Internet Governance in Pandemic Times

George Salama

Head of Public Policy & Government Relations

Middle East & North Africa, Pakistan & Afghanistan

Twitter, Inc.

Since its early naissance, the Internet has been a key enabler for growth across multiple fronts. Twenty years ago, no one could have predicted that the Internet would be an integral part of our daily lives.  The world has been through many pandemics; however, what really makes the COVID19 pandemic unique is the Internet.  During this time of lockdowns. the Internet has had a profound socio-economical impact that has positively affected the continuity of day to day life.  It is fascinating to see how the world has swiftly adapted by shifting almost every aspect of our daily lives to the online world (i.e. working from home, home schooling, online shopping, distant video calls with family and friends, entertainment streaming services). The success achieved in this adaptation lies not only in the Internet itself, as a global network of networks, but most importantly in the way the Internet is governed. Openness is the cornerstone of a truly efficient Internet governance model, a model where no one stakeholder controls it.  Governing the Internet to reinforce its openness requires a transparent trusted level of cooperation and alignment between all stakeholders (government – private sector – civil society – academia) while safeguarding the principles of freedom of expression, safety, privacy and net neutrality.

A truly Open Internet should not only respect, but also implement freedom of expression principles across all its policy making layers.  Over the last decade, the Open Internet has enabled major societal and cultural reforms for the better.  An open medium, on an equal footing, characterizes the governing model of the Internet at its best and should stay the common factor across all its policy development stages. The COVID19 pandemic placed online freedom of expression in sharper focus. For example, hateful misleading online content that is targeting groups based on their nationality or ethnicity claiming responsibility for the spread of the virus has no place online, even when it exists offline. Although the current Internet governance mechanisms provide various ways to allow freedom of expression, there is still an urgent need to develop a frame of reference to define the thin line between free speech and hateful conduct.  Throughout COVID-19, there has also been a concerning trend where some regulators and policymakers across the world rushed to put in place media laws and regulations that to a great extent limit the free flow of information and networks that are so critical to communities and citizens at this time. It is important to ensure that Internet regulatory frameworks endorse the Internet openness, minorities groups and respect the freedom of expression. 

Another key factor of Internet governance in pandemic times is online safety and privacy. With the exponential growth of both the Internet and the time spent online, people’s online safety is becoming more of a necessity rather than a  ‘nice to have’ feature. Online safety is a term that goes all the way from the basic Internet safety measures, such as securing online presence with passwords and authentication, to policy making and Internet governance processes that take into account the protection of people’s voices against hateful conduct and exposure to misinformation. The spread of online misinformation around COVID19 has put more responsibility on Internet governance stakeholders to prioritize health above all else. For example, technology companies have had to work to adopt specific policies that surface trusted credible verified content while embracing advanced technologies and machine learning to limit the spread of harmful misleading information. In addition, civil society and safety partners have leveraged the power of the Internet openness to raise community awareness and share critical information about the virus. Keeping everyone safe online is a collaborative effort that requires all stakeholders, all in their respective roles, to advocate for a safer healthier online environment for all.

There is no doubt that the neutral nature of the Internet has shaped people’s lives during the pandemic lockdowns for the better. Full access to the  Open Internet, with no packet discrimination, does not only open vast entertainment streaming channels for people while staying home, but more importantly helps in boosting the medical sector and those who are on the frontline in fighting the virus. For example, online video conferencing applications connecting healthcare professionals and authorities globally played a crucial role at early stages of the virus spread, in setting up strategies, aligning on the ground efforts and expediting the scientific efforts in the search for vaccines.  Similarly,  net neutrality made it possible for students to stay home safely while continuing their education remotely and to remain in contact with teachers and online learning resources. The COVID19 pandemic made it crystal clear that the Internet should be governed in a way that keeps it open, neutral. It is essential that regulators, policymakers and Internet providers explore sustainable and innovative ways to boost network capacities while safeguarding neutrality. 

In conclusion, Internet governance is needed to prevent the risk of fragmentation, to maintain the Internet interoperability and at the same time to protect people online from bad actors while giving everyone a voice. I believe that the COVID19 pandemic in an offline world would be the worst pandemic ever in human history. Not only has the Open Internet saved people’s lives in the fight against the virus, but also has helped in overcoming challenging mental health problems. The world economy will need years to recover from the impact of COVID19 and there is no doubt that the Internet is a key element in speeding up this recovery process. When it comes to the governing model of the Internet, there is no doubt still room for improvement to unleash the full potential of the Internet. Keeping the Internet open for all is a key element that must be preserved to surpass the effect of the pandemic and to allow the global economy to flourish.

**Disclaimer: The views in this article are of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of their organization.

George Salama

Head of Public Policy & Government Relations

Middle East & North Africa, Pakistan & Afghanistan

Twitter, Inc.

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George Salama, Head of Public Policy & Government Relations – Middle East and North Africa, for Twitter, Inc. In his role, George is leading the strategic engagement with key governments, political figures, policymakers, regulatory authorities, law enforcement agencies, lawmakers, Civil Society and Media. George is aiming to advance policy beneficial to the platform and its users.

Before Twitter, George was Sr. Manager Public Policy for SAMENA Telecom Council, ICT Industry Association based in Dubai, where he was in charge of setting up and executing the council’s public policy plan and business strategies in a way that positively shapes the ICT industry growth.

Prior to his move to the UAE, George spent over 7 years with the Egyptian Government, National Telecom Regulatory Authority (NTRA), where he was in charge of International Technical Coordination and Internet Public Policy.

George holds MSc Business Information Technology Middlesex University – UK and he is a graduate of the American University in Cairo with a BSc in Computer Science and a minor in Electronics.

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