These organizations are on the front lines of internet equity—and countering China’s influence

Watch the panel

360/Open Summit: Contested Realities | Connected Futures

June 6-7, 2022

The Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab) hosts 360/Open Summit: Contested Realities | Connected Futures in Brussels, Belgium.

Event transcript

Uncorrected transcript: Check against delivery


Mark Gitenstein
Ambassador of the United States to the European Union, US Mission to the EU

Catalina Escobar
Co-Founder and Chief Strategy Officer, Makaia

Malavika Jayaram
Executive Director, Digital Asia Hub


Jochai Ben-Avie
Co-Founder and Chief Executive, Connect Humanity

JOCHAI BEN-AVIE: Good morning, good afternoon, good evening wherever you are. Thank you for being with us.

My name’s Jochai Ben-Avie. I am the co-founder and chief executive of Connect Humanity—we are a fund to accelerate digital equity—and, as you heard, a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s DFRLab.

Let’s start with a sobering truth. Even under the most generous accounting, three billion people lack access to the internet. That number from the ITU, which you might hear sometime, counts anyone who has used the internet at least once in the last three months. When you add people who don’t have reliable access, the number goes up. When you count people who don’t have high-speed access, that number goes substantially up. When you add people who can’t afford the internet, the number goes way up. When you add the people who lack the digital literacy to meaningfully use the internet to improve their lives, the number goes even higher still. And estimates that cannot—estimates of the cost to connect everyone range from $428 billion to in excess of 2.2 trillion dollars, and committing those funds has never been more important.

During the pandemic, we’ve seen just how important the internet is, sometimes painfully so, right? Those numbers hide the fact that what we’re talking about is kids being able to go to school. It’s about folks being able to work remotely and provide for their families, to engage with their communities, to talk to their doctor and find access about the vaccine, to participate in democracy, and so much more. What we have is a world where billions of people are falling further behind just by staying where they are.

Connect Humanity, the organization I’m privileged to lead, was started by a group of colleagues who came together by the overwhelming feeling that it doesn’t have to be this way. We generally know how to connect the unconnected. That’s not the hard part. And we generally know that traditional telecom operators—your AT&Ts and Vodafones of the world—have not and will not connect everyone. It’s simply not in their business model to do so. It’s not a problem the market is going to solve.

And so at Connect Humanity we focus on nontraditional operators—the sort of community networks, cooperatives, municipal networks, smaller operators—folks who are more grounded in their communities, often community-owned, who have different business models and different incentives. But most of these communities and most of these operators struggle nearly universally with access to capital. They’re often too big for philanthropy and microfinance and too small for direct foreign investment, international aid organizations, and commercial bank loans. Our existing funding mechanisms, simply put, have a much easier time funding a large company to build a billion-dollar submarine cable than to give a million dollars or even a hundred thousand dollars to an underserved community.

And even for the many governments of the world who are looking to connect their people, there are few choices. Indeed, often the only choice for the governments who want to invest in connecting their people is Chinese financing. In Africa, Chinese investment in ICT infrastructure surpasses spending from African governments, G7 nations, and multilateral agencies combined. Chinese financing often comes with Chinese vendors and construction companies, Chinese hardware, Chinese software, and Chinese control. For many if not most of the world, their first online steps will be on Chinese infrastructure owned by Chinese-controlled operators, with all that data available to the Chinese government. In doing so, China’s expanding not just their surveillance capabilities but also their influence over vast swaths of the world.

A huge part of this is through the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative, and at least 146 countries are currently receiving support from China through the Belt and Road Initiative. And as we’ll hear from our panel today, this raises real challenges for democracy, human rights, economic opportunity, and ultimately national security. And I should add that at a time when climate change is increasingly being recognized as a national-security threat and network equipment produces as much carbon-dioxide emissions as the airline sector, we must also think about the energy resources that will be used to connect the other half of the world.

And whether it’s climate change or awareness raised by the pandemic about the need to expand reliable, affordable access to the internet, the democratic world largely has not come up with a compelling answer to Chinese money—with democracy, human rights, economic development, and national security hanging in the balance.

And with that, let me bring in our panel. I’m joined today and honored to be joined by US Ambassador to the EU Mark Gitenstein; Malavika Jayaram, the executive director of the Digital Asia Hub; and Catalina Escobar, the co-founder and chief strategy officer of Makaia.

Let’s start with Catalina. I know it’s late for you. Appreciate you being here with us today. Your organization, Makaia, has been doing great work to connect the unconnected and underserved communities across Colombia, especially in formerly FARC-controlled territories. Maybe you can set the stage for us by describing what internet access in Colombia has meant for the peace and reconciliation process, economic development, and political participation. And why is it that a nonprofit organization like yours is connecting people and not the large telecoms in your country?

CATALINA ESCOBAR: Well, hi, everybody. Jochai, thank you for the introduction and for having me here. Also, hi to my fellow panelists.

It’s very great to be here. Actually, it’s not late. It’s early in the morning. It’s 4:30 in the morning, so. I’m based here in Medellin, Colombia, but super excited to be virtually here.

So, to answer your question, so a little bit of background. So Makaia is a nonprofit organization created and based here in Colombia. We have been up and running for sixteen years and our purpose is to build capacities for social development using technology and innovation.

So why did we end up doing a connectivity project in the peace zones in Colombia? So we actually have worked in two of the municipalities that have been determined to be essential for the peace process in Colombia. But the reason why we ended up doing connectivity is because, I mean, at the beginning it wasn’t like, oh, let’s do our connectivity project in these two municipalities. The reason why it ended up there is because we wanted to do a technical support process for coffee growers in those municipalities. So the purpose was not connectivity itself; the purpose was to bring tech capacities, digital skills to coffee growers. We started in one of the peace zones. So it started as a—as a digital skills project.

When we went to the zone in the first visit—I actually went to that first visit—we realized that it was impossible to do a digital skills and tech capacity project because there was no connectivity. And when I say no connectivity, it’s like no connectivity at all. Our cell phones didn’t work when we were visiting the coffee growers. So we sort of had to go back to the basics and said, OK, what are we going to have to do here?

We were super fortunate that the funder was flexible, because when funders are not flexible these type of unexpected circumstances are very difficult to manage. And the funder was Lavazza Foundation—Lavazza, like the coffee company—because they wanted to engage coffee growers more and better into their value chain. So we went to Lavazza and we say, hey, there’s no connectivity; we need to start from the basics. And they said, OK, do whatever you have to do. So I think that there’s one lesson learned, and it’s that funder flexibility is super important in these type of projects.

So I guess—so we ended up connecting five coffee farms and some schools using TV white spaces. The legislation had recently passed in Colombia, so it was like a really, really good moment to do a pilot using TV white spaces.

And I think another lesson is that it was connectivity with a purpose. It wasn’t connectivity just for providing connectivity; it was connectivity to improve the quality and the efficiency of the coffee value chain. So we were connecting coffee growers to teach them about prices; about quality; about how to engage with Lavazza, which is their final purchaser of the coffee; and things like that.

And then we replicated this project in another peace zone, in another peace municipality in Colombia. And I can talk more later about the small cooperatives that are starting to provide internet access.


CATALINA ESCOBAR: But going back, Jochai, to your other question, why do—large telecoms don’t engage? Actually, our first thought was let’s go to the telecoms and ask them to bring internet access to these municipalities. It was not possible. After many conversations, we realized that for them—basically, that the answer from them is there is no market. And when they just say that, it sort of closes the door for any possible future conversations. And that’s why we are so aligned to the Connect Humanity purpose, that small operators, cooperatives, coffee-grower cooperatives are really the solutions for these isolated communities around the world.

So that’s why a nonprofit ended up doing a connectivity project, because we needed connectivity for a specific purpose. And now it’s been transferred to local, small cooperatives that are doing the connectivity. And as I said, I can talk more about that later.

JOCHAI BEN-AVIE: Thank you, Catalina. I appreciate it.

And I think this really emphasizes, again, how it’s not just network operators who can build the internet, right? It is—you know, people search the internet not for connectivity’s sake, but to improve their lives. And so we see coffee growers who are developing their own internet networks to meet their needs, often where the market won’t otherwise solve for that problem.

To continue our sort of scene-setting, Mr. Ambassador, maybe I can turn to you. During your time as ambassador in Romania, you supported some extremely successful civic tech programs. Could you share a bit about what happened and why, and how important the internet was to those efforts?

MARK GITENSTEIN: Well, thank you, Jochai.

First of all, I want to give credit to your partner, Chris Worman, who helped me come up with this idea. But it was 2010. I came to Romania as US ambassador in 2009 with a mandate to deal with the issue of anticorruption and rule of law, which is still a problem in Romania but there’s been tremendous progress—primarily, by the way, because of its membership in the EU. It’s one of the reasons I wanted this job. So it’s late 2010. The Arab Spring had just started. About a couple of months before that, I had seen something very surprising in Romania. By the way, the infrastructure in Romania for the internet was actually pretty good. But social media was just emerging in Romania, and I became aware of the fact that the fastest-growing Facebook market probably in the world, certainly in Europe, was in Bucharest. But the other thing is around that same time there had been an activist nongovernmental-organization-sponsored event countrywide in Romania. It was actually designed to clean up the trash on a single day, and they got hundreds of thousands of Romanians on the street in a single day.

So I thought, watching what was happening in the Arab Spring where social media drove a lot of activism, I said, why can’t we do this with anticorruption in Romania? And into my office popped Chris Worman, who was then running TechSoup Romania, which we can talk about later if you want. TechSoup’s a great organization that focuses on many of these issues. And I told him, I said, why can’t we have a in Romania that’s focused on anticorruption? He says, well, here’s an idea. Let’s find some money. Turned out there was ninety thousand dollars available—just shows you how a small amount of money can have a huge impact—in one of our accounts at the embassy. And he says, why don’t we do what he called a competition. And so we sent out a communication to almost every activist in Romania. Before it was over—it turns out within a couple of weeks we had reached 1.2 million Romanians out of eighteen—there’s only eighteen million people in Romania. That was pretty remarkable.

And they came back, and the idea of the competition was give us an idea for how you can use social media to fight corruption. It came back with 150 ideas, and then we had a conclave of and had a voting system where if you were invited you got to vote on the best ideas. We narrowed it down to ten ideas, and then we had a vote, and I think we funded five ideas. And between the cost of the—of the—of getting everybody to Bucharest—paying for their travel, et cetera—and the money, we had maybe ten thousand dollars for each of these internet websites, which in Romania was a lot of money. And one of those—they were all very successful, but one of them you may have heard of. Funky Citizens is a great organization that has since become one of the most important activist organizations in Romania. I think one-third of all people online are on the Funky Citizens website.

And after I left in 2012, I learned that not only did they create their own—it’s called Click It, I think, or Click On; it has 1.2 million people online in 2017—you may have read about this—there was an effort by the new majority party to undo all of the work we had done on anticorruption. And through this organization, between Click It and Funky Citizens, they got six hundred thousand people on the street in Bucharest—it was on the front page of the Wall Street Journal—and they basically reversed what happened—what was happening in Romania. And it was all spontaneous. But we built—what we did is we built social-media capability to fight corruption and it’s had a huge impact.

By the way, Funky Citizens—I just learned this this morning; Elena Calistru, who runs Funky Citizens, had mentioned this to me, but I was stunned by it—within two days of the war, they raised six hundred thousand dollars online, which in Romania is a huge amount of money. They sent fifteen semis full of food and help into Ukraine and they have moved out tens of thousands of refugees just through that organization with Sean Penn’s organization.

So here ninety thousand dollars, and that’s what we were able to do with ninety thousand dollars, a small amount of money, using infrastructure. Now, the Arab Spring didn’t turn out so well—but it certainly served as a good model.

JOCHAI BEN-AVIE: Maybe I can ask you about another model. I mean, this is—I think really demonstrates the power of civil society and civic tech, but really only possible in a country with ubiquitous access.


JOCHAI BEN-AVIE: And you know, I know Chris and you have spoken about sort of the role of the SEED Act in helping to sort of catalyze that kind of investment in Eastern and sort of Central Europe. I wonder if you could speak briefly about what the SEED Act is/was and sort of the role it played, and then we’ll—

MARK GITENSTEIN: Yeah. I can’t remember what the actual letters mean, by the SEED Act, I can tell you what it—it was passed in 1989. I actually just researched the legislative history coming over in the car just now. It was passed in 1989. It’s back in an era when there really was bipartisan collaboration in the Senate, unlike today. And I actually read through the debate.

By the way, Biden then was the chairman of the European Affairs Subcommittee of the Foreign Relations Committee. It was his substitute that actually passed the Senate, and it had two big elements in it that were very relevant. One, it was designed to provide money to Central and Eastern Europe—this is right after the wall came down—for things like social media and internet—the internet was in its infancy in those days—but also money for what was known as enterprise funds. And enterprise funds were, in effect, venture capital funds created in each—initially in just Poland and Hungary, and then expanded to all of Central and Eastern Europe. And these funds were designed to fund, in effect, tech companies, but other enterprises.

One of the companies that they funded in Romania was Bitdefender. I don’t know if you know what Bitdefender is, one of the top cybersecurity companies in the world now. That money, in turn, when the money came back into the venture fund, was used to fund a foundation. That’s where Chris is today; he’s on the board of that foundation. And so that’s become—and this happened throughout Central and Eastern Europe. The most successful, actually, was in Poland, where they actually created equity markets, powerful equity markets which are driving democracy and free markets in Poland. And it’s now happening in Romania.

So the SEED Act was a small amount of money that was put in each of these countries to fund private-sector but also public-sector, but very targeted and focused on capacity building. By the way, the ninety thousand dollars was SEED Act money. So it’s an incredibly smart investment by the US in both free markets and democracy capacity building.

JOCHAI BEN-AVIE: Thank you, Mr. Ambassador. I think that’s a fascinating model and one we can learn from, and I think also speaks to the type of flexible funding that Catalina was speaking of earlier. It’s a model that I wish we would see more of, you know, in—from democracies around the world.

MARK GITENSTEIN: Can I—can I just add something to that? The reason it worked is because Romanian activists were making the decisions. They were not being made in Washington. Very important.

JOCHAI BEN-AVIE: I think that’s essential, right? I think it’s about empowering local communities to be, you know, in control of their digital futures, and we need to always be keeping that in mind as we think about funding these kinds of efforts.

Speaking of people who are not thinking about that, you know, to the extent that any nation is really investing the billions if not trillions of dollars that it’s going to take to connect everyone, frankly, it’s China. Which brings me to our final speaker, Malavika. I was wondering if you could hopefully comment on sort of: What is the scale of China’s investment in global internet infrastructure, and how does that fit into the country’s broader geopolitical strategy? And how worried should we be about this from a national security and human rights perspective?

MALAVIKA JAYARAM: Thanks, Jochai. Thanks, Rose and everyone else, for having me here.

This is a really contested and polarizing topic, so I’m really glad we’re discussing it here. Even in the framing of the question, you go straight from mentioning China to going to what does this mean for human rights, right? So the fact that those two things are so intimately tied I think makes this a really important conversation.

On the question of scale, I mean, you can look this up and find all kinds of data on, you know, Wikimedia and all of the interwebs, so I’m not going to bore you with statistics. But I think qualitatively when we think of scale you’ve all heard of what’s now the Belt and Road Initiative, what was formerly known as One Belt, One Road. And I want to bring that up first because I think even the name change is really significant when it comes to understanding China’s political ambitions.

There was criticism—even though it literally translates, you know, from Mandarin from “yidai yilu,” which is One Belt, One Road—even though that’s the literal translation, there was this sort of PR job done to it which assumed that the idea of thinking of it as a singular idea—a singular belt, a singular road—was problematic both as a narrative but also as an actual fact because there will be five roads, there will be many belts, many roads. So I think moving away from the idea of the singular was also very powerful because it was implying that there is something pluralistic about this idea, there is some kind of element of inclusion attached to this, and it wasn’t China trying to capture the single road or the single narrative but that it was open to influence, it was open to negotiation, it was open to conversation and dialogue. And so it was felt that this would be a much better name for the initiative, so Belt and Road was less contested.

And I think that’s also interesting because even the word “initiative” implies that it’s a work in progress, right? It implies that it’s not fully baked, it’s open to what partners want. And the thing that’s very compelling—I mean, you can have all kinds of statistics about, you know, 100 and countries—180 countries have signed deals, it affects so many countries, so many places already have infrastructure, but I think what’s very compelling is this narrative that pushes it into the context of a trade war, right? You’re bringing it into the context of a competition not just between competition for who provides infrastructure and funds it, but a competition around ideas and ideologies, right? Do you go the American, human-rights-respecting, freedom-oriented approach, or do you want the authoritarian Chinese, human-rights-violating approach—which, as all binaries are, is a very reductive, terrible way to start, but that’s often how it’s seen, right? And I think you’ll find the truth might be somewhere in the middle or it may be skewed a little closer to one side.

But despite the fact that it’s a very binary narrative, you’ll see a lot of stuff about: Why is China buying up all the ports? Why is Sri Lanka, you know, now in thrall to global debt-trap diplomacy? Why is China using Trojan horses to enter Europe? Or Macron saying roads are not a one-way street, right, or words to that effect, that it’s a two-way thing?

So you still have these very emotive, very powerful narratives that pitch the Chinese effort as sort of, you know, dead on arrival, which belies the actual influence it has in the region. And I think that’s particularly dangerous because in an era when there’s a lot of love of strongmen in Asia, a lot of love for dictators, a lot of feeling that, you know, we need to stand up to countries, especially as America’s power in the world is seen as a little diminished relative to what it used to be. I mean, nature abhors a vacuum. Apparently, so does China, right? It sees an infrastructure deficit and says: Why don’t we go plug that gap? America is involved with internal affairs, domestic politics, not so outward-looking as it used to be—or at least so goes the narrative, which we can dispute—why don’t we go and plug this gap and actually start building out infrastructure that America currently isn’t interested in, Europe isn’t interested in, right? They’re busy drafting the GDPR. Why don’t we just go and, like, flout data-protection policies around the world and build out this infrastructure? So I think that’s kind of the context in which we’re seeing this.

I also want to point out a couple of other things, which is that we act as if surveillance is the monopoly of a country like China, except that as we’ve been talking about throughout this conference it isn’t, right? We have the term “surveillance capitalism” as being one of the most-touted words we use today. That’s a very American phenomenon. It’s very linked to a particular economic model, a very particular political ideology. You don’t have surveillance authoritarianism. You don’t have surveillance neocolonialism or neoimperialism, right? So the fact that surveillance as a business model is so closely tied to a Silicon Valley approach, to capitalistic ideas around data extraction/exploitation, I think we need to sort of name the fact that it’s not an us versus them. Surveillance is an endemic problem the world over.

Having said that, to what extent do backdoors that China might provide or Chinese telecom companies provide or the fact that the data is available for the mothership to view, to what extent does that—to the second part of your question—to what extent does that affect human rights? And I think that is a very, very grave danger. We’ve seen with, you know, the hacking of the African Union headquarters, entirely built and financed by China, and so many other examples that the idea of, like, ET phoning home is not, you know, something in the movies; it actually happens. So I think that risk is inherent.

And I think the other risk that’s really, really important is the extent to which civil society is placed under personal physical risks even to work in this space—to advocate for inclusion, to advocate for connectivity, even just connecting coffee growers, right, when there are political interests at snuffing out coffee growers and handing over that land to powerful, you know, property barons. So I think the idea of data infrastructure surveillance capabilities is very, very real, and the extent to which we don’t adopt infrastructure, you know, and be agnostic to the sort of social construct in which it’s built, the politics in which it’s embedded, I think that’s really key to understanding what China’s trying to do here.

JOCHAI BEN-AVIE: Absolutely.

I want to pick up on the point, though, you raised about the idea that the perception that the US and the EU are more focused on domestic concerns at the moment and in that void we are seeing China and other authoritarians step in. It’s not just China, although, obviously, massive compared to anyone else. Ambassador Gitenstein, Secretary Blinken recently called China, quote, “the most serious long-term challenge to the international order.” In the face of this kind of massive investment, these kind of partnerships with apparently 180-some countries, you know, and in doing so that increase in influence, of—you know, of surveillance capability, of control over the online experience of billions of people, what is the US government’s approach to countering the Chinese government in the internet-infrastructure space?

MARK GITENSTEIN: Well, first of all, picking up on a point that both of you just made about the investment in Belt and Road, 146 countries I think you said? Yeah.

JOCHAI BEN-AVIE: A hundred fifty-six.

MARK GITENSTEIN: A hundred fifty-six. Well, if you took the names of those countries and laid them against the last UN vote, I’ll bet you it’s almost completely coterminous. That tells you part of the answer.

I mean, remember what that vote was on. It was—there were two votes, actually. One was on sanctioning the Russians, you know, publicly for what they had done on Ukraine, and the other was on the Human Rights Council. The notion that Russia could sit on the Human Rights Council when they’re murdering people in Bucha is appalling. And yet, many of the recipients of that money voted against us. And what—if you count up all the population in those countries, 60 or 70 percent of the world actually disagrees with us on what’s happening on our position on Ukraine. What does that tell you?

And you know, it’s not simply an issue of democracy versus autocracy, which my friend the president likes to use—I use it myself—but it’s rule-based order, as that great diplomat in Kenya points out. You know, if boundaries are no longer sanctified, if they’re no longer respected, any country in the world is subject to being basically taken over by the neocolonialists. And to be a little demagogic here, the real colonialists in the world right now are the Russians and the Chinese. They’re doing what the Europeans did in the nineteenth century. They’re buying countries, taking over countries. And the Belt and Road Initiative is not some—done out of the kindness of Xi’s heart; it’s done to take control of these countries and the narrative in these countries and to counter the democratic and humanitarian interests of the West and the Europeans and the United States. And it’s extremely dangerous.

And what is the United States doing? Not enough, that’s all I can tell you. I think, you know, I would like to see the Global South to be at least where Romania was when I got there in 2009, which means an independent infrastructure in the internet, and I don’t know if that’s possible right now. I think we’re never going to match—you know, I’ve seen the numbers—ten billion dollars, twenty billion dollars, thirty billion dollars spent by the Chinese alone in the Global South or in Africa alone. We’re not going to match that. But maybe if the private sector gets engaged and we take the issue more seriously at every mission in Africa with every US ambassador, which we’re not doing right now, it would have an impact.

JOCHAI BEN-AVIE: We’re going to run out of time on this panel, unfortunately. I feel like we could talk about this for hours.

And so maybe we can close by asking what would it look like. What would—if you could wave a magic wand to really help meet the sort of funding need that exists here—as I say pretty much every day, connecting the unconnected is an incredibly capital-intensive business. And so I wonder, maybe Catalina first to you, you know, if you could wave a magic wand to help support folks like yourself who are connecting communities that the markets and governments have often sort of left behind, what kind of support do you need?

CATALINA ESCOBAR: Thank you. I think there’s—I’ve been thinking a lot about this, and I think there’s two things.

I think one is, like, I don’t know if this is the right word in English, like demystifying the access issue. Because, for example, here in Colombia people believe that everybody’s connected because, yes, the big cities and the main municipalities are connected. So I think that demystifying this, that everybody’s connected. So talk more, advocate more about all the unconnected people.

The recent report from the Alliance for Affordable Internet talks about a topic that I really like, and it is the meaningful connectivity. So it’s not just having people connected, but with the adequate device, with the adequate skills, and all the capacities to really, really take advantage of the connectivity. In Colombia, it’s 26 percent, so only 26 percent of the people have meaningful connectivity. But when you go to the Ministry of the ICT or you go to the—to the telecoms, they believe that everybody’s connected. So we need to talk more about the unconnected.

And the other thing that I feel that we need, of course, is funding, but funding for the fundamentals, because it seems like digital skills are not attractive enough for the—for the international community, and people think that youth are digital natives. But, yes, they could use technology, but are they using it for the right things and for the right reasons? So I think that we need to demystify a lot of things.

And the other thing about funding—and I’m going to finish with this—is that we seem to be living, like, in two worlds. So it’s like when you talk about funds, it seems like the big investors are trying to put their money in the Metaverse and in other, like, super high-technology solutions, but that is just going to be increasing the gaps because there is this whole investment around the super-high-end technologies that is needed but we can never forget the other end of the world that has no connectivity, no skills, no knowledge.

So I would summarize it, Jochai, in those two things: a lot of advocacy and funding for the fundamentals—digital skills, digital access that needs to—needs to be on the agenda again because it seems to be out of the agenda lately.

JOCHAI BEN-AVIE: Sounds like you have a lot on your wish list, Catalina, but I think that—


JOCHAI BEN-AVIE:—demonstrates the complexity of this topic.

We’re going to run out of time in just a few seconds at this point, but, Malavika, maybe final word sort of responding to what would you like to see if you had that magic wand. What would you do?

MALAVIKA JAYARAM: I think I would like to see people in the Global South treated as equal collaborators and participants in their own futures, like you mentioned—not as victims to be saved by someone else, not as, you know, passive people, not as recipients of largesse that someone else decides somewhere far away—and actually help design the products, the solutions, the services that they need. So I think that that’s kind of biggest on my wish list.

But I think the last thing is also that we need to look at how people actually use the internet after it’s been provided. We often see connectivity as a destination, and once the connection’s been switched on it’s like, OK, we’re done, our work here is done, without actually looking to what happens—how they actually use it, where they meet roadblocks, what Jonathan Donner calls an after-access lens. I think that’s really important to see where actual problems exist to keep iterating and improving on them.

JOCHAI BEN-AVIE: Absolutely. And that’s why at Connect Humanity we often talk about digital equity and not just connectivity, right?

Thank you to our panel. Thank you to our hosts for a fascinating conversation. I think what we’ve heard is that digital equity is one of the great challenges of our time. And if we care about advancing democracy, human—protecting human rights, expanding economic opportunity, and defending national security, we must confront and offer viable alternatives and substantially more funding to solve this challenge. And yet, despite virtually all democratic countries having interests affected by increasing Chinese control of the internet, the democracies of the world have largely been on the sidelines. That said, there are good models like the SEED Act that we heard about earlier today that we can learn from and leverage as we think about how to meet this funding gap.

And it’s not just a matter of pouring money into this issue. Our existing funding mechanisms and telecom models, as we’ve heard, won’t be sufficient to connect the unconnected to achieve digital equity. And so we need to evolve conventional understanding of what a network operator looks like—might be coffee growers—and can deliver funding in the sizes and structures that operators require to meet the needs in their underserved communities.

Thank you so much for this conversation, and looking forward to working with many of you as we work on this challenge. Thank you.


Watch the full event

Further reading