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Two days in Panama City: LatAm and Caribbean report

Hosted by Millicom and the Inter-American Development Bank, the annual IIC Latin America and Caribbean Forum took place for the first time in Panama City, Panama on 16 and 17 May. CRISTINA MURRONI reports on debates covering digital infrastructure, the creative economy and AI

Mapping digital infrastructure

The forum began with a debate on digital infrastructure, including the idea of creating a visual map to understand where gaps are located and how far the infrastructure actually reaches. This dynamic geo-referenced tool can help banks and the private sector support public investments where the market has not brought about connectivity. It can be used at various levels: regional, national and local. The model also produces relevant financial information for achieving the objectives such as the capex and opex required,  the likely future revenue from the new infrastructure and the economic impacts associated with each design project. This enables users to determine the public contribution necessary to connect those zones. It can also work in reverse and determine the best way to spend a given budget by ranking alternatives and creating priorities.

Closing the digital divide: what’s working, what isn’t and how to make progress

The panel began by highlighting the role different technologies can play in bridging the digital gap, pointing at examples where 5G providers collaborated with international bodies and local governments in order to reach the desired scale. While a private-public partnership is essential, successful policies can come in different shapes, from USO funds to spectrum auctions with coverage obligations set into the licences. Another panellist explored the merits of satellite connectivity for reaching isolated communities that may not yet have a stable power supply. The panel reiterated the need for a market analysis of both demand and supply before designing public policies. Demand issues can be addressed through digital capability programmes that are rolled out nationally: one panellist described a public programme specifically targeted at women, which provides them with a basic income for the duration of the course they attend. To ensure the participation of local communities that may oppose the new technology on the basis of environmental or health concerns, a centrally compiled best practice code shows the ways telecommunications have been used to address key barriers. The panel agreed that USO funds should be earmarked primarily for connectivity, rather than used for a range of projects as they have been in the past.

Closing the funding gap

As one panellist put it, when it comes to investment, the Latin American region is about 30 years behind leading OECD countries. Despite this, for many speakers the biggest challenges are not about finding the money: they relate to governments’ capacity to adopt the right policies to spearhead investment and to balance the new opportunities with protection from the risks that come with them. Without cyber security, spectrum policies and a framework for shared access to infrastructure it was argued that investments are not sustainable. The full framework of digital and technical skills that will contribute to the process of transformation needs to be in place. Panellists from the mobile industry observed that regulatory frameworks are often inspired by analysis conducted 20 or 30 years ago and a poor understanding of the market’s dynamics frequently leads to short-lived entries from new operators. To address some of these concerns in one of the region’s largest markets, an alliance of digital providers and users from healthcare, education and the tech sector is conducting user studies and contributing to the national debate about the need to charge network fees. It found that the telecoms sector is thriving and there is no evidence of the (often-mentioned) traffic explosion threatening the sustainability of investment.

One panellist called for collaboration to redress the asymmetry between network owners and the intensive users that are responsible for 60 to 80 per cent of network usage. It should help to find new funding models that allow the expansion of these networks, perhaps looking at the entire value chain rather than just focussing on connectivity providers.

Promoting competition in digital markets

Fostering local players, it was suggested, would be a better solution than regulation as it creates the conditions for more stakeholders and local entrepreneurs and hence increases competition. Another panellist focussed on the unequal playing field emerging with OTT content platforms which contribute little to local infrastructure, generate large revenues locally but export the profits. The solution, according to this view, is to create a service-neutral regulatory framework that redresses the imbalance and requires the platforms to contribute to the host country’s infrastructure. Another panellist argued that in dynamic tech markets it might be too difficult to foresee what anti-competitive behaviour may look like and thus design the appropriate ex ante regulation. Another speaker highlighted the need to consider the entire value chain when looking at potentially anti-competitive behaviour, because a dominant position may exist in one segment and percolate along the chain. The consensus was that each population segment and geography require a different business model facilitated by a suitable regulatory structure.

The creative economy: socio-economic development and soft power

This debate considered the components of a national audio-visual strategy that are necessary for a ‘creative powerhouse’. The policy foundations include governance, public-private collaboration, evidence-led strategy and incentives through funding and regulation. A speaker described the experience of their country, where direct subsidies are fed into production so that domestic companies can work with the large global companies like Netflix or Paramount. Another instrument is the cash rebates given to foreign producers that shoot in the country, which can reach up to 40 per cent if the production takes place outside the capital city. However, there is international competition in this area, with many countries providing incentives to local production. It was noted that, in order to create a socio-economic impact from the audio-visual industry, a one-off success story would not be sufficient, but it is difficult to build a sustainable local industry. One area where the public and private sector come together is in the fight against pirated content, which is a major issue in the region. Investment in anti-pirate technology by the private sector and its use by the public sector are interesting developments in this area, including automated dynamic blocking tools which target not just the main domain, but also a range of variants of the domain name in order to stop it from ‘mutating’ into different websites and escape the blocking tool.

Artificial intelligence: creating an enabling but safe environment

The Latin American continent has been very active on the AI regulation front, with several workshops on regulating AI systems and hundreds of proposed new laws across several countries.  AI regulation is developing along similar lines to the EU framework. A speaker observed that the emergence of AI marks the first time the continent has had access to a nascent technology at the same time as the more developed countries in the world, noting that this could bring great opportunities. Local governments want to bring in robust regulation at the same time as wanting to create an environment for the development of local start-ups. However, the market needs clean, good quality data sets, up-to-date networks and greater capacity before the benefits of artificial intelligence will be seen.

The session turned to regulation. While each country should be doing its own stakeholder consultation, the panel argued, the AI framework should focus on four key pillars. The first pillar is the development strategy for AI: creating capabilities for citizens in order for them to take advantage of AI tools and creating talent for the development of technologies. The second pillar is participation in the development of technology. The third pillar is the adoption of technology and the fourth is regulation. Regulation should guarantee that AI is used ethically and with respect for personal data and privacy. Ideally, what is needed is flexible regulation that allows for innovation and that is precise enough that it provides legal certainty and guarantees. It needs to be risk-based but also flexible, based on the context – face recognition for surveillance is a different proposition from face recognition to find missing children, for example. Face recognition itself is neither good nor bad.

Trust and authenticity in online content

It was noted that the EU’s Digital Services Act (DSA) now places the onus on large platforms to put systems in place that mitigate the risk of disseminating content likely to harm the integrity of elections, the public discourse or public health. There is a duty to label deepfakes, so that users are aware that they are fakes, and to watermark them – as well as a duty for algorithms to be transparent. The panel felt that this development will benefit all countries that use those platforms, since it will force the platforms to develop those tools.

A speaker for a global platform highlighted the need for stakeholders to work together to combat disinformation, explaining that transparency is one of the key tools they use to empower individuals when they are exposed to paid political advertising, for example. This information remains available for seven years. In the last year, the speaker said, his platform had eliminated over 2.6 billion fake accounts and dismantled more than 200 networks of inauthentic behaviour. In addition, advertisers who use digitally generated content in their ads have to declare so with a disclaimer in the advertisement.

Cybersecurity risks and realities

The opening speech underlined the importance of the human element in all security incidents. A recent study revealed that nearly 70 per cent of cybersecurity incidents are due to human error. The number of incidents is rising every year, increasing on average by 125 per cent. In Latin America,  laws and the efforts of the authorities, are fragmented. Only 90 countries in the world have an active incident response centre and a national cybersecurity strategy. One speaker reported on the efforts of an island country: in its national digital strategy it gave priority to cybersecurity and digital innovation as ‘cross-cutting axes’ and mandated cybersecurity by design. Training is a valuable tool to combat cyber attacks and it should be developed in collaboration between government, businesses and other stakeholders. To address attacks that span more than one jurisdiction, many countries signed the Budapest Convention, also known as the Cyber Crime Convention.1

With thanks to the event sponsors, Apple, Frontier Economics and Liberty Latin America.

1 See