Published on Digital Development

Towards a free, open and secure Internet

This page in:
Photo: Free Press/flickr
The world is becoming more digitized, interconnected and dependent on the Internet for opportunities and economic growth. Today, there are 7.4 billion cellular phone subscriptions in the world, which means citizens of the poorest countries can access cell phones more easily than toilets and sanitation.
The Internet of Things (IoT), which brings in the promises (and perils) of totally interconnected devices, is already mainstreamed in our everyday lives, with sensor-equipped cars, phones, utility meters and even houses. Our refrigerators, equipped with sensors, are making decisions for us, based on their capacity to analyze data and execute embedded algorithms related to dietary needs.
But how can these advances help ensure more free, open, secure and empowering connectivity rather than a host of undesirable side effects?
According to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) – which surveys the ICT sector on an annual basis through a formal survey involving regulators, operators and original equipment manufacturers – the Internet of Things (IoT) is currently composed of 25 billion connected devices around the world. According to the United States Federal Trade Commission (FTC), this number will grow to 50 billion devices worldwide by 2020.  These devices collect vast amounts of information on industrial, organizational and personal behavior, and gathers users’ preferences that can be leveraged to improve delivery of products and services, health, education, entertainment and shopping.
Therefore, IoT will bring important socio-economic advantages to those connected – but without guidance, proper policies, legislation and globally adopted codes of conduct (“netiquette” as we used to call it), it could also bring a range of challenges.
To date, the security and privacy of IoT is largely achieved through self-regulation and public-private partnerships (PPPs). But governments are increasingly scrutinizing the privacy and security risks associated with the IoT. Take terrorist networks, for instance, that thrive using online recruitment through social networks – or cyber criminals using cyber warfare tactics to bring down management information systems that control critical infrastructure (electricity, transport and water), financial institutions or government facilities.
This year’s World Development Report, focused on the Internet and its impact on development, highlights some of the trends for the ICT sector, which today accounts for approximately $US5 trillions in annual global GDP. This resonates with what civil society has been telling policy makers for the last 10 years since the World Summit on Information Society was held in Tunisia: the full investments of the Internet can only be realized if the Internet is free or affordable, open, useful and secure.
In a June 2014 article, the Economist published an article on cybercrimes and hack attacks on the IoT, citing a (then) recent estimate by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, which estimated the global cost of cybercrime and online industrial espionage at US$445 billion a year—about as much as the GDP of Austria. The study is quite enlightening.
Having a free (or affordable), open and secure Internet is hence a great aspiration, but will be very difficult to achieve without global multi-stake holder collaboration.  Cyberspace unlocks enormous potential gains in wealth and welfare in an ever-more connected society. To be able to continue to benefit from the Internet as an enabler for development and innovation, we must ensure the safety and privacy of its billions of users. A global consensus is needed.
With several billions of dollars invested in ICT sector applications throughout the organization, it is one of the World Bank Group’s mandates to properly safeguard the investments our clients make in digital development. As we embark on the new Sustainable Development Goals, and promote a unique legal identifier for each of the world’s citizens, ensuring the security and privacy of the citizen identification is paramount to the virtuous use of legal identifiers for improvements of services to citizens, as well as trust between citizens and government. We simply cannot avoid the issue of cybersecurity.
Earlier this month, I participated in the Global Conference on Cyber Space (GCCS) in The Hague, Netherlands. The organizers did a brilliant job in managing the topic’s complexity, offering inspiring solutions by seasoned experts. They even managed at times to make a grim subject quite entertaining, even gripping with scenario games and mini-thriller videos. Alas, the subject is real, with millions of victims every day.
The GCCS is the fourth of its series: It started in London (2011), then Budapest (2012), Seoul (2013) then The Hague. In Budapest, the “Budapest declaration” was launched, creating a common platform for policy makers around cybercrime legislation.
This is a global issue, related to topics of Internet Governance, censorship, privacy, safety, child protection, terrorism, and public safety. The whole of society needs to be mobilized to address and mitigate the dangers of cybersecurity, for which we are totally unequipped. A brave new world awaits. Let’s help our clients be prepared!


Samia Melhem

Global Lead, Digital Capabilities Infrastructure and PPP Global Practice

Join the Conversation

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly
Remaining characters: 1000