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The Dire Effects of Cyberattacks on Prosperity, Innovation and Global Collaboration

MD Staff

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Cyberattacks are increasing in volume and sophistication, affecting an ever-greater number of people and institutions. Through artificial intelligence (AI), the Internet of Things (IoT) and other new technologies, the threat surface and vulnerability are growing, spinning out in new threat areas facing citizens, consumers, companies and countries. To fight increasing cybercrime, the global community needs to overcome three major challenges: lack of trust, lack of cooperation and a lack of adequate skills.

The first Annual Gathering of the World Economic Forum’s Centre for Cybersecurity ended today with calls to action and the launch of several new initiatives by the more than 140 cybersecurity experts from government, business, academia and law enforcement to address these three challenges.

Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum, stressed the need to ensure a cyberspace that serves as a trusted and secure backbone for the Fourth Industrial Revolution if its opportunities are to be realized. “Cybersecurity is an absolute priority for the Forum,” he added.

“Cybercrime has no borders. It affects every company, every industry and every country – therefore, we can’t fight it alone. The World Economic Forum is one of very few international organizations that understands the scale of the growing cyberthreat,” said Herman Gref, Chief Executive Officer and Chairman of the Board of Sberbank. “The Forum’s efforts in connecting leaders from various countries and industries in times of the Fourth Industrial Revolution are absolutely invaluable. As a Founding Partner of the Centre for Cybersecurity, we believe that this initiative represents a huge leap forward in the global fight against cybercrime – by pooling resources with all the stakeholders, we can stop the proliferation of cyberthreats and make the digital world a safer place,” he added.

“What happens to the rule of law when rule of law cannot be enforced,” asked Troels Oerting Jorgensen, Head of the Centre for Cybersecurity. Participants acknowledged the need for information exchange between the private and public sectors and law enforcement. While companies collect extensive data on threats they have neither the power nor the mandate to pursue cyber criminals. The public sector and law enforcement, on the other hand, would benefit from access to that data to more effectively combat cybercrime.

“Fortinet firmly believes in the importance of collaboration and information-sharing to combat cybercrime. Being named a Founding Partner of the new Centre for Cybersecurity is important for global multistakeholder collaboration and yet another step forward for our own mission to secure the largest enterprises, service providers and government organizations in the world,” said Ken Xie, Founder, President and Chief Executive Officer of Fortinet.

Senior law enforcement officers shared information on existing and emerging cyberthreats with the multistakholder meeting. They identified ransomware, social engineering, Darknet markets and – despite the security potential of blockchain – threats related to cryptocurrency as persisting concerns. Physical convergence of IoT, offensive AI, cloud computing, data security and online channel threats will be “growth” areas for cybercrime in 2019.

Business executives that had recently experienced data breaches and cyber incidents shared their experience, highlighting the importance of direct access for CISOs to CEOs of the affected company. Other companies introduced a security metric for all employees indexed to a quantitative score in their performance evaluations.

“To defend against cyber threats, we need to act collectively to make the internet a safer place. The World Economic Forum is bringing together major cybersecurity leaders from all over the world to collaborate on some of the most pressing cyber issues facing our society. As a leading provider of security consulting services globally, Accenture is looking forward to the opportunity to work with other companies to help drive innovations across our connected world,” said Kelly Bissell, Senior Managing Director of Accenture Security.

Experts from the investment community warned that as the cyberattack surface expands, incentivizing and measuring cybersecurity becomes more difficult and important. Investors needed clear parameters and benchmarks to evaluate whether a company and its practices are cybersecure – an increasingly important step of due diligence. Meeting participants agreed to take initial steps towards developing a viable tool for the investment community to incentivize secure and responsible innovation. The results will be presented in New York in spring 2019.

Participants from the public and private sectors discussed the importance of clear and enforceable principles to guide behavior on our shared networks. In light of the many alliances and accords being developed in recent years, most recently the Paris Call for Trust and Security, participants focused on the importance of developing effective operational steps to solve for trust-building and standards challenges.

Chief information security officers (CISO), government and law enforcement officials from 26 countries identified the lack of a sufficiently large and diverse talent pool as a major challenge to improve cybersecurity across sectors. A dedicated working group on diversity and inclusion at the Centre for Cybersecurity highlighted significant discrepancies among the numbers of men and women in the cybersecurity workforce. In North America, for example, women represent a mere 14% of those involved with cybersecurity. In Europe, female inclusion is 7% while in the Middle East, 5%. Attempts to create a more inclusive cyber workforce should not stop at gender but also make the field more welcoming and attractive for professionals of more diverse backgrounds and cultures.

The Centre for Cybersecurity also announced today that Accenture, Fortinet and Sberbank will be the Founding Partners of the Centre. Checkpoint Software, Deloitte and Equifax extend their support to the Centre for Cybersecurity as Partners.

The Centre also signed agreements with Europol, Interpol, the Israel National Cyber Directorate, the Organization of American States, the UK National Cyber Security Centre, the UC Berkeley Center for Long-Term Cybersecurity, as well as with the Global Cyber Alliance.

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India’s Digitalization: Big Data is the New Oil

Lidia Kulik

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Over the last few years, India has travelled the path of rapid digitalization. Not only has the current crisis failed to stop this process, on the contrary, it has served to accelerate it in many areas and make some trends more evident.

Government efforts, active work of India’s business and joint steps undertaken by India’s public bodies and private entrepreneurs who are equally cognizant of the digital transformation’s significance, difficulties and prospects for India’s economy and society as a whole have advanced the process of shaping India’s new digital realities.

In 2015, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the launch of the Digital India campaign spanning a series of key government initiatives such as increasing the people’s digital literacy, developing infrastructure and creating an e-government. The most significant achievements include completing and putting into operation the Aadhar digital identification system; a single taxation system covering all Indian states that previously had individual taxation rules; and the Reserve Bank of India, jointly with the association of Indian banks, developing and introducing an instant payment system similar to that created by Russia’s Central bank.

Nandan Nilekani, a well-known Indian entrepreneur and public figure, leads the committee on deepening digital payments at the Reserve Bank of India. An engineer by training, together with Narayana Murthy and several other entrepreneurs, Nilekani co-founded Infosys, one of India’s most famous and successful companies working in software development and IT consulting. In 2009, Nilekani left Infosys and wrote several books about India’s development and the way he sees its future: Imagining India: The Idea of a Renewed Nation (2009); Rebooting India: Realizing a Billion Aspirations (2015). He also headed the Unique Identification Authority of India, the government body that developed Aadhar, a digital biometric identification system, and introduced it throughout the country; Aadhar has already been mentioned; its importance for India is hard to overestimate. Digitalization has already resulted in tectonic shifts within a very short time-span, no more than 5-7 years, in such areas as India’s e-payments and financial technologies, e-commerce, telemedicine and entertainment. The spread of digital technologies has great significance and potential in such areas as agriculture, education, increasing energy efficiency, regulating employment and the labour market, transportation, logistics and further development of e-government.

Yet, none of that would have been possible had government initiatives not been backed up by the ambitions and strategic approach of another Indian entrepreneur, Mukesh Ambani, who swiftly provided Indians with cheap Internet and accessible smartphones. As he advanced his digital business initiatives, Ambani called upon Narendra Modi’s government to achieve maximum localisation of Indian data in India and spoke about the need to fight a new type of colonialism, the country’s informational enslavement by global corporations, so-called data colonisation. He devoted all his resources to developing a new sovereign digital platform; back in 2016-2017, Ambani already said that data are the new oil and smart data are the new fuel of India’s economy.

Following the sectoral liberalisation at the turn of the 20th-21st century, India created a telecommunication services market characterised by high competition among players (both Indian and international companies) that came to the promising area via partnerships with national bodies holding the requisite licences. By around 2010, most companies working in India saw that their revenues coming from traditional services might potentially drop, so they planned to transition to selling data. None of the many telecommunication companies on India’s market have, however, succeeded in the attempt. The failure stems from several factors, including the policies of the regulator (which decided to change the rules of the game and check the terms and conditions of previously issued licences at a crucial time for the sector) and appearance of a new player with the requisite resources, who was willing to spend them on achieving his large-scale goals. That player was Mukesh Ambani and his company called Jio. The history of Ambani’s family business is an integral and characteristic part of India’s economy, and the development track of his companies, including Jio, is regularly discussed in business media and is the subject of several business cases in the world’s leading schools.

Dhirubhai Ambani, the father of Mukesh Ambani and Anil Ambani, launched his business empire in 1957 with a small Bombay-based company importing synthetic fibers and exporting spices. In 1977, following its successful IPO, Dhirubhai Ambani’s Reliance Group became synonymous with business success and guaranteed financial investment for many Indians. The company did not confine itself to the textile business and became a diversified holding that also worked in exploring and developing hydrocarbons, in oil processing, petrochemicals, as well as energy, finances, trade and other areas. In fewer than 30 years, Reliance Group became a fixture of Fortune Global 500 and India’s biggest private company, rivalling such famous family holdings as Tata, Birla, Godrej, Mahindra. Dhirubhai Ambani died in 2002, leaving his sons a multibillion fortune. The brothers Anil and Mukesh engaged in a series of high-profile and unrestrained quarrels that resulted in Reliance Group’s assets being split in 2006. The telecommunication company Mukesh Ambani formed in 2002 had to be transferred, among others, to Anil, but Mukesh had the powerful oil processing business left under his control. His company was now called Reliance Industries. Its assets included the famous high-tech complex in Jamnagar (Gujarat State) processing up to 1.4 million barrels of oil a day. 2010 marked an important stage in this story, when the brothers agreed on revising the terms and timeframe for the non-compete agreements, and subsequently, Mukesh had a chance to announce openly his intentions to embark on a qualitatively new approach to the telecommunication business.

It took Mukesh Ambani about six years to create a new company named Jio (Hindi for “live”). It was officially launched in September 2016. Back then, its telecommunication rivals realised that their already difficult situation would become far worse following the emergence of a powerful new player, but hardly anyone could imagine the cardinal and radical changes in store for the sector. India’s normally very active anti-monopoly agency, as well as other supervisory bodies, were prepared to close their eyes to many controversial points, since Ambani’s goals of swiftly spreading accessible Internet coincided with the course for digitalization steered by the government, while his statements that Indians’ data must be kept in India were very appealing for India’s political leadership. As of today, there are only two big players left in India’s telecommunication sector besides Jio, and these two are in a deep financial crisis. India’s government had to bail out both these companies by allowing large-scale foreign investment and by permitting all players to raise the prices for their services slightly, which had, over the last few years, fallen to an unprecedented low (between 2013 and 2017, the cost of 1 GB of data in India fell by 95%).

Today, Reliance Jio is part of the Jio Platforms holding company formed in 2019 as part of Reliance Industries. Mukesh Ambani’s two elder children hold top managerial positions in the family business. His son Akash, a graduate of Brown University, is in charge of strategy in Reliance Jio, while his daughter Isha, who graduated from Yale University, is on the board of directors in Reliance Jio and Reliance Retail.

The infrastructure and entire digital ecosystem of Reliance Jio was created and put into operation in under 2–3 years. The estimated costs of creating Reliance Jio vary between USD 20 and 45 bn., which is approximately the amount of Reliance Industries’ debt increase over the period of creating Jio. At the time of the company’s IPO in 2016, two-thirds of India’s population of over 1.3 bn. had no Internet access. The company set the goals of deploying an efficient 4G network throughout India, including its remotest areas, while securing a large tech margin for future improvements, and of providing its clients with cheap smartphones and access to various contents and services through its own apps. In the first few months of its operations, while the equipment and all systems were being checked, cheap mobile devices under Jio’s own brand were literally handed out to customers free of charge. Later, minimal tariffs were introduced that immediately made India the leader in mobile operator accessibility for both voice services (phone calls were essentially free) and high-speed data transfer. Once sales took off, the company endeavoured to achieve 100 million new clients in the first 100 days, and did not slack off later: in the first two years, Jio had 250 million subscribers, and today it has 388 million. The company plans to reach 500 million users by 2021.

Jio has a large number of apps and services that have quickly become fixtures in the lives of Indians. They include JioTV, JioCinema, JioSaavn (a music service), JioMoney, JioCloud, JioFiber (broadband Internet access service). Jio rather efficiently provided digital functions to the conglomerate’s commercial line: Reliance Retail, which is also the leader in its segment in India. JioMeet, a video call service, is the latest addition to this extensive range of services. Reliance Jio’s contribution to increasing India’s per capita GDP is estimated at 5.65% in 2018.

Internet access is, indeed, changing India’s image and lifestyle before our very eyes. Largely owing to the decisive actions of the Indian businessman Mukesh Ambani, India has, in just a few years, made a qualitative leap in many digitalization-related areas while avoiding many intermediary stages that other countries spent years on. Only Indonesia outstrips India in its digitalization pace. In 2018, only China exceeded India’s number of digital consumers (560 million users). A survey McKinsey conducted in 2019 showed that the pace of data consumption per user in India grew twice as fast as in the US and China, increasing by 152% annually. Various estimates put an Indian user’s average data consumption at up to 9.8 GB of mobile Internet a month (this indicator is 5.5 GB in China, 8–8.5 GB in South Korea, and the 2019 figure in Russia is about the same). The number of Internet users in India was expected to grow by about 40% by 2023, to 750–800 million people, and the number of smartphones is expected to double, reaching 650–700 million (as of 2018, India had 1.2 bn. mobile subscribers). We can be sufficiently confident that new conditions arising from the pandemic will speed up these trends significantly.

The development prospects of India’s digital economy and primarily its consumer segment stimulated an explosive growth of entrepreneurship that also relies on the traditionally strong stratum of Indian IT specialists. In 2017, Indian developers participated in creating over 100 000 apps for the App Store alone, while the total number of such apps is far higher, given that Indian specialists mostly create apps for Android. In the entrepreneurs’ major league, 30 Indian digital high tech companies are unicorns (their capitalisation is over USD 1 bn., and they are still owned by their founders). In 2017, there were ten such companies. The crucial thing is that would-be unicorns in India are also quite numerous: in 2019, there were over 50 potential future champions.

There have always been many difficulties in working on the Indian market. Suffice it to say that, today, the majority of new Internet users in India do not speak English and need interfaces and content in regional languages. The country has 22 such principal languages. WhatsApp, for instance, supports 11 of them. Still, international investors bank on Indian tech companies, which is greatly helped by government bodies constantly working to stimulate the sector’s investment appeal. Companies working in e-commerce, digital payment services, and tourism have long been the leaders in attracting investment among India’s tech startups. A telling recent example of the international capital race for digital India was the USA’s Walmart acquiring Flipkart, one of India’s many digital e-commerce platforms, in May 2018. Walmart had long tried to gain access to India’s offline market, all to no avail, and it finally came to India by buying 77% of Flipkart for USD 16 bn.

Several investment funds of Russian origin are among those making big investments in India. They continue actively selecting new projects for investment and for strategy adjustment, as do other investors.

Companies that appear not to have any tangible assets, not to make any money, and to accrue debt abound not only in developed countries but now in India as well and still continue to increase their investment potential, thus greatly befuddling traditionally-minded financiers. Yet, analysts increasingly have to admit that high-tech digital companies have unique sets of their clients’ big data, which allows these companies to increase their market share and make correct managerial decisions while constantly improving the functions or services they provide.

Big data is becoming more and more important for governments as well. The quality of analytical materials, development of AI technologies and efficiency of modelling processes depend directly on data volume used as learning material; it can be used, among other things, to manage processes and resources in smart homes and cities efficiently. This is the purpose of Smart Cities, one of India’s government programmes. By late 2020, Jio planned to present commercial solutions for the Internet of Things. The company’s technical capabilities make this possible. While the Indian government is only preparing to make the decision on deploying 5G, Mukesh Ambani says that he has already built a new infrastructure capable of working with 6G and he is now striving to make India one of the principal beneficiaries of the 4th industrial revolution. Jio has no rivals in India in its capacity for collecting up-to-date data of Indian consumers and it plans to improve its technologies for their most prompt and precise processing and further use, while simultaneously developing cloud computing, smart devices, blockchain, augmented reality and more.

The current crisis arising from the pandemic is both shaping new consumer habits and bolstering demand for qualitative changes in approaches to the future economic development of many countries. This is also important for Russia, where, despite all the efforts to diversify its economy, there still remains the threat linked to dependency on commodity exports and the high energy intensity of other Russian exports. And it is also important for India, where 80% of its economy depends on imports of coal, oil and gas.

It was previously announced that 20% in Reliance Industries’ petrochemical business would be sold to Saudi Aramco, Saudi Arabia’s oil giant, for USD 15 bn. With oil prices falling to record lows, however, in March the deal fell through.

Instead of the Saudi Aramco deal, Jio Platforms finalised three different sales: 9.99% was sold to Facebook for USD 5.7 bn., 2.32% of Jio Platforms is now owned by the Vista Equity Partners investment fund (the stock is worth USD 1.5 bn.), and an additional 1.15% of the company’s stock was purchased by investors at Silver Lake Partners for USD 747 m. Mukesh Ambani still holds 86.54% of the company. Other deals with other investors are likely to follow, which will allow the Indian businessman finally to pay off Reliance Industries’ debt (about USD 8 bn.) by March 2021, without losing control of Jio Platforms, just as he planned.

In their official statements concerning the deals, all the participants, including Mukesh Ambani and Mark Zuckerberg, emphasize their confidence in the promising Indian market and in Jio Platforms’ potential. In full accord with the expectations of the Indian government and regular Indian citizens, they say that the new collaboration does not entail data exchange between partner companies. Jio, Facebook, Vista and Silver Lake also say they intend to use their technologies for the benefit of India’s small and medium-sized businesses by connecting such entrepreneurs more actively to e-commerce platforms. They are talking street trade and the so-called kiranas, typical Indian “neighbourhood” grocery stores; they will be able to find a more efficient digital way to meet their customers’ demand. Facebook-owned WhatsApp, which is very popular in India, is expected to play an important role in this process. If talks with the regulator concerning granting WhatsApp payment-making functions are successful, then, by pooling efforts with JioMart, the company will be able to expand both sellers and buyers’ capabilities significantly and compete with India’s most widespread fintech service PayTM, whose investors include Alibaba Group (the Chinese company owns 40% in PayTM).

India, with its 300 million users, is Facebook’s biggest market. WhatsApp has over 400 million users in India. As for the two other investors in JioPlatforms, Vista Equity Partners is noted for its major presence in India’s tech sector: its Indian companies have over 13,000 employees, while its co-founder Brian Sheth is a native of Gujarat, like Mukesh Ambani and Narendra Modi. Like Vista, Silver Lake is based in Silicon Valley and has already invested over USD 40 bn. in tech companies such as Airbnb, Alibaba, Ant Financial owned by Alphabet Verily and Waymo, and also Dell Technologies and Twitter.

Observers with a lively imagination have long since noticed that the company’s name, Jio, is a mirror image of the word “oil.” It is not known for certain whether this is by its founder’s design, but the events of the last few months and transactions around Jio Platforms confirm that, instead of demand for oil, the world is demonstrating a growing demand for innovations. Consequently, compared to other countries, India has every chance of becoming part of the process and a big-time winner. Russia’s business cooperation with India needs, like never before, to have its current realities supplemented in new formats, be it financial technologies, information security, artificial intelligence, sustainable energy infrastructure, advanced materials or other innovative areas.

From our partner RIAC

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Business and the State: Together into the Brave “Cyber World”?

Anastasia Tolstukhina

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Traditionally, private companies have advocated minimal government intervention into their activities. Yet, starting in 2019, the situation began to change radically. Today, global business is openly calling for stronger government cyberspace regulation.

 “The government needs to get involved… there will be more regulation of the tech sector”, Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft, said in October 2019 to the Bloomberg news agency. A bit earlier, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg publicly voiced the same idea. Tech giants are calling on Western governments to be more actively involved in regulating confidential data protection, suppressing attempted election meddling, dealing with harmful content, and handling data portability.

Let us try to identify the factors that prompt businesses to call for increased regulation and to be willing to work together with governments on creating new technical regulations.

First, tech companies face major user confidence issues. Recently, a series of scandalous leaks rocked Facebook, Google, and other technology companies, including Microsoft. These leaks affected tens of millions of users. Facebook was massively criticized by the government and individuals, which accused the platform of focusing insufficient attention on hate speech on the social network, this having allegedly affected the outcome of the 2016 US presidential elections. Bill Gates believes that government resolutions can help ensure confidence in the information that is being widely disseminated through online platforms.

Second, it is important for tech companies to bring government requirements (particularly in western states) to a single standard: that is, to give easily understandable shape to confidentiality policy, as well as to security and protection standards. For instance, Apple supports global confidentiality rules, while Microsoft proposes restrictions on face recognition technology. A single standard always makes it easier to do business.

Third, if single standards and rules are developed, those companies that fail to comply may be held accountable. This is an excellent way to consolidate one’s market standing and undermine competitors.

Finally, by calling for government regulations, companies will be able not merely to join the process of drafting rules that suit them, but to take the lead in this, especially since they have the groundwork already laid out. Now they only need to advance and legally enshrine it. We should note that, recently, the biggest tech companies have gained sufficient experience in advancing various initiatives for shaping cyberspace rules of conduct and boosting the mechanisms for protecting the Internet against various types of threat, be it dissemination of illegal content or cyberattacks on the digital infrastructure. We may mention the Digital Geneva Convention, the Charter of Trust and the Cybersecurity Tech Accord. One of the latest initiatives launched by major IT corporations and several charitable foundations is the CyberPeace Institute, which aims to help cybercrime victims and encourage responsible conduct in cyberspace.

At the same time, many politicians and experts are wary about business’s active stance in regulating cyberspace. At the 14 th Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in November 2019, Germany’s Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel criticized IT giants saying, “This raises the danger that global companies might build up parallel worlds – with their own rules and standards – which they will then try to impose on others.”

Big Tech’s growing influence is the problem broached at the latest World Economic Forum in Davos. Much was said about losing control over infotech giants and the danger of AI’s digital dictatorship. For instance, historian and philosopher Yuval Noah Harari emphasized in his speech, “What will be the meaning of human life when most decisions are taken by algorithms? We don’t even have philosophical models to understand such an existence. … The twin revolutions of infotech and biotech are now giving politicians the means to create heaven or hell.” The general message of the Forum was the importance of regulating the latest technologies by having all stakeholders establish the rules of the game.

Another example of the regulators’ wary attitude toward initiatives proposed by business is the trip to Brussels by Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg in February 2020. At a meeting with European commissioners, he attempted to propose a package of regulatory initiatives in AI, data and digital services. In particular, Mr Zuckerberg presented a 13-page document on content regulation called “Charting the Way Forward: Online Content Regulation.” It proposed implementing not a national but a global policy on allowed Internet content. The head of Facebook believes that Internet companies should either not be held accountable for the content uploaded thereon or freedom of speech should be curtailed. However, European Commissioner Thierry Breton aptly reminded Mark Zuckerberg that it is the companies that should comply with the EU’s rules and not vice versa. The commissioner also noted that Facebook had been slow in proposing ideas for removing illegal content and warned that the EU was ready to go into action on this.

Certainly, such statements do not mean that European officials do not wish to cooperate with tech companies in information security. For instance, Vera Jourova, Vice-President of the European Commission for Values and Transparency, calls upon such companies as Facebook to make additional efforts and help states protect democracy. She proposes that, for this purpose, “black box” algorithms be opened for “auditing” by researchers and other concerned parties so that the public might have a better understanding of what and how it consumes via the Internet.

If we move to the American continent, we see there some individual proposals on helping business in matters of information security. For instance, the Cyberspace Solarium Commission believes that the US government should prioritize major support for the private sector in ensuring the critical information infrastructure (CII) security. The thing is that, today, infrastructural facilities mostly depend on private companies for their cybersecurity, while the US government plays just a supporting role. The Commission proposes creating a multilevel cyber deterrent strategy involving a reconfiguring of public-private partnership.

Given today’s situation, with states waging true digital wars, carrying out cyberattacks on critical infrastructure, spreading fakes and dangerous content on a mass scale, and using AI technologies more and more often, we can predict a spike in government regulation and cyberspace control in western states. Even so, the major issue is the degree to which the interests of IT giants will be taken into account; in creating a “cyber frontline”, regulators will demand that Silicon Valley leaders be more transparent about how their algorithms work, demonstrate greater accountability and exchange information; governments will also set additional requirements on digital infrastructure protection.

From our partner RIAC

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The shift to online learning and skills training shows promising trends and troubling signs

Jeannette Sanchez

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The COVID-19 pandemic has triggered an abrupt transition to distance education, training and e-learning. The crisis has resulted in massive shifts to online platforms and tools for the continued delivery of learning and skills development, which have shown both promising trends and troubling signs.

Among those signs, the evidence that, while much is being made of digital learning making access more equitable, access to online platforms doesn’t always result in equal quality learning. Women, for example, are being disproportionately cut off from distance learning due to lack of childcare or home help during the pandemic.

These were among some of the main conclusions emerging from a recent E-Discussion on “Continuing online learning and skills development in times of the COVID-19 crisis”, organized by the ILO’s Skills and Employability Branch through its Global Skills for Employment Knowledge Sharing Platform.

For more than two weeks, the virtual discussion drew scores of practitioners, representatives of training institutions and policy-makers from around the world who shared their experiences regarding the impact of the pandemic, highlighted challenges that have emerged for education and training and offered solutions for tackling them.

Challenges included: instructors not properly trained and prepared to deliver online courses. Difficulties in adapting TVET (Technical and Vocational Education and Training) curricula and training to online formats. Lack of access to the internet or ICT (Information and communications technology) equipment to carry out learning or training. Apprentices ready for assessment but who couldn’t be assessed due to COVID-19 issues. Students unable to access the resources necessary to continue their training because they were not familiar with online platforms.

Yet, despite these challenges, students, apprentices, providers of TVET, and policy-makers are making the important changes needed when it comes to learning and acquiring skills in times of crisis.

For example, in Uruguay, INEFOP (Instituto Nacional de Empleo y Formación Profesional) developed a contingency plan calling for proposals from institutions that wanted to work in distance and semi-presence courses. Based on this, a table was created to study the methodology of moving from face-to-face courses to online formats.

In Bangladesh, the Skill 21 project, a joint initiative of the government and the ILO, is developing an e-campus which would be the first online learning management platform for the TVET sector in the country.

In England, the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) is taking steps to ensure that, wherever possible, apprentices can continue and complete their apprenticeship, despite any break they need to take as a result of COVID-19.

New forms of partnerships are also emerging. In Syria, for example, a partnership established with IECD, a development assistance organization, is being repackaged to include e-learning, and to develop videos on recent training programmes in construction, agriculture and manufacturing.

In the future, skills that can easily be acquired and strengthened via distance learning during this pandemic could change the landscape of work for the coming generation.

In the near-term, we need to think about the “new” skills required by industry and employers post-COVID-19 to get people back into employment quickly. These might encompass short courses and/or skill sets that are targeted. In the long-term, hiring remote workers could become more commonplace.

One thing seems clear: Giving informal education a more privileged spot in the lifelong learning concept to ensure better validation of skills will be critically important when we emerge from this crisis.

ILO

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