Navigating the Gaps in Cyberspace

Nils Berglund Interviews

From addressing the knowledge and freedom gap to closing the gaps in gender and diversity, five practitioners from around the world told us what bridging divides in cyberspace means, what it entails and why it is important.

Gaps are created by people, therefore only people can close them. This was the underlying assumption motivating Closing the Gap 2020, the International Conference on Cyber, Digital and Tech organised in July by the EU Cyber Direct project and research institutions from five continents, in cooperation with the Belgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. As an expression of “academic diplomacy”, the conference aimed to foster productive exchanges between different generations of scholars (emerging talents and established researchers), disciplines (law, political science, international relations, economics, IT, media studies), sectors (government, private sector, academia, NGOs) and regions (Global South-North). This is just a short summary of the main takeaways from the keynote speeches delivered that week.

Putting the Human at the Centre

The belief that there is no fatalism when it comes to the development of technology echoes in the interventions of both Mariya Gabriel, European Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth, and Philippe Goffin, Minister of Foreign Affairs and of Defence of Belgium.

As Commissioner Gabriel points out, safeguarding the privacy of our personal lives, preserving trust in digital services and protecting individuals from disinformation and hate speech requires not only a secure-by-design approach to products and services, but also a secure-by-design digital society centred on education, culture and technology-related politics and policies. For Commissioner Gabriel, cybersecurity and digital technologies are as much a societal issue as a technological one, because “the way we protect the openness of our technological systems, the way we encourage connectivity and the way we protect our values in it will determine how we can position the European Union in the cyber world”.

Philippe Goffin, in his intervention, stressed that the security and safety of our societies in the digital age depend on everyone assuming their responsibilities. “It is now an opportune time for politics and diplomacy”, he said. “However, diplomats cannot and should not do it on their own. It is also about building bridges with our allies and partners, but certainly as well with enemies and rivals. Building resilient societies is crucial when so many elements are in constant evolution”.

To close the technology-society gap in practice, Commissioner Gabriel suggested a way forward. The economic and societal challenges in question, she notes, are fuelled in part by the relative lack of competition in IT products and services, and by users’ lack of bargaining power. How should the EU respond? For her, the answer must be cross-sectoral. First, policymakers, legal experts, researchers, business leaders and cybersecurity experts should protect the balance between cybersecurity and fundamental rights. Second, industrial standards should hold companies accountable to their customers and to legislators, while granting flexibility as needed on a case-by-case basis. Third, the EU must ensure the availability of an adequate labour force, including by better integrating cybersecurity into education programmes and university courses. Finally, breakthrough research must result in disruptive innovations more often.

The question of how to achieve these goals remains open, and is a political issue. Commissioner Gabriel, however, hints at some instruments: the establishment of a European platform for vulnerability management; the use of the European Innovation Council to bring researchers and practitioners together; and the full operationalisation of the EU Cyber Diplomacy toolbox. The road ahead may be long, but policymakers seem to know which road to take.

Addressing the Needs of the Most Disadvantaged

In her country’s legal world, Karuna Nundy, Advocate at the Supreme Court of India, is a well-known figure. For her, closing digital gaps in the society is a day-to-day effort. “While we are imprisoned in our homes, in our workplaces, there is a rise in people being held in actual prisons, there is a rise of authoritarianism”, she argues. “This is happening in a context where the bandwidth of resistance has reduced dramatically”, she continues, explaining that the COVID-19 pandemic has limited access to justice and courts, and that times of emergency have undermined the legitimacy of safeguards and fundamental rights. She is crystal-clear in her argument: “We need to know whether government data is being fudged or whether the way governments say people are being protected is true. We need to know whether the people who are being arrested for acts of speech online are getting due process. We need media to report on that. We need to know whether purported acts of terrorism are indeed acts of terrorism or not”.

In times of emergency, basic rights are even more important because of the so-called ratchet effect: it becomes more difficult to reverse processes once a specific precipitating event has happened. In other words, laws that are passed during times of emergency are likely to be extended and are rarely rolled back. In turn, as COVID-19 prevents people from taking the streets and therefore reduces the bandwidth of physical resistance, issues of access to channels of expression and dissent become even more vital, as the Black Lives Matter movement shows. As Karuna Nundy puts it, “It is about who speaks rather than who it is spoken to. It is about passing the mic, sharing the space, making structural changes within organisations and testing our policies, our theses, our litigations against the most disadvantaged, against the low cast across the world”.

Creating Opportunities for Women

Women represent 45% of the global Internet population, but make up only a quarter of the global cybersecurity workforce. Moudhi Aljamea, general manager at the Saudi Telecom Company Academy, the first Saudi women to occupy an executive position in the company, unpacked this number to better explain the reasons underlying this underrepresentation. The statistics do not suggest that the STEM disciplines (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) are simply not attractive to women, she says. Herself a holder of a PhD in Computer Security Algorithms Design from King’s College London, Aljamea sees the underlying cause elsewhere: in Saudi Arabia, for example, over 50% of graduates in the technology field are female, but many leave the field and take up jobs in other policy areas that are more open to them. So, the gender gap is also a gap between the education system and the labour market.

According to Aljamea, part of the answer resides in women themselves, in reciprocally encouraging their peers to build their careers in the technology field and in offering role models and mentors that give women the confidence they need to pursue a career in the field where they actually studied. “It is a problem if women and young generations don’t see female leaders in technology, as they don’t see a career in front of them”, she explains. Yet, she then adds: “I really believe that the support should come from the top. It is problematic if we work on developing our young generation and on encouraging them to get into this field without getting the support from our leadership. In this case women would just face a big wall, they would feel disappointed and would leave”.

In other words, it is also a matter of policy makers, governments and the global community. “I think that being in an environment that supports females is very important. One of the biggest challenges for women is understanding if they are in the right environment, if this environment is supporting them”, she argues.

Strengthening Inclusivity and Diversity-by-Design

But diversity is not just about gender, as Johanna Weaver, the Australian representative to the UN Group of Experts on Cyber and Head of Delegation to the UN Open-ended Working Group, reminded listeners. She began by citing Claire L. Evans’ book, “Broad Band: The Untold Story of the Women Who Made the Internet”, quoting: “When we create technology, we don’t just mirror the world. We actually make it, and we can remake it”. Weaver adds: “There is no right kind of engineer, no right plane of thought that must be reached in order to make a worthwhile contribution. There is no right education, no right career path, sometimes there isn’t even a plan. The more diversity there is at the table, the more interesting result. The more human, the better”.

Weaver makes a constructivist argument when exploring diversity in cyberspace. For her, diversity is much broader than gender, race and ethnicity. It also encompasses diversity of religious and political beliefs, ages, career paths, industry and socio-economic backgrounds, sexual orientations, disabilities and cultures. In the technology field, it is heterogeneity among those who design, fund, secure and regulate technologies, as well as diversity in their end users and uses. Her intervention is packed with data and empirical evidence that support her points.

As Weaver puts it, the data reveal two clear benefits of diversity: innovation and performance. “The statistics and the data make a strong business case for diversity. Diverse teams will be more innovative and will outperform those that are lacking in diversity. If you have gender-diverse executive teams, you are 48% more likely to outperform a team that does not have that diversity. And the case about ethnic and cultural diversity is just as compelling”, she explains.

Nevertheless, diversity is as much a collective effort as one requiring individual focus. In a rather unusual statement for a senior diplomat, Weaver shared her personal stories of dealing with “unacceptable behaviour” from her male colleagues (i.e. objectionable comments, inappropriate invitations and uninvited physical contact) and of dealing with disability in a professional environment. “It is not enough to simply say that we value diversity, and it is also not enough to add diverse representation. We need to also have diverse participation. We need to create an environment that is both diverse and inclusive”.

So how can we do better? Weaver has some concrete ideas: ensure that diverse representation is heard, strengthen leadership and accountability capabilities, ensure equal and unbiased opportunity through fairness and transparency, foster an environment where speaking up is possible and promote openness and equip people with tools to manage diversity.

What Next?

Closing the Gap 2020 has ended but the gaps it aimed to address are still there. With over 250 participants from all over the world, the conference has still made but a small contribution to what needs to become a continued dialogue between policymakers, researchers, the private sector and civil society organisations. If one common thread can be identified running through the speeches mentioned above, it is interdependence. The knowledge, freedom, gender and diversity gaps in cyberspace are so interlinked that it is not possible to effectively address one without addressing the others. Furthermore, it is not possible to bridge gaps alone: the whole community of scholars, government officials, businesses and civil society must participate. As the broad scope of the interventions shows, everyone has a say in closing such gaps.

Ironically, it took a global pandemic to prove that truly global events and engagements are possible. Originally designed as a physical meeting, the COVID-19 pandemic turned Closing the Gap 2020 into a virtual event organised into a cyber diplomacy and a resilience track and featuring a dozen virtual panels, four roundtables, three workshops, and four keynote speeches. Participants from over 20 time zones shared their perspectives, contributing with their insights from a diversity of disciplines, including law, political science, international relations, economics, IT and media studies. In itself, this diversity of participants represents at least one gap that has already been bridged.

Thumbnail image: credits to Martin Sanchez on Unsplash


About the Author

Nils Berglund

Nils Berglund works for the EU Institute for Security Studies, where he supports research and programming on capacity building and cyber diplomacy engagement through the EU Cyber Direct Project. He was previously a research fellow at Research ICT Africa, and holds an MSc in Media & Communications from the London School of Economics & Political Science.

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