Advocating Around Technology, the Environment and a Sustainable World: GISWatch at the IGF
The 2021 Internet Governance Forum (IGF) included a session dedicated to a special presentation of the Global Information Society (GISWatch) report, launched earlier this year by the Association for Progressive Communications (APC). Centring around the theme of “Technology, the environment and a sustainable world: Responses from the global South”, this session was directly linked to the IGF 2021 issue area on environmental sustainability and climate change.
Drawing on participation by the GISWatch community and different sectors of society, the session included presentations on themes that are directly relevant to the current edition: the importance of access in sustainability movements, feminism as a framework for environmental justice, corporate models, carbon footprints and governance. Facilitated by long-time GISWatch editor Alan Finlay, “The discussion and input from the guests, as well as APC staff, highlighted just how evolving and complex the terrain of digital and environmental rights are.”
The session began with an introduction by Valeria Betancourt, manager of the Communications and Information Policy Programme at APC that oversees the production of the GISWatch report. Speaking to the 2020 report and the session presented at the IGF, Valeria noted:
“Our analysis of the way in which environmental sustainability and digital technologies intersects is illustrative of the complexity of the challenges and issues, and how much they are entangled in global capitalism, including the emerging forms of capitalism such as surveillance capitalism, which replicate the same patterns of the previous and current one: the exploitation of extractivism and consumerism. It is not really possible to see the full picture of the impact of digital technologies on our planet, and it seems that it may be an intentional result of the global capitalist system. However, the thematic and country reports in the 2020 edition of GISWatch and the broader research that APC is conducting in this area provide an updated overview of the current and future challenges and the suitable responses to address them, particularly acknowledging that burden of environmental destruction and pollution falls disproportionately on communities that experience discrimination, marginalisation and exclusion.”
Initial presentations were made by Jennifer Radloff (capacity building lead in APC’s Women’s Rights Programme) and Sarbani Belur (APC’s Asia Regional Coordinator who is also affiliated with the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay). The speakers explored the following questions:
- Big tech have deployed initiatives oriented to contributing to the sustainability of the environment. From a feminist lens, what would be the most pressing challenge globally related to the responses that those actors are giving to the environmental crisis?
- A people and environment-centred approach to connectivity has been identified as one of the most needed solutions for the climate emergency and for environmental sustainability in the long run. What is the potential that those solutions have and how to make them viable?
Explaining the critical role of feminist movements in addressing the climate crisis, Jennifer made the poignant observation that “as activists we can both resist and imagine.”
Sarbani furthermore spoke on the key role of autonomous infrastructures and community networks to help people connect and build movements, as well as indicating that the right to be offline is also an important element of access. Ultimately, as Sarbani noted, “the network is built on the needs of the community.”
Following these initial presentations, members from the private, public and corporate sectors were invited to share their reflections, incorporating their background and experience. The group was challenged to reflect on a key question by Michelle Thorne, Sustainable Internet Lead at the Mozilla Foundation and publisher of Branch magazine, who asked participants to consider: What does it look like to talk about a fossil-free internet by 2030? Options such as divesting from Big Tech and centering climate justice in the tech sector were discussed as possible paths forward.
Representing the Greens (European Free Alliance) group at the European parliament, digital rights campaigner Narmine Abou Bakari emphasised that “it is not good enough to minimise the environmental impact of digital technologies.” This comment is the basis for a critical report recently issued by the Greens that considers an environmental life cycle approach to digital technologies. Comments also touched on another powerful report by the European Green that looks at the carbon footprint of unwanted data (such as ads) on smartphones.
As a software developer at Greenhost, a web hosting company that puts environmental impact central to their business model in addition to data privacy and human rights, Maarten de Waard presented some compelling interventions on how the private sector can commit to sustainability. As he indicated, “to do anything sustainably on the internet, the first thing you need to do is reduce the footprint.” This means companies take responsibility to implement the cleanest solution rather than the cheapest. It shows that it is possible for companies to apply sustainability standards to business practice in direct opposition to the rhetoric of fossil fuel industries.
Michelle further elaborated that “a diverse internet, not a brittle monoculture, is healthier for businesses as well as the people using it. That’s why investing in alternatives is needed.” Offering further space for reflection, Jennifer proposed that we need to move beyond discussions of sustainability and instead should be talking about decolonisation. Narmine iterated the importance of civil society input into decision-making practices when writing legislation, ensuring that the perspectives of people on the ground are included.
The inputs from the speakers collectively built on a key takeaway from this edition of GISWatch, that the burden of environmental destruction and pollution falls disproportionately on communities that experience discrimination, marginalisation and exclusion.
With many important elements raised, the session clearly indicated the importance of have spaces for multistakeholder discussions on these critical and urgent issues. Reflecting on the presentation, GISWatch editor Alan Finlay remarked that “above all it showed how we need the space to deepen our understanding of the terrain, and to create collective advocacy agendas that will have an impact. That seems to be the next step.”
The session has led to a number of recommendations and calls to action for the IGF, including the following:
- Continue the work of the Policy Network on environmental sustainability.
- IGF should build on the achievements of the Policy Network of Environment.
- IGF can guide the operationalisation of policy recommendations in contextualised ways and in that sense the IGF can play a key role in breaking down the high level recommendations into actionable steps at national and local levels and complement bottom-up approaches to sustainability.
To watch the full session, visit the IGF YouTube channel.
To learn more about GISWatch and read all the reports, visit giswatch.org.
To learn more about the speakers at the GISWatch session at IGF 2021, please see below:
Sarbani Banerjee Belur represents Association for Progressive Communications as the Asia Regional Coordinator. She is also affiliated to the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, India. Her work focuses on enabling internet connectivity to remote rural areas which are unserved and unreached by seeding community networks to grow, utilisation of the connectivity in day to day lives of people in these areas, developing sustainable business models and multistakeholder partnerships for connectivity to thrive and grow in the last mile.
Jennifer Radloff works in the APC Women’s Rights Programme, providing leadership and strategic direction for the capacity building strategy (Feminist Tech Exchange) and related activities. She leads the work on developing a feminist principle on environmental justice and represents APC on the Women Human Rights Defenders International Coalition (WHRDIC).
Maarten de Waard is a software developer at Greenhost, a web hosting company that tries to make all the right decisions regarding their environmental impact, as well as data privacy and human rights in general. Maarten works on Stackspin, an online office suite that can be self-hosted on Greenhost’s sustainable servers.
Michelle Thorne (@thornet) is interested in climate justice and a fossil-free internet. As a Sustainable Internet Lead at the Mozilla Foundation, Michelle directs research initiatives in Mozilla’s Sustainability Program and a PhD program on Open Design of Trust Things (OpenDoTT) with Northumbria University. She is a senior advisor to the Green Web Foundation and its Green Web Fellowship program and a co-organizer of Open Climate. Michelle publishes Branch, an online magazine written by and for people who dream about a sustainable internet and recipient of the Ars Electronica Award for Digital Humanity.
Narmine Abou Bakari is the Digital Rights Campaigner with the Greens (European Free Alliance) EFA group at the European parliament.
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