Cloudflare TV

Web Summit 2021: Heard in the Halls

Presented by João Tomé, Sonia Jorge
Originally aired on 

Join Cloudflare’s João Tomé for a series of conversations at Web Summit 2021, featuring an array of technology experts, entrepreneurs, government officials, and more.

Hosted in Lisbon, Portugal, the event drew 42,000 attendees from 128 countries — and it was an amazing opportunity to get a sense for what many of the world’s leaders are thinking about the Internet and beyond.

This episode features:

  • Sonia Jorge, Executive Director World Wide Web Foundation (Alliance for Affordable Internet) — on the need for an affordable, fast Internet that’s for everyone

For more, don’t miss the blog post: Heard in the halls of Web Summit 2021

Web Summit 2021

Transcript (Beta)

Hello Sonia and welcome to Cloudflare TV. For those who don't don't know what is your work and what is the foundation work, can you summarize for us?

Absolutely. First of all, thank you.

It's a pleasure to be here with you. I'm Sonia Jorge. I'm the executive director of the Alliance for Affordable Internet at the Web Foundation.

And the Alliance for Affordable Internet is actually a global coalition of public, private, and civil society organizations that have come together to work on policy reform, primarily in low and middle-income countries, to bring down the prices of broadband and make sure that the Internet is not only affordable but meaningful to everyone who has access to it around the world.

At the Web Foundation, I also lead our digital inclusion programming.

The foundation obviously focuses on making sure that the Internet remains a public good and a right for everyone around the world.

And so through our digital inclusion programming, not only we work on the Alliance for Affordable Internet and our mission, but also to make sure that our women's rights online program and our work around digital equality is implemented to make sure that we don't have the kind of digital gender divides that we currently see around the world and so that we can also address those through our inclusion programming.

Before we get into what you do really and what your organization does, I think it's interesting for those who are watching how Portuguese goes to a position like this.

How did you get started in this position? Well, part of it, if that's okay for me to be honest, I wasn't very interested in studying Portugal.

I only lived here for about five years when I was a young teenager and I always dreamt of doing something really interesting and exploring new things and new ideas.

I was very fortunate to have parents who were very much explorers and people that supported big dreams.

And so when I was 17, I went to the United States to go to the university.

I applied, I got accepted, and of course the rest is history.

Exactly, a construction over there in terms of your position.

But in terms of the foundation, how do you enter the policy? Sure, so when I finished my studies, I actually immediately started working on policy and regulation in the telecom sector.

But the telecom sector in the early 90s was not at all what it is today.

In fact, we didn't even have the Internet, right? So it was all about the traditional operators, etc.

But it gave me a really strong foundation to then become not just a key member of many international teams, but also work on policy and regulation at the international level.

Because of the experience that we had in the US, we were then asked to guide and to provide advice on how new markets in other parts of the world could not only open, but also establish new policy and regulatory systems to deal with the change and the evolution of markets in the telecom space, what we now call the digital sector, right?

And so I've worked as a consultant through private sector, NGOs, and international organizations most of my career.

And about eight years ago, the foundation came to me and asked me to take on the challenge of starting the Alliance for Affordable Internet.

And so I took on the challenge because it brought together all the things that I not only believed in, but I thought it was the right moment in my career to do that.

And so I took it on, and I'm very glad I did because we're very proud of everything that we've done.

Of course. And you've worked in so many countries throughout these years.

What is the evolution that you've been seeing there? Well, a lot of evolution.

First, you know, to actually have access to the Internet, right? The evolution of what the Internet has become.

But I would say that most importantly also the fact that people care and want to have access.

And I think the human desire to have access to information and to communicate with others really drives a lot of the reasons why people go to the Internet, right?

And go to the web and search and look for information and learn and communicate.

But I would say most importantly, I'm very proud of the fact that what we do and what the foundation's mission is, is to allow access to the Internet and to the web in general to be a tool for social movements, to be a tool for people to express their rights, to make sure that they know what their rights are and keep them, but also a tool for economic, social, and cultural development, history, et cetera.

And that's really how it has evolved.

But I think that's also what makes it so exciting, is that it's not just about, you know, the geeky tech stuff that many of us like.

I mean, a lot of the folks here at the Web Summit are all excited about the different solutions and they're really fun.

But what matters is the humanity behind it and how it can actually improve humanity.

So that's why we like to say, you know, for us, it's important to connect humanity to something that it's really useful and meaningful to them.

And that's, I think, something that I've seen changing for the better and more people interested in making it happen that way.

So not just about, oh, let's just go on the bandwagon, you know, wagon of like just getting onto the Internet, but it's really about doing it with meaning, you know, for a purpose.

Wikipedia does 20 years this year and World Wide Web has done 30 years in 2019.

So it's not a big time in terms of the broader sense of human history, but in terms of what you see these tools, World Wide Web, Wikipedia inside of it, meaning for countries where they're only now getting access to the Internet.

In some countries, people have their first bank accounts online with their smartphones.

How do you see the Internet coming there and changing their lives?

I mean, first of all, it's knowledge. I mean, I think this collective knowledge that we have in the world now and that the web facilitates is absolutely wonderful.

But most importantly for the question that you were just raising is what are the possibilities that that knowledge allows?

And I think some of the possibilities is creation, innovation, connections, and the ability to then, for someone, anyone, anywhere in the world, being in rural Nigeria or in rural Portugal or in a beautiful city somewhere else around the world, to decide I want to use the web and I want to use my Internet access to develop a new business, to create a movement of social change, to connect to my family, to learn about my family history.

Those possibilities are really important and those are the kinds of things that really drive, I think, our work.

But to do that and first to see those kinds of possibilities, people have to have access.

And the truth is about half of the world doesn't have access.

And so that concerns us. We're very worried about that.

Not just about the fact that people don't have access, but when they do, it's often not of the quality that is needed for people to actually benefit fully from the potential of having access to the Internet and access to information, access to services, et cetera.

I mean, nowadays, one of the things that we work on that I hope your audience can understand is around definitions.

This idea to say that half of the world is online when in fact that's just a binary of being on or off and it counts that you are online even if you've only been online once in the last three months makes absolutely no sense in a digital society that we all expire.

Look at everything that is happening here at the Web Summit. Imagine if you could only talk to me because you only had a connection once a month or once every two months.

That is totally nonsensical, right? So to transform that picture and make sure that first access to an Internet and to a meaningful connectivity is beyond that and it's about the frequency, the daily need to have access, access to quality data, quality speed, quality devices, devices that allow people to actually have access to the multitude of services and all the potential, that's what we're looking for and we are very far behind.

We're also very far behind in terms of making sure that those that have access are not just men but men and women.

So there's a huge disparity in the kind of access that exists, so not just in the quality but also in the kind of access.

Women remain far more excluded.

In fact, we just finished some research that I hope you can take a look at.

It's called the cost of exclusion, the economic consequences of the gender-digital divide, and it shows that in the last decade the world lost about a trillion dollars from not including women and girls in just 32 low- and middle-income countries.

So if you think about the potential in terms of economics as well, we realize that the exclusion and the inequality in digital development is one that is preventing not just individuals but organizations, entire countries from benefiting from the potential that could be brought to them from the sector.

And so if this sector were to be generating the kinds of revenues, the kind of revenues for governments and for businesses that we hope to see one day, imagine the possibilities for those countries as well, especially countries that are low-income and middle-income and that are very short of resources to be able to implement the massive amount of activities, programs, and policies that they need to support livelihoods.

So we see the Internet and access to the Internet in this way as not just a tool but an essential tool, an essential public good that everyone needs nowadays to have life in a digital society, just like we need to drink water and just like we need to have electricity and shelter.

And I should caveat that by saying, because often reporters always ask, but is the Internet as important as water and everything else?

And I would say that I'm not going to argue to tell people that you can live without the Internet.

Yes, maybe you can for some time.

But nowadays, in fact, you cannot, in many cases, survive without access to the Internet.

And so we are in a time that we can argue that, indeed, for us to have access to those public services, including water and electricity and sanitation, we have to have accounts with companies that have all of their services online.

And if you don't have access to the Internet, you cannot have access to public services.

Here in Portugal is a perfect example. You have to go online to get your citizen's card, your passport, everything, right?

And if you don't have access, how do you do it?

So you're basically left out of the digital society, you know, overall.

And we can't accept that. I mean, we owe it to ourselves and to humanity to not do that.

In terms of the work you're doing to help bring more Internet to other places, can you highlight some of the challenges and also achievements you have already made?

Yes. I would say the challenges, the main challenges are political, political will.

We need policymakers and politicians to be leaders in digital development.

We need them to understand the importance of digital development across the whole entire society because access to the Internet facilitates agricultural agendas, facilitates, you know, fiscal agendas, facilitates education agendas, healthcare, et cetera.

So access to connectivity and to the Internet, it's really a cross -cutting tool, an element, a foundation to how public services are delivered and to how the society works nowadays.

So that's really important.

And sadly, there hasn't been enough realization from those that can, that can make change, to invest sufficiently for that to be a reality.

And I think we need a combination of really strong, predictable policy frameworks, policy and regulatory frameworks around the world that can not just incentivize and support investments, including alternative investments, new business models, new ways of doing business.

I'm not talking about just supporting the big companies.

They have plenty of support. We need new alternatives to access to be in the marketplace.

We need smaller companies, medium-sized companies. We need cooperatives.

We need rural companies, companies run by women that will have a different kind of perspective.

We need to have a sector and a market that embraces all of those possibilities because the more possibilities we have, the more competition we will have, and the more options people will have.

And we need ultimately as many options for most users and for businesses as well, right?

So that's really important.

In terms of the work that we do, we work with governments around the world in very much a multi -stakeholder approach, bringing public, private, and civil society sectors together to design policies that are specific to the context of the countries.

And in doing so, they, of course, recognize the challenges that each country has, the economic development state of the country, the development that has already taken place.

And then we build, we add building blocks to that process, hopefully to speed up the process of digital development and bring more people online faster to an online environment.

And again, it's meaningful and that people can feel safe, secure, that their data is protected, et cetera.

And so we always bring all of those pieces together in our work.

And some examples of countries that we've done that, one that might be of interest to you here in Portugal is Mozambique because of the connection.

And Mozambique has done tremendous work, not just to update their policy framework, but to really try to implement some unique programs to bring more people online.

And it's a huge challenge because it's a very poor country.

So you can only do so much when you have very limited resources.

But I think by having this understanding that if the country has a strong, not just policy framework, but a strong understanding of the mission that it's trying to achieve through a national broadband plan, through a universal access policy, et cetera, then their partners will come and say, we want to be part of that journey.

We want to support you on that journey.

So having that leadership that allows a clear framework to be in place also will attract more partnerships that are meaningful to the countries.

And Mozambique is a good example of that.

They still have a lot of work to do, but they're progressing.

COVID has been a terrible thing for countries like Mozambique that already have so many issues and other conflicts taking place.

But I have hope, and the leadership is really strong.

In other countries like Nigeria, Ghana, Dominican Republic, Bangladesh, where we're working, we're working with policymakers and all of the other stakeholders, again, to design these kinds of policies.

In the Dominican Republic, not only there is already a really strong and very forward-looking, very innovative digital agenda for the country, we are now working with the presidential task force on connectivity to help them implement the vision of that strategy and making sure that that vision is one that will bring more people online in the country, and then they have the right programs to sustain that connectivity.

So it's not just one-time connectivity, and it's not that kind of binary that I was telling you about, but Dominican Republic actually made a commitment to making sure that their targets for Internet access were aligned with global standards on affordability, which we set ourselves and we're very proud of, as well as the targets on meaningful connectivity, meaning that it's not about just making sure that people get online and that they can afford, but once they're there, that it's reliable, it has the quality, they have the right devices to be able to do what they need to do, and that they have the skills, the content, and the skills also to use the Internet privately, safely, etc.

So it's a combination of elements that then makes and, you know, can really turn the experience into something positive and something that people can say, okay, you know, with that, I can develop a business.

I want to be able to, if God knows, hopefully there will not be another pandemic, but if something happens, kids can go online to study, or if they need to see a doctor, they can also speak to their doctor online, what have you.

Or again, like I said, you know, if, you know, a government is having some difficulties that civil society can organize their, you know, their partners and create a movement for change, all of those possibilities then will be there, all of those opportunities.

We really make it for a better society, and right now, they're very limited.

Right now, they're very limited in many parts of the world. They're so limited that in the least developed countries of the world, only about 19% of the population has access to the Internet, and it's not consistent in quality Internet.

So if you think about it, and it's a massive amount of population, that means that you and I here that are the privileged that have access, we are also missing out on what we could learn from all the people that are not on the Internet.

So I feel like a lesser citizen of the world if I don't have the knowledge and if I cannot learn from all our peers around the world.

So again, it's a collective effort, but it's one that I think we are very proud of how we've worked with some of these countries, how we worked with regional organizations to really reframe digital inclusion.

And what I like to say, it's really to focus on digital equality and equity.

It's not just about including, but as we include everyone, we make sure that that access is equal, is equitable, so that everybody has the same playing field to then explore and decide what they want to do with it.

Of course.

Do you remember a particular specific examples from one of these countries where you see the change coming about?

And even in the pandemic, did you see something like that?

Yeah. I mean, there's quite a few. Let me see. Let me take Nigeria.

I think Nigeria is one that is very important and a very good one. First, because it's the largest country in Africa.

It's also one that has had many different issues, politically, economically, socially, but the leadership has really been committed to digital development.

And I think with that, our work also was made a bit more possible, right?

So in making sure that the leadership was not just committed, but actually said, okay, we've made some progress, but this is not fast enough.

Recognizing that progress was too slow and that we needed to be challenging ourselves where to go next, that was very important.

So having that was very important.

And then developing a national broadband plan and putting into practice, it kind of just kind of comes through, right?

It follows through because you have a multi -stakeholder approach.

Everyone agreed with everything that came and that was defined in that national plan.

So in essence, by developing these policy plan together and in collaboration, everyone in the country, private sector, government, civil society organizations, research institutions, have a vested interest in making sure that the plan is not only implementable, but we can actually see results.

So we as a team and all of us together in our A4AI National Coalition in Nigeria will be monitoring and are already monitoring to make sure that we are keeping ourselves accountable to the actions that we promised to make and to take as part of this national plan.

And so in Nigeria, you've seen tremendous progress.

Tremendous progress not only in terms of price reductions, but also tremendous progress in creating a system where there's increased incentives for investment, increased attention on building the digital skills of women and girls in Nigeria so that they are not far behind as they continue to be, and also an increased attention on developing regulatory and policy mechanisms that attract new business models, which is something that for a long time, not just in Nigeria, as in many other parts of the world, it was completely impossible.

The main operators dominated what happened in the market, right?

And the struggles of becoming a new entrant and the barriers to it were just far too high.

But now, with a lot of the new work that was done and the updates of all of these policy frameworks, it's possible.

You can have things like community networks.

You can have public access solutions. You can have rural cooperatives.

You can have smaller and medium-sized businesses that before didn't even fathom the idea of getting a license or sharing spectrum with their peers.

Now that's possible.

So those possibilities, and that's why it starts with the policy side, once you start putting them into practice, a lot can happen.

A lot can start being supported.

And seeing the fruits of that, it's really quite something.

I mean, in Mozambique, it's the same thing. I mean, the fact that our colleagues in Mozambique, they understand the challenges that they have, and they've invested into this program that they call the digital plazas, which they also have in Cape Verde.

We don't work in Cape Verde, but I know they have something similar.

These are things that are really important. You need to have solutions that are not just about market solutions.

You need to have solutions that are supported by government and civil society that bring people to these needs, that allow them to have this kind of access that they need.

A place to have free Internet, for example, a plaza with free Internet.

That is not only free, but it's safe. That women and men equally will feel safe to come to use the access in that particular location, that sort of thing.

So all of those things have to be thought of. But the fact that there's a lot of effort into making these things possible, because there is a recognition of the importance of that access, that has been a huge, I would say, victory for countries, for their policymakers, and for all of us that are part of that process.

And I would say lastly on that, in terms of wins that I'm very proud of, all the countries that we as A4AI work with have very clear gender targets in their digital development.

I can tell you that there aren't any here in Portugal or in Europe.

And that's sad, because I can assure you that even if women and men have access to the Internet supposedly equally, their use, their opportunity, and sometimes even the devices that they have, the kind of data that women can get versus men, because of the income gaps, is different.

And when you start looking at all of that in detail, you recognize all of those different pieces of the puzzle.

And so the fact that even though there appears to be more equality in terms of access here in the European context, I would actually challenge all of you here in the European context to see what kind of access do women in Europe and girls in Europe have versus boys and men?

And are they able to get everything exactly, the devices, the type of data, the type of quality?

Those are the kinds of questions that we ask in other countries.

And I think here in the north, including Europe, we could learn a lot from that kind of exercise as well.

Of course, makes sense.

And in terms of the role that some companies, even Cloudflare, we have some programmed projects where we support some of these endeavors.

Do you see companies having a role also in helping?

Absolutely. I mean, everyone that is part of the ecosystem, right, the digital ecosystem has a role.

Has a role, especially, I would say, companies like yours and others like you, to make sure that, I mean, that level of equal access is there everywhere, but also that the data is protected.

I mean, you have a lot of data. You handle a lot of the data, right, that your clients use and store and whatnot.

I mean, the responsibility of holding businesses, individuals' data, it's really important, right?

Not just from a privacy perspective, but also it's personal data.

No one owns it. We own it. We are, you know, and the responsibility of doing that and recognizing your role as important companies in the ecosystem that also have to behave as citizens, as digital citizens is very important.

So, what I would say is that, you know, first and foremost, if we could all be proud of our digital citizenship, then I think we would be better off.

And every company is also a digital citizen if they are involved in the ecosystem.

So, of course, you have a role to play with that for both business clients and individuals, your employers, employees, etc.

At the event, we talk about, at Web Summit, for example, there's a lot of talk about the future of the Internet.

Where do you see the future of the Internet going in terms of affordable access?

Do you think a bigger percentage of the world could have access in the next five, ten years?

I certainly hope so. We are about 20 years behind on the targets that the UN established for the SDGs, for the Sustainable Development Goals.

So, we're not doing great. The progress is really slow. In five years, I hope that we can make some roads.

But unfortunately, I cannot be as hopeful as I was maybe five years ago because our analysis shows that we're just not moving fast enough.

And I think COVID has only set us back for different reasons. But at the same time, it gave us an opportunity to say, well, maybe this is the kind of investment that we need to speed up.

Because had we done that before, and many of us were saying that before, you know, and people weren't paying attention, you know, there was too much political negotiation, you know, is the Internet really something important?

Should we do something else? So, the political tension around the importance of the Internet and access to the Internet and access to information is really strong.

And in different countries, different regions of the world takes different shapes.

But what I would say is that I'm hopeful that we're going to make progress.

Sadly, we needed COVID to call attention and amplify the importance of the sector.

And I hope politicians and policymakers pay attention to that.

Most that I know and that we work with are absolutely committed to change that picture.

I just hope that they can move very fast, and that they realize that there's no time to waste.

And every day that we waste, we basically wasting a piece of opportunity to many humans around the world.

And that's sad. So, we're going to continue fighting, we're going to continue advocating and working with all of our partners to change that.

I'm hoping that we're going to make good progress in five years, but I'm just not seeing the level of fast action that we need.

So, we are behind, and we're going to remain behind.

But hopefully, there will be new commitments coming from everywhere around the world to change that picture.

Do you have a goal in five years in terms of percentage of the world having access?


So, the UN Broadband Commission, I don't know if you're familiar with, has set some targets for 2025.

The targets are about 75% of the population connected to mobile broadband.

They have a slightly different target for less developed countries.

So, we'll see. We'll see if we get there. We're kind of on track on some metrics, but not on all.

So, it's hard to tell. Because now, like I said, because COVID has really changed the dynamics and really the incentives in some countries' leadership, maybe things will change.

I mean, including organizations like the World Bank that are a really close partner of ours, they've made incredible commitments to support Africa, to support Latin America and Asia with digital development.

And now that the digital development agenda is at the core of organizations like the World Bank and many others in the UN system, other development banks and development aid organizations, I think we might be able to change the tide.

I just don't know how fast that will take place.

Like I said, I'm an optimist. I want to be hopeful.

I think we can do a lot by 2025. But sadly, the numbers are still saying that we are almost 20 years behind in terms of the 2030 goals.

And that's not a good place to be.

I don't think any of us should be proud of that. If we care for digital development, that's not a good picture.

So I hope we can change something on the way.

Thank you so much for your time.

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