Evoking the fall of the Berlin Wall, UN chief urges world leaders to tear down the virtual walls on the Internet Updated for 2021

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Updated: March 5, 2021

The infamous Berlin Wall came down thirteen years ago, but today humans are creating virtual walls on the internet to separate people, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres told the fourteenth Internet Governance Forum in Berlin, Germany.

Mr.Guterres cautioned against a growing and profound digital, social and political divide caused by the new digital technology.

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He said the growing frequency and severity of cyber-attacks are undermining trust and encouraging States to adopt offensive postures for the hostile use of cyberspace.

“The potential dangers of this demand a much more vigorous collective response,” he said.  “We have a collective responsibility to give direction to these technologies so that we maximize benefits and curtail unintended consequences and malicious use, and so far we have not kept pace,” he said, reiterating that the Internet can be a powerful source for good.

Guterres stressed the polarizing effects that can drive people against each other simply by data manipulation that increasingly undermine trust and which demands a much more vigorous global response.  

Held from 25 to 29 November, this year’s Internet Governance Forum is bringing together more than 6,000 onsite and remote participants from over 168 countries, making it the largest and most geographically diverse Forum. Representatives from governments, the private sector, civil society, the technical community, and international organizations, gathered under the umbrella theme of ‘One World. One Net. One Vision’ to discuss ways to elevate global cooperation and how to build a safe, stable and secure internet.

With 3.6 billion people in the world without affordable Internet access, and with more than 80 per cent of the population among the world’s 47 least developed countries being offline where the Internet could have a truly transformative impact in their lives, inequalities were a big topic of discussion at the Forum. The Secretary-General stated that connecting all the world’s people by 2030 must be our shared priority, not only for sustainable development but for gender equality, citing that only 2 per cent of women in Latin America and the Caribbean and in East Asia and the Pacific owned a mobile phone with Internet access.

Mr. Guterres recommended ways to elevate the Internet Governance Forum as the foremost global platform where actors could meet to discuss how to address these global challenges: taking up the recommendations from the High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation, and announcing that he would soon appoint a technological envoy to work with governments, industry, and civil society to help advance international frameworks.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said multilateralism was the basic principle for any further development of new technologies.  “We all need to preserve the core of the Internet as a global public good, and this will only be possible if we rethink the structures of this governance of the Internet”. She further stressed that the Internet cannot be shaped only by states and governments alone, because of its impact on people’s everyday life.

UN Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, Liu Zhenmin said, “The future governance of the Internet should be one that takes care of multi-stakeholder concerns, that safeguards global Internet connectivity and cybersecurity, that facilitates sustainable development of all countries, and accelerates human progress.”

Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web and founder of the World Wide Web Foundation stated that ‘The web is at a tipping point. If it’s to be a force for the good, we must act now. If we fail to tackle the threats that we face we risk a digital dystopia.”

And Vint Cerf, credited as the ‘father of the internet’ also called for our collective responsibility saying: “Cyberspace is a global space and we need global solutions to our shared challenges.”

In addition to hosting the 14th IGF, Germany also provided the IGF with an unprecedented amount of US$1.65 million to support the participation of the Global South in the Berlin IGF this year as well as its successors over the next three years. Part of these funds will support the participation of legislative stakeholders who play an important role in the formulation of national policies on Internet Governance. The funds will also allow for further national and regional capacity-building activities, notably by supporting the ever-growing number of national, regional and youth IGFs that are a key element for bringing local and national issues to the global level and vice versa.

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