March 19, 2020
On March 19, the Global Network of Internet & Society Centers (NoC), incubated in part by the Berkman Klein Center (BKC), convened a special virtual session with Yves Daccord, the Director-General of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to discuss the intersection of the Internet and society field with the crisis surrounding the novel coronavirus, COVID-19.The meeting, organized by BKC Executive Director Urs Gasser in collaboration with Assistant Director of Research Amar Ashar and team, fostered an open dialogue featuring insight and reflections from colleagues around the world. Daccord, Gasser, and Ashar were joined in conversation by members of the Global Network Initiative, as well as BKC’s global community.
Dacccord began the session with an overview of the COVID-19 crisis from a public health and humanitarian crisis perspective. He then shared observations about larger societal dynamics, including questions of data, governance, and power asymmetries.
The discussion that followed emphasized the different impacts of and responses to the pandemic between different regions and countries around the globe, as well as crisis response dynamics in the global north and the global south. A common thread through the conversation was that while COVID-19 is undoubtedly a public health crisis, it has a major impact on society, culture, and the economy of countries beyond “just” health — often in complex and overlapping ways. Below are key takeaways from the discussion, which was held under Chatham House Rules.
The impact of COVID-19 is felt differently in countries around the world, often as a response to cultural, socioeconomic, and state factors. For instance, there are variations within the preparedness of countries, government infrastructure, responses, health policy, and general understanding of the pandemic among decision-makers and the public. A common recommendation is to take an individualized approach and contain oneself at home, with hopes that the individual efforts will help to “flatten the curve” of the virus — also known as social distancing.
Responses to this guidance include closing schools and canceling large functions. However, these responses differ across countries and cities, with varied success in achieving compliance. In setting these responses, countries face difficult tradeoffs between public health safety and economic stability. For example, these changes negatively impact gig economies and related industries like the restaurant and tourist industries.
In a similar vein, some people, particularly those in the global south, depend on schools for resources like water and sanitation. Containment assumes that people have a safe space to be contained, which raises concerns on a broader scale about vulnerable people, particularly those without shelter, refugees, incarcerated individuals, and detainees.
The containment recommendation also illustrates a geographical divide; crisis health policies and resources across countries are asymmetric and unfold differently in these various contexts. A country’s responses to COVID-19, for instance, may vary based on whether local governments are able to provide required health services, which can be a major challenge for addressing such public health issues. And some countries, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region, are better prepared for such crises than other western countries because countries in the region have experienced similar concerns with SARS. Many countries in the Asia-Pacific region could thus rely on established infrastructure and protocols when addressing COVID-19.
Governments and countries around the world are setting policies that are encouraging people to alter their behavior, such as working remotely. These policies — and the varying degrees of compliance with them — highlight the tension between public health intervention in a time of crisis versus basic protection of rights and liberties. For example, the remote work and containment recommendation also highlights a major digital divide both on global and local scales. In some countries, like the United States, people’s Internet connection — and the speed and strength of the connection — is variable within states based on geographic region, making it hard for people with poor connectivity to engage in a socially distant, largely virtual society.
Further, privacy experts have spoken to challenges with the U.S. government seeking access to phone location data. And in other countries, the move towards remote, online work raises concerns also about authoritarian regimes using COVID-19 as a way of justifying the collection and tracking of personal data. Participants were concerned about these and other scenarios in which citizens need to choose between digital rights and health.
As governments around the world respond to COVID-19, there seems to be a strong emphasis on keeping health, food, and security up and running. But participants noted that culture and education are areas that matter a lot but may be underappreciated right now, and the longer the current crisis lasts, the more important it will be to resolve that issue.
These are just a few of the many examples shared during the special NoC session. Each demonstrated an urgency and need for further work in the Internet and society space, such as data privacy, personal freedoms, and behavioral science, as well as more international, multistakeholder fora like the NoC sessions for discussing extant and emerging challenges that the world will face as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.
Looking ahead, participants proposed possible ideas for future collaboration, including a conversation series on COVID-19 and a possible edited volume capturing different experiences from an Internet and society perspective to further this conversation and document the global perspectives and insights into the virus.