Connect libraries to accelerate digital inclusion
EIFL Public Library Innovation Programme team discuss issues raised at the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) 2023

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The 18th annual meeting of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF 2023), with the theme ‘The Internet We want - Empowering All People’, took place in Kyoto, Japan, and online from 8 - 12 of October. The Forum attracted over 9,000 participants from 175 countries - the highest number of participants since the first IGF in 2006. EIFL Public Library Innovation Programme (EIFL-PLIP) team members, Ramune Petuchovaite and Ugne Lipeikaite, took part remotely.

The IGF traditionally explores crucial matters of internet governance and digital policy, and at this year’s Forum the main conversations concerned artificial intelligence, internet fragmentation, cybersecurity, data governance, digital inclusion, human rights, sustainability, and other aspects of the digital landscape. 

Harnessing digital technologies to deliver on the SDGs

Many IGF2023 sessions discussed the role of digital technologies and the internet in advancing the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In his opening message, UN Secretary-General António Guterres underscored the need to work together to close the connectivity and digital governance gaps, and to reinforce a human rights, human-centered approach to digital cooperation: “We need to keep harnessing digital technologies enabled by the internet to help deliver on the Sustainable Development Goals, take climate action and build a better world,” he said.

Public libraries bridging digital divides

The IGF 2023 served as a platform to celebrate achievements and open consultations about the future of the World Summit on the Internet Society (WSIS), a multi-stakeholder platform that aims to address the issues raised by ICT at the national, regional and international levels. The WSIS Plan of Action, launched in Geneva in 2003, among other recommendations for governments, outlines a need “to connect public libraries, cultural centres, museums, post offices and archives with ICTs” in order to support development and build an inclusive information society.

With the anniversary of the WSIS Plan of Action in mind, the Dynamic Coalition on Public Access in Libraries (DC-PAL), co-led by EIFL and IFLA (International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions), organized  a workshop titled ‘Public Access Evolutions – lessons from the last 20 years’ aiming to shine a spotlight on public access to computers and the internet in public libraries, and the role that public libraries are playing in providing meaningful connectivity. A concept introduced by the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI) some years ago, ‘meaningful connectivity’ focuses on the quality of connectivity. It is defined by four dimensions: having an appropriate device, affordable data, a fast connection, and daily access to the internet. 

The DC-PAL workshop started with a presentation by Maria Garrido (University of Washington) and Matias Centano (National University of San Luis) who provided data showing how global connectivity has increased. In just seven years, from 2015 to 2022, global connectivity increased by 20%, and 60% of the world's population are now counted as internet users. However, Garrido and Centano also pointed out that the increase has been unequal, with just 30% of people in low-income countries connected as opposed to 90% in high-income countries.

EIFL works in developing and transition economy countries, and our experience shows that public libraries are playing a vital role in providing free or affordable public access for people who have no alternative  access to ICT. With partners, EIFL-PLIP recently completed a nation-wide digital skills and inclusion project working through 27 public and community libraries in Uganda. The impact survey of the project showed that the libraries are largely serving peri-urban, rural or otherwise marginalized communities. The survey also found that over 70% of people using ICT at the libraries had no alternative internet access. 

However, public access to computers and internet in libraries (as well as digital skills training and support from library staff), is relevant not only in low income countries, but also in highly developed countries. To illustrate that, I shared data from a pilot study showing that in Canada 56% of people using ICT in libraries rely solely on public libraries for access. 

Both Canada and Uganda demonstrate high utilization of public access by vulnerable populations: in Canada, the majority of public access users are low-income individuals, immigrants, from other minorities and the elderly; in Uganda, they are women and people living in rural areas. (See the recording of the IGF 2023 DC-PAL Workshop.)

The DC-PAL has begun compiling a report summarizing expert views on how the nature and place of public access in libraries in wider connectivity strategies has evolved since the adoption of the 2003 WSIS Plan of Action. See the first version of the report with initial contributions by the Internet Society and UNESCO.

Call for more visibility for public access in libraries in ICT policies

During the IGF 2023 Policy Network on Meaningful Access session, Maria de Brasdefer of IFLA, representing the DC-PAL, drew attention to the importance of public libraries in bridging digital divides. de Brasdefer recommended that internet policy makers should make public libraries visible at the higher policy level by mentioning them explicitly in policy documents and strategies, instead of burying them under the term ‘other public access facilities’. (See the recording of the IGF 2023 plenary session, Policy Network on Meaningful Access.)

This recommendation was echoed in the Kyoto Messages - one of the output documents of IGF 2023 - which foreground the role of libraries under the theme ‘Digital divides and inclusion, in the section on Meaningful Connectivity: "Innovative policy and regulatory approaches are important in reaching unserved and underserved communities. Non-traditional financing approaches can support and build networks, including community networks, in areas with little or no connectivity. Libraries and other public services can provide connectivity to marginalized communities and individuals."

Now is a good time for libraries and library associations to step up advocacy efforts, and to make sure that libraries are included in national digital policies and ICT roll-out strategies, and are part of ongoing national efforts on digital inclusion.