IGF 2021 Final report

Welcome to the IGF2021 Final report!

Dear reader,

After last year’s purely virtual format, the Internet Governance Forum returned in a hybrid set-up. Hybrid meetings pose new challenges in the bridging of online and offline, namely how to moderate sessions effectively and how to enable online participants to engage in conference networking and dynamics.

Since hybrid meetings are here to stay, much more thinking and innovation will be needed to make these meetings engaging and effective. In 2007 in Rio, the IGF started experimenting with online participation. Building on this year’s experiment, the IGF has an opportunity to become a trendsetter in organising new types of hybrid meetings.

IGF2021 reconfirmed that the forum is at a turning point. It remains to be seen if it will evolve into a space where digital policy issues are addressed in holistic and impactful ways. Calls for changes are echoing. Plans and ideas for the reform of the IGF are available, as is the will. The time for action is now.

Stay safe,
The Digital Watch team


The IGF at a glance

The infographics below show the most frequent words used in the sessions we analysed, the most prominent topics and baskets, the most prominent SDGs, and how the discussions this year used prefixes. In addition, we have identified the top 20 countries and territories most frequently mentioned in IGF sessions.

(Click on the image to open the full-sized interactive version in a new tab/window.)

Prefix monitor: Continuous dominance of ‘digital’

‘Digital’ remained the most popular term for the third consecutive year. However, there was a decrease in the frequency of use of this prefix compared to last year when digital accounted for almost half of the analysed prefixes. ‘Online’ and ‘cyber’ were also somewhat less popular this year, taking third and fourth place respectively. On the other hand, the prefix ‘tech’ came in second place, which represents a sharp increase in comparison to 2020. The prefixes ‘e’ and ‘virtual’ held the last two spots, with the term ‘e’ mostly being used in the environmental (e.g. e-waste) and governance contexts (e.g. e-government), and ‘virtual’ being used to describe the online working and learning environment (e.g. virtual platform, virtual meeting, virtual classroom, etc.).

The most prominent baskets and topics

Development and sociocultural topics took the lead in discussions. As the most popular basket, Development was covered by more than 70 sessions that tackled issues such as sustainability, environment, access to digital technologies, and capacity building. The sociocultural basket was featured in 47 sessions with topics such as trust, content policy, online learning and disinformation making the agenda.

Cybersecurity and human rights-related topics came in third place, while the economic and legal baskets came in last, with a total of 18 and 16 sessions referring to them respectively.

Keeping in tune with the most dominant baskets, sustainable development was by far the most prominent topic. Broad in nature, the topic encompasses all three dimensions of sustainability: social, economic and environment. Interdisciplinary approaches tackling bringing together technical developments, societal and economic impacts, policy implications, and legal issues related to the internet came in second, while access to the internet took third place.

IGF 2021 in a word cloud

With more than 3,000 appearances, the internet was (as expected) the most popular term at the IGF 2021. The word ‘people’ was the second most important term, appearing in connection with people empowerment, access to and meaningful use of ICTs, and human rights. Data was the third most prominent word, with over 2,000 appearances.

SDGs at the IGF

SDGs and digital technologies are intertwined, and although there is no dedicated SDG for digital technology, it is often referred to as the ‘18th SDG’.

At this year’s IGF, the largest number of sessions were dedicated to SDG 9 (Industries, innovation and infrastructure). This should come as no surprise, given that Target area 9c specifically refers to access to ICTs and the internet. A substantial portion of sessions tackled SDG 16 (Peace, justice and strong institutions) and SDG 17 (Partnerships for the goals), which came in second and third place respectively.

Recapping discussions

Written by humans, powered by AI 

Our reporting from IGF2021 was a mix of two components: traditional rapporteuring and auto-generated summaries. The first forms the work of our expert curators, who followed every session and reported on the most salient topics. The second is the work of Diplo’s AI Lab, which created an AI-powered system for generating summaries.

Access all our summaries from our dedicated one-stop shop on the Digital Watch observatory. View the automated summaries by following the links at the bottom of each session report.


Access, but make it meaningful

With universal access and meaningful connectivity being one of the two main focus areas of this year’s IGF, the number of related sessions was quite high. Many quoted the ITU’s data and highlighted that 2.9 billion people, representing 37% of world’s population, are not yet connected to the internet. Across sessions dedicated to access, though, we could observe a move from simply wanting to ‘get people online’ to getting them online meaningfully and safely, and becoming good internet citizens.
Bar graph from ITU shows the number and per cent of internet users by year from 1 billion or almost 20% in 2005 to almost 5 billion, or a little over 60%, estimated for 2021.
Several sessions focussed on the African region. They ranged from the technical foundations associated with getting online (and acknowledging that the journey to access may be stuck at the issue of electricity for a number of states) to building digital skills among young people and having schools ready to transition to online learning, and to building capacity for the meaningful participation of African stakeholders in cyber policy.

For small island and developing states (SIDS) and LDCs, usage of the internet increased as a result of pandemic-related restrictions. However, critical areas such as online education require increased support and collaboration as the region experienced a lack of devices, weak infrastructure, and low levels of digital literacy and skills. A SIDS-IGF is in the pipeline, which will bring more attention to issues facing such states.

Capacity development

An issue intrinsically linked to access is capacity development. Several sessions tackled issues of digital literacy, from basic digital literacy skills to the capacity of policymakers to deal with digital policy issues. ITU and the UNDP launched a Multistakeholder Network on Digital Capacity Development, an effort embedded in the Roadmap for Digital Cooperation, presenting a database for stakeholders to be able to match the supply and demand. Whether this effort is sufficient and will improve access to capacity development support remains to be seen. The ‘shoulds’ of capacity development were spoken loudly of, while the ‘hows’ were not as obvious.
A group of diverse individuals builds strong, brick steps to SDG 2030, constructing a foundation on capacity development.

Digital and environment

Environmental sustainability and climate change was picked as an emerging and crosscutting area for IGF2021. Key questions brought forward included how to make digital technology sustainable and energy efficient, and how to use digital technology to monitor environmental change.

Likely the boldest move in this area this year has been setting up the Policy Network on Environment. The IGF was used as an occasion to launch a report prepared by the network members, organised around four issues: environmental data, food and water systems, supply chain transparency and circulation, and overarching issues.

The main session on environment and digitalisation focused on the strong influence the digital world has on the environment and vice versa, as digitalisation can be a driver of positive change and a contributor to a green, inclusive, and decarbonised economy. ‘Data’ was by far the word most frequently used in the session, based on the GIP’s AI-driven transcript analysis.


Digital cooperation

Building on the view of the internet as a global shared infrastructure and a global commons, the ‘father of the internet’ Vint Cerf called for more digital cooperation. The UN Secretary-General’s Roadmap on Digital Cooperation is a good starting point on which to build. At the same time, the IGF has been focused on digital cooperation since its inception and its specific contribution of bringing multiple stakeholders on board needs to be acknowledged. An example of this is IGF Dynamic Coalitions (DCs), whose activities and initiatives were captured in a dedicated session.

The importance of digital cooperation is unquestioned, however, a lot remains to be done to improve it. Digital cooperation, taking place on many different levels, lacks coherence and the IG community needs to be more proactive in coordinating various levels of governance. Challenges related to reaching marginalised communities and gaps in training and capacity development remain. We also should be careful to avoid increasing participation that does little more than window-dressing. As we move to the next phase of digital cooperation, meaningfully integrating civil society, avoiding ‘corporate capture’, and clearly recognising the limits of multistakeholder approaches will be important.

When talking about digital cooperation from a technical standpoint, we should also include considerations on open source technology and standards. Open source supports transparent, cost-effective, and innovative cooperation. While there are risks associated with open source, such as security vulnerabilities, IGF discussants made it clear that more support and funding is needed.
A worker pushes a cart full of boxes with information about government digital policy, NGO’s digital policy, business sector digital policy from one UN meeting room to another.

The role of youth

Youth forms the largest stakeholder group in the internet: 70% of internet users are young people. Yet, as with many other policy debates, their views and opinions are underrepresented. The clearly formulated demand at this IGF is to see youth as an ‘agent of change who can participate in equal footing in decision policymaking bodies’. This IGF included a number of sessions that brought an explicit youth lens to the discussion, including debates on digital cooperation and cybersecurity, but further steps are needed. The participation of youth in digital governance discussions could be improved by adopting new governance models, enhancing the capacity development of youth, and fostering stakeholder support. More specific proposals included the need to recognise youth as another stakeholder in the proposed multistakeholder high-level body (MHLB).
Colourful and diverse young people join raised hands to form a line.

Content policy

With mis- and disinformation related to COVID-19 continuing to spread at alarming rates, content policy has gained new urgency. The questions on the table remain the same: who should moderate, how should they moderate, and based on which guidelines. Addressing mis- and disinformation needs to be balanced against freedom of expression and information online and, more broadly, in the context of the whole human rights framework. Further, we need to think about this issue as broader than just social media platforms.

One response to the complexity of these challenges is the development of multistakeholder initiatives for content governance. These initiatives raise questions about the principles of multistakeholder cooperation as well as practical questions regarding working processes and implementation.

While there are some technological solutions being tested and discussed, such as the use of AI to moderate hate speech, these solutions also raise new issues related to responsibility and transparency. Due diligence and the right to appeal are crucial when considering technical solutions to content policy questions.
Abstract depiction of rolling printer paper and thought bubbles.

Digital literacy

The benefits of digital literacy for societies and the economy hardly need emphasising. It is, however, also clear that we need to go beyond basic digital literacy and towards the ability to meaningfully and safely use the internet. The development of media and information literacy skills are also necessary for users to digest and understand the information they consume. Digital literacy programmes need to explicitly recognise and take into account the most marginalised groups of the population, such as refugees, and the hard-to-reach areas. Infrastructure needs to be provided, but communities also need to be engaged meaningfully.
A Greek temple, with columns of ICT competence, smart use, values and attitudes, and understanding the digital age supporting the roof of digital literacy as an addition to the classic building of literacy.


Cyber norms

The implementation of agreed-upon cyber norms was highly discussed in cybersecurity-focused sessions. While cyber norms are mainly developed by states, they are implemented in partnership with other stakeholders. This is why trust was identified as a cross-cutting topic of IGF2021 and underlined in multiple sessions, including trust between stakeholders who should implement cyber norms; between governments which should share technical information to identify the root causes of cyber incidents and not attack each other’s critical infrastructure; and users’ trust in a reliable internet.

It was noted that cyber norms should continue to be developed at the UN with more systemic involvement of other stakeholders as they can help build and implement the framework. It is especially crucial for underrepresented states, such as African states, to engage in these discussions. Regional organisations also play an important role in shaping confidence building measures (CBMs).

Other multistakeholder processes should run in parallel with UN processes, representing complementary efforts. There are significant roles that the IGF Plus model can play, including to: (a) discuss compliance with norms, (b) provide submissions to the OEWG, (c) involve parliamentarians, (d) extend the outreach through regional IGFs, and (e) connect to other related existing cybersecurity processes in the UN.

National regulations and policies addressing cyber vulnerabilities as an essential element of cybersecurity need to reflect norms and principles at the global level. Such coordination can be normative, as with the development of new standards by standard-setting organisations, or can take the form of cooperation with global companies that are developing good corporate practices for the protection of digital products, like the Geneva Dialogue on Responsible Behaviour in Cyberspace, and supply chain security, like the Paris Call for Trust and Security in Cyberspace.
Digital elements rise off the black and white line drawing of a book, into the air.

Internet resilience

As we get more connected and share more valuable data, the danger of deliberate misuse (cyberattacks, cybercrime, extremism) is growing. To ensure recovery from cyber incidents, we need a security culture change, better handle cyber incidents, share more data, and work together.


Straight from news headlines into IGF discussions was the use of invasive tools such as the NSO Group’s Pegasus malware and its cybercrime implications and espionage ties. While traditional and trade espionage affect a limited number of people, cyberespionage attacks affect the data, products, and services of millions. The main challenge in addressing cyberespionage is in the lack of clarity when it comes to the responsible use of cybersecurity technologies, establishing rules and boundaries for espionage, and holding actors accountable.

Cyber capacity development

The importance of holistic international cyber capacity development and orienting capacity development efforts on the needs of recipient countries was reiterated, particularly for the implementation and further understanding of the existing cyber norms. Capacity development initiatives use online knowledge portals such as the Cybil Portal, the Digital Watch observatoryUNIDIR’s Cyber Policy Portal, and the Brazilian cybersecurity portal, and are examining collaborative ways to increase awareness of online portals.

Protection of children online

The protection of children and their rights online has evolved over the last decade from self-regulation and co-regulation to governments passing new laws. The design of the new legislation on online child protection is a complex, cross-sectional effort that must honor the human rights obligations of states. The concept of dialogic regulation and sharing legal responsibility between government, industry, and civil society in achieving child safety online was highlighted.
A toddler sits on the floor floor playing with a laptop, with an abandoned toy beside them.

Human rights

Human rights at risk

Human rights and inclusion were one of two main focus areas of IGF2021. The session Error 404: Freedom of expression not found highlighted the state of affairs in many countries. Internet shutdowns are on the rise, and while they may be temporary in nature, they have devastating long-term consequences because they can lead the public to accepting limitations on their freedom of expression.

For free expression to prosper, every segment of the population should have equal access to public debate and digital spaces. Therefore, discussions should explore whether a higher standard is required to sustain freedom of expression as a democratic prerequisite and how to control hate speech. At the same time, we need to consider whether we need to reinterpret the guarantees of free speech and freedom of the press for the digital era. However, not all citizens are particularly concerned about the lack of freedom of expression, as some have higher priorities such as solving food and basic housing issues.
An open laptop shows a user with large, solid strips of tape from one side of the screen to the other crossing over their mouth.

Reports, documents, and guidelines

Whether and how to address issues of human rights in guidelines and regulations, both existing and new, was considered throughout IGF2021.

The application of UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights to the tech sector could have an impact similar to a digital social contract. Existing IGF documents and reports that support the UN Roadmap for Digital Cooperation – such as the Charter of Human Rights and Principles for the Internet and the African Declaration on Internet Rights and Freedoms – were highlighted as indispensable in helping guarantee human rights online and offline. The Guide to Human Rights for Internet Users from the Council of Europe, and the Brazilian Civil Rights framework for the Internet were also cited as extremely important work in this field. These documents stress the significant importance of extending already established freedom of expression and other rights from the offline world into the online world.

The role and function of a common bill of digital human rights and responsibilities, guided by fundamental universal human values was also discussed. A proposal for an Universal Declaration of Digital Human Rights emerged during the discussion about responsibilities related to digital human rights, such as ensuring universal internet access and digital education.

Particular rights of vulnerable groups

Women and girls remain the primary victims of online discrimination. Cyberviolence has consequences for women’s lives, including mental health issues as well as professional obstacles, legal problems, and economic costs. Recommendations to ensure the protection and promotion of gender rights online included gathering reliable data and sharing best practices. 

To deliver children’s rights in the digital world, it was recommended that the General Comment No. 25 on Children’s Rights in Relation to the Digital Environment be codified into national regulation and legislation. The session All we need is YOUth: connecting young people and ICT discussed the importance of safe and secure use of technology for children and youth.

The affordability of accessible ICT products remains a major impediment to the empowerment of persons with disabilities. International cooperation is necessary to forge global minimum standards for disability access in ICT products.
Abstract drawing of a user connected to and interacting with their laptop through sound and braille.


Telecommunication infrastructure 

Massive investments by technology companies over the past couple of years and a rapid expanding of resources proved that internet infrastructure can scale, and scale fast. Big tech companies such as Google will keep investing into infrastructures (including sub-sea cables) as well as hundreds of data caching points over the world. However, policies for infrastructure development are unharmonised, particularly in the less developed countries.

Maintaining a global internet

Another challenge to internet resiliency is in balancing national interests with preserving a globally interoperable internet. Can increasing attempts by national governments to shape internet-related issues through national and regional policies lead to a fragmented internet? The recent focus at the policy level on notions such as digital autonomy and digital sovereignty, has generated concerns that the global and interoperable nature of the internet might be affected by policy approaches. But – it was said – the internet relies on the interoperability of autonomous systems and, as such, enhancing autonomy does not necessarily require more regulation and control.

Smart cities

Sessions related to IoT and smart cities looked at possible ways of how advanced technologies can bring us closer to a sustainable future for all, and more importantly, what are the necessary steps for the realisation of that goal.

It is estimated that by 2030, one third of the world’s population will be living in cities with half a million inhabitants or more. It’s reasonable to predict that some of those future cities will lay on the network of connected IoT devices, creating what are often referred to as smart cities. IT will be supporting smart applications in healthcare, transportation, law enforcement, and emergencies. Having in mind the impact, it is no wonder that aspects of IoT security are often repeated as an issue which needs to be addressed first. The industry should adopt a global standard of embedding security in the entire lifecycle of IoT products, from design to deployment and maintenance.

Big data will be used to design and implement effective local government policies and optimise resources. The use of augmented and virtual reality will help improve urban navigation, driver safety, and support rescue operations. In order for all this to be actualised, it is critical to support affordable connectivity and agile policymaking which will enable making faster decisions about technologies.

Artificial intelligence

The technology of future cities will be powered by AI. The synchronisation of complex city mechanisms will be possible only when AI systems become powerful enough to process and react to this data. But until then, there are many issues related to how to develop AI in order to meet requirements of efficiency and efficacy, as well as transparency and accountability. There is a need to have a deeper understanding of the processes happening inside AI systems so we can intervene if, or when, needed. It is not unusual that this was raised in the youth session, as future generations will be the ones truly affected by our decisions today. In particular, youth report a current misuse and bias in AI, particularly in technologies such as facial recognition systems, and demand to have a seat at the table when future norms and principles of AI are discussed. Ethical norms for AI emerged as the most urgent issue in discussions. Applying such norms is particularly important when we consider the degree of autonomy we allow the AI systems to have. Another aspect discussed at length was related to the risk of AI amplifying already existing inequality between countries and communities.

AI governance frameworks will play an important role in the shift from thinking about AI in terms of technology alone to considering the broader impacts of AI and AI-based decisions on individuals and the society at large. A multistakeholder approach to devising such frameworks is needed to make sure that the people who are affected by AI are involved.
A salesperson smilingly presents a humanoid AI dressed in a suit and tie, promising it is ‘risk free’.

Digital standards

It became clear that the topic of standardisation as a norm-setting tool in aiding global compatibility and interoperability of digital technologies is gaining increasing attention. Throughout the discussions on various topics, standardisation was repeatedly emphasised – whether in relation to data and data governance strategies, personal information processingcommon security standardse-health standardisation, the transition to renewable energy sources, and others.


The need for cooperation

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the digitisation of societies and has shown the importance of investing in ICT and making it available for all. Approximately 2.9 billion people have no access to the internet and have been left behind in the transition to working and learning online, among many other functions. The digital divide worsens global inequality, and this gap can only be bridged through international cooperation across stakeholders.

Cooperation needs to take place in a myriad of areas, from investment in technology and skills to the development of sound metrics to measure key indicators in the digital economy. In addition, there is a need for regulatory mechanisms that uphold the public interest and strengthen trust. Online consumer protection, for example, is an area which requires adaptable and clear regulatory frameworks, developed with input from a wide range of stakeholders. It is also important to put in place norms to protect the labour force. The dependency of workers on digital platforms makes them vulnerable to data collection, surveillance, and algorithm-based discrimination.


Competition is another policy area which deserves further attention. Regulation should promote fair competition between dominant players and small companies.

Governments should also reconsider how competition regulations are applied in digital markets. Current anti-competition regulations based on traditional market views do not reflect the potential of mergers in digital markets over the long run. Alternatives like constant monitoring and assessment of digital markets and multistakeholder consultations can be of benefit.

There is also a need to consider other factors that may hinder competition, which could relate to market practices rather than abusive behaviour of dominant firms. In order to foster competition and market stability, it is important to create channels of dialogue among countries that are technological leaders, most notably between the United States and China.

In our pandemic world and after, being connected is not a matter of choice or preference, but a necessity. The digital economy needs to bring about not only growth, but also to promote economic recovery, inclusion, and well-being.
An arm and hand enter a computer screen to add or remove paper currency from a wallet.

Legal and regulatory

Data transfers and privacy

As in previous years, discussions on challenges related to the free flow of data and privacy online continued. Regulatory practices are affecting among others, data, content, and AI development and implementation.

One example discussed was how governments are increasingly imposing data localisation requirements limiting the free flow of data, thus affecting the functioning of the internet.

Data regulations can impede cross-border data flows, resulting in a loss of economic potential for national economies, limited competition and innovation, and restricted data interoperability. The tech sector would benefit from data and privacy frameworks that foster interoperability between jurisdictions so that data flows uninterrupted.

Data localisation regulations have negative impacts on the global level as well, from limiting digital growth and undermining trust to hindering global trade and investment flows.
A supervisor checks a paper while surveying data entering clouds and being spewed out of electrical towers as a cloud of 0s and 1s.

Regulating tech companies

The calls for regulation of the tech industry have intensified across the board. According to some, self-regulation is no longer sufficient to ensure trust, protect human rights, or stimulate innovation, and only formal regulation can set proper guardrails and recourse. Others argue that digital platforms need to be pushed to self-regulate even more with the knowledge that if they do not self-regulate, governments will step in.

This dilemma was increasingly discussed in relation to corporate social responsibility, platform responsibility, and competition. When it comes to corporate social responsibility, the tech sector, holding economic strength that can be compared to entire countries, needs to be aware and willing to take on responsibilities related to the development of their products and services in line with the rule of law.

While in Europe particular attention is paid to the impacts of platforms and internet intermediaries on human rights, the rule of law, and democracy, other countries are only starting to draft similar laws. Especially in Africa and Latin America, the regulatory landscape on platform responsibility is still emerging and fragmented, even though the impacts of internet platforms can be very positive for their economic and social development. The harmonisation of regulation on platform responsibilities could prevent tax evasion and support the development of small and medium-sized businesses.

In addressing the responsibilities of tech companies, two factors stood out: the participation of the private sector in drafting common legal standards and regulations, and increasing the level of consumer education.


The fast transition to an online environment in the health sector during the COVID-19 pandemic spurred discussions on the establishment of a trustworthy governance framework that would mitigate health data misuse. Concerns related to e-health include the sharing of sensitive health data and its proper use, surveillance and privacy, and balancing digital and human healthcare. Additional discussions on e-health related to the rights of patients to safe medicine.

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