Improving the governance of cyberspace in the Global South

April 13, 2018
A hand in front of a computer binary language screen
Photo: Geralt / Pixabay
 

Digital tools are improving people’s ability to innovate, organize, document, and share online, but they also enable broad surveillance, tracking, censorship and, in some cases, repression.

The opportunities and vulnerabilities introduced by online networking and communications require innovative and informed policy environments. Governments need to be able to confront the challenges of cyberspace equitably and justly while preserving innovation potential, honouring social agreements between citizens and the state, and maintaining security. This is particularly true in the Global South where the digital ecosystem is expanding rapidly, often in unregulated or under-regulated environments.

Leaders and policymakers need to draw from integrated policy ecosystems that incorporate various sectors, from technology, telecommunications, and infrastructure to economics, law, and other social sciences. To this end, IDRC is investing in a new Cyber Policy Centre initiative aimed at strengthening independent policy research institutions in the Global South so that they can provide sound research and evidence to inform and influence cyber policy and support a secure cyberspace.

These centres will play an important role in defining policy agendas, suggesting effective regulatory frameworks for new technologies and applications, and incentivizing technological innovation. The goal is to ensure that policymakers are using objective, high quality research to inform decisions on cyber policy related issues.

In this two-year pilot phase, the initiative is providing policy think tanks with support and mentorship to build research and policy capacity in the key areas of digital rights, cybersecurity, and innovation policy for:

  • sustained research and analysis that is flexible and allows institutions to be proactive in fluid, dynamic research/policy circumstances;
  • new learning opportunities to develop/deepen subject expertise and strengthen policy capacity with mentorships that support (i) just-in-time policy activities requiring rapid response, such as when a government introduces new privacy or cybersecurity legislation; and (ii) ongoing support on substantive cyber policy related issues; and
  • global knowledge networking to coordinate and network regionally and globally with other policy research organizations/institutions to track policy windows, monitor pressing cyber policy issues, support rapid responses, and develop global and regional campaigns.

Developing policies to protect human rights online while enabling innovation

Evaluations and research show that public policies work best when they are designed and implemented by local actors. Data and analysis of local environments, driven by local expertise, is the most effective approach for responsive local policymaking in the Global South. In other words, local experts who are invested in policies and who monitor their implementation are best suited to ensure “policy responsiveness”. Yet policy research in the Global South continues to be at the whim of policy markets, driven by donor agendas, and focused on short-sighted funding decisions. International funders still fail to invest in local institutions that produce the ongoing research and analysis needed by policymakers and advocates.

What is cyber policy? 

Cyber policy refers to the rules and laws that govern the use of digital technologies, including local and/or international enforced norms, formal laws, or even technological arrangements.

Cyber policy also includes issues related to innovation (such as intellectual property, telecommunications, infrastructure); security (related to national security, crime, surveillance); and online human rights (such as the right to privacy, free expression, and speech).

Global South research institutes, particularly those outside of academic environments, struggle to receive predictable core funding that allows for long-term planning, establishing forward-looking research priorities, and investing in strong research programs that respond to locally-determined needs.

IDRC has built a strong network of research relationships around the Global South, supporting high quality research on frontier issues through regular dialogue with partners and research networks over time. Given what we know about the importance of sustained capacity, IDRC aims to move beyond the contract model of research to support key institutions to foster their own networks of expertise and become leaders in cyber policy discussions globally.

 

Selected cyber policy centres

In 2017, IDRC launched an open call for submissions to identify independent policy research organizations in the Global South that are committed to using research to inform and influence national-level policies on digital rights, cybersecurity, and innovation. Fifty-nine eligible expressions of interest were received and three were selected from each region (Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and Asia) and asked to submit full proposals.

Following rigorous evaluations by a panel of external experts, the following three think tanks were selected as the main recipients of support for this initiative: