Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today Sunday newspaper on 14 October 2012
The battle to keep the Internet open and free is being fought on several fronts, and for a whole range of reasons – from access to knowledge and enabling social justice and to supporting democratic pluralism and market liberalism.
With connectivity spreading and getting cheaper, an estimated 3 million Lankans (15% of population) regularly use the medium. They and their families are slowly but surely tapping its potential for education, skills development and income generation.
As information society takes root, we grapple with post-connectivity challenges. Among them: how to negotiate with self-appointed guardians of culture and morals. The Internet is their favourite whipping boy now.
As with any other medium with diverse content, user discretion is advised. Throwing the baby out with the bathwater is not.
Extending that metaphor, how can we safeguard the info-soc ‘baby’ as she grows? Raise her in a bubble suit, shielded from all dangers? Have her guarded by an overbearing nanny? What other choices?
Every parent’s dilemma is now also a planetary one. Opinion is sharply divided on the best way forward. Two global conferences – dubbed World Summits on Information Society, held in 2003 and 2005 – discussed it from different angles. The debate continues.
Soon, government bureaucrats will have another talkfest: the World Conference on International Telecommunications (abbreviated as WCIT, pronounced “wicket”), held in Dubai from 3 to 14 December 2012.
Rewrite the Rules?
Convened by the UN’s International Telecommunications Union (ITU), it’s a legalistic, treaty-level conference to review the International Telecommunications Regulations (ITRs). These global rules enable our phone calls, SMS, emails and web browsing to move seamlessly through telecom networks across borders.
ITRs were last revised at a similar event in Melbourne, Australia, back in 1988. The quarter century since has seen the most dramatic changes in information and communications technologies (ICTs). Thanks to the mobile revolution, phones have come within reach of most. Over 2.3 billion go online. And these numbers still keep rising.
So the ITU thinks it’s time to change the rules. It has been organising regional meetings and receiving proposals to discuss in Dubai.
All this looks innocuous enough. But diligent researchers and ICT activists are very concerned. The devil, they say, is in the details…
Some proposals, they contend, can radically alter the way data moves around online. The currently open web could get divided and barricaded.
Suddenly, WCIT-12 becomes the most important conference that you’ve never heard of. To be honest, two months ago I hadn’t either. Then I started following an interesting debate initiated by Dr Rohan Samarajiva, who heads LIRNEasia, an ICT policy research organisation (lirneasia.net).
Among the most troubling proposals to WCIT-12, he says, are those from the European Telecommunications Network Operators Association (ETNO) and the Africa Region contribution, submitted by Egypt.
ETNO wants the ITU to designate Internet content providers as “call originators” and then subject them to a “sending party network pays” (SPNP) rule. That would allow telecom operators to charge content providers with rates that vary on how graphics-rich or data-heavy the latter’s content is.
Not all web content is equal. Watching a YouTube video, for example, moves far more data (and consumes higher bandwidth) than a text only article. Facebooking or photo sharing aren’t particularly light either.
This hasn’t been an issue until now. For technical and economic reasons, most web content is hosted on servers in the West, but the web users are increasingly in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Even our own content is often parked in Europe or North America. In the globalised world, that hasn’t been an issue – until now.
But if ETNO has its way, access could become more expensive as content providers will be forced to pass along costs, cautions Samarajiva. For millions of poor who are just getting on the information superhighway, this can mean: ‘Road Closed’.
“In the short-to-medium term, paywalls will result in the exclusion of the great majority of people from the developing world. Not only because they cannot pay, but because they do not have the means of making the payments: internationally recognized credit cards,” he says.
Another scenario: content providers – like Facebook or YouTube — may just terminate connections with Internet service providers (ISPs) in countries where people have limited buying power or lack payment mechanisms. Net result: the Internet gets “balkanized”, with some countries cut off from large swaths of web content.
Cynics might ask: Didn’t we manage fine till the web tuned up a generation ago? Samarajiva, an infrastructure specialist and one time telecom regulator in Sri Lanka, sees it as a ‘giant step backward’. (Read his full critique.)
He explains: “Loss of this access to content and applications, given the role played by the Internet in supporting these countries’ transitions from low-income to middle-income economies, could cost them billions of dollars in lost growth.”
He takes the example of the Khan Academy (www.khanacademy.org), which delivers video lectures and tutorials on a wide range of subjects – covering the arts, commerce and science – all hosted on YouTube. It is run by a non-profit educational organisation set up in 2006 by Bangladeshi-American, Salman Khan, for “providing a high quality education to anyone, anywhere”.
Eager young people in Africa, Asia and elsewhere can watch over 3,400 (and growing) lectures on Khan Academy for free – their only cost is to a local ISP for broadband access. But if a new rule requires YouTube to pay local ISPs for a little girl in, say, Mahawilachchiya watching a Khan lecture, YouTube (now owned by Google) might demand user payment — or simply disallow their service.
Referring to the web giants like Google and Facebook, Samarajiva says: “Their business model today is basically an advertiser-driven, numbers-driven business model where we (in the developing world) are not fundamentally important to their revenue streams BUT we are (also) not unimportant. We are part of the equation at least as future prospects.”
That kind of advertising based model relies on audience aggregation and an open Internet. A balkanised Internet, in contrast, would require many such models to be completely redone.
It doesn’t stop there. The Internet Society, a global professional body that promotes an open Internet, cautions that SPNP would require the whole Internet to be re-engineered. Read their concerns at: http://www.internetsociety.org/wcit
The Internet and its graphical interface the web have evolved organically and incrementally – but not quite chaotically. There is a method to the seeming digital madness. Thousands of geeks work 24/7 to ensure the back-end infrastructure works across numerous platforms, systems and content types – what is called ‘inter-operability’.
Open and Vibrant
The system trouble shoots as it evolves. American computer scientist Vint Cerf (photo, above), recognised as a father of the Internet, acknowledges how, like almost every major infrastructure, the Internet can also be abused and its users harmed.
Referring to various WCIT proposals in an op-ed written for the New York Times in May, he cautioned: “We must, however, take great care that the cure for these ills does not do more harm than good. The benefits of the open and accessible Internet are nearly incalculable and their loss would wreak significant social and economic damage.”
The challenge is to strike the right balance between safeguards and openness — and not to err too much on the side of caution where it stifles innovation and spontaneity. Greed and fear shouldn’t be the guiding principles…
What is the ‘secret sauce’ that powered the Internet’s runaway success, Cerf asked. His answer: “The Net prospered precisely because governments — for the most part — allowed the Internet to grow organically, with civil society, academia, private sector and voluntary standards bodies collaborating on development, operation and governance.”
Samarajiva agrees on the need to retain the web’s decentralised and participatory character. He also emphasizes the development dimension: the proven ability of ICTs and market liberalisation to push tens of millions out of poverty.
“The ICT story is the greatest public policy success of our times,” he told me in a recent interview. “We have not succeeded in providing drinking water to the people, or transport, or anything in that sense, to the extent that we have succeeded in giving them the use of ICTs.”
His message to governments going to WCIT: “The Internet is not broken. It’s working. Don’t break it!”