it. As Stephanie MacLellan reports, last week’s Internet Governance Forum put forward some solutions. 

By: /
December 16, 2016
Internet Cuba
An Internet user surfs the net at a branch of the state-run telecommunications company, ETECSA, in Havana June 4, 2013. REUTERS/Stringer

When more than 2,000 Internet experts, activists, tech company representatives and government officials met in Mexico last week for the 11th Internet Governance Forum, development issues were high on the agenda. 

It might not seem like an obvious topic for an Internet conference, but in the first year of its fresh UN mandate, the IGF is tackling not just the high-level questions of how and by whom the Internet is governed, but how it can be used to expand opportunities worldwide. 

The 2016 conference was focused on how the Internet can contribute to the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) outlined in the agenda adopted at the UN General Assembly in 2015. Only one of the 169 targets outlined in the SDGs deals explicitly with expanding access to the Internet and information and communications technology. But that one calls on the global community to “strive to provide universal and affordable access to the Internet in least developed countries by 2020.”

We are a long way off from that — the global Internet access rate is about 43 percent, and in some countries in sub-Saharan Africa, that figure is in the low single digits. Even more troubling, the growth rate for Internet access has started slowing down. 

Internet access isn’t important just for its own sake. Instead, it’s an enabling force that can help build institutions, boost economies, broaden access to education and expand human rights. It can shrink the barriers that keep individuals and societies from living up to their economic and social potential.

But the battle doesn’t end with letting people access the Internet; they also have to see a reason to use it. So while debates around Internet governance have typically considered how to expand access in developing countries, they are increasingly considering the quality of access available to people who live there. This includes factors like making the Internet affordable and providing locally produced content in local languages.

One critical aspect that is often overlooked when it comes to the quality of Internet access is cyber security. As digital access expands in a newly wired country, cyber security tends to get worse before it gets better — and if users there come to associate the Internet with cyber crime, harassment and financial risk, they won’t want to use it.

A 2014 study by Microsoft shows that in most of the world, expanded technological development is accompanied by improved cyber security. But it’s the opposite in countries with developing economies, where Internet access often outpaces digital security, leading to higher rates of malware. 

There are several reasons for this. In many developing countries, the Internet is primarily accessed through mobile phones, which usually lack basic security software. Even desktop or laptop computers are often vulnerable to infection, especially if they are running pirated software without automated security patching — and many do because it is less expensive than legitimate software. 

In a paper for the Global Commission on Internet Governance, Caroline Baylon and Albert Antwi-Boasiako note that a “lack of user education” is a contributing factor. 

“Users are typically unaware of the importance of downloading update patches or running antivirus, so their machines often lack basic security protections.” Illiteracy and language barriers can play a role here, too. Users may also lack basic digital hygiene skills, such as knowing how to identify phishing scams. 

Conversations at this year’s IGF considered ways to make the Internet more secure for users in developing countries. There is broad support for computer literacy education. This should not just be limited to in-school training, but also to older first-time users, civil society groups and government workers.

Another approach, which should be taken concurrently, is to help governments build their capacity to detect and respond to cyber threats. Such capacity-building measures can include everything from securing cyber infrastructure, to updating laws to address cyber crimes, to training law enforcement officers to address digital offences.

When it comes to development funding, building up a country's cyber security capacity is not often considered. That should change. For developing countries, it’s a prerequisite for everything from building a financial sector to building local economies through online entrepreneurship. 

The Internet can open up a world of possibilities to people in developing countries, but only if they trust the Internet enough to use it.