Sunday, November 9, 2008

Change is Coming

At first the topic of internet governance was intimidating. It is a subject that I previously did not know much about, and seemed like a complex concept to explore. What I know now is that it truly is not a black and white issue.

Looking at the topic superficially, I learned that the distribution of domain names and IP addresses is handled by a predominantly American led institution. ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers ) is ideally set up as an internationally influenced body, but just like many things, does not function true to the manner in which it was created. It is mainly a self governing body, but does function under the oversight of the U.S. Congress. Additional consulting groups and institutions also play a role in internet governance, but hardly give a substantial voice to the international community.

There are several concerns held relating to the internet and its future direction. Some fear that industry giants will use the internet to create monopolies. Others feel that corporations will seek control of the internet, limiting freedoms of access to its users. Still others see an evident gap in the digital divide, that only promises to rise as a new 'broadband divide' rises up. Lastly, the age old fear of too much government control comes in place, sadly with instances already present in our country (US Patriot Act, Homeland Security Act). Are these legitimate fears? Yes. The question is, will they be realized?

That is why I wanted to take a closer look into the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS). This United Nations hosted event was a leap towards determining the future of the internet and the role it is now playing, and will play, in our world. At this conference, the new face of the internet gave birth. Nations of the world came together and established a declaration of principles, stating our need for a people centered, development oriented information society, accessible to all people, and based on a shared wealth of knowledge.They focused on the universality of human rights and how that related to the uses and benefits of a world connected by the internet. Bridging the digital divide was a pressing matter voiced by many nations. And coming to the topic of internet governance, it was made clear that the international body wanted a piece of the pie. The world is no longer satisfied with America taking claim to the internet. It is viewed as a global facility, a public good that should be available to all. "A democratic, international, multilateral effort managed by governments, the private sector, and civil society/international organizations.

So when I say "change is coming", it is clear that I take this from the voice of the nations of this world. Universal and affordable internet access is desired. The prosecution of malicious cyber crimes is being pursued. A Digital Solidarity Fund has been established to fund the closing of the Digital Divide. I really enjoyed the fact that so many came together with the desire to make the internet a positive tool for social change. I know that there are many that wish to exploit its uses and take advantage of others for personal gain, but thankfully that has not been my focus in this project.

During the Q&A and discussion question time, I felt that the heart and purpose of my presentation really came out. What started out as a simple time for questions and clarification turned into something greater. Individuals didn't just fire questions at me, but engaged the rest of the class and I in a true discussion. I posed the class with the question, "Do you see the internet as a public service, and therefore should be provided for free by the government?" It was really interesting to see people's perspectives on this issue come out. Subsequently, a new interpretation of the purpose of the internet came forth that I really took to. One student posed that no, the internet should not be a free commodity provided to citizens by the government, but that access to the internet should be available to all who may choose to use it. This would mean that every nation would provide its citizens the opportunity to take advantage of the internet if they chose to do so. This is currently available in public libraries and internet cafe's, but mainly in more developed, prosperous nations. It is the struggling, up and coming countries that this would have a larger effect on. On the contrary, the class also made it clear that there were definitely more pressing global issues, such as the simple need for clean water, that take more importance than having online access. Although I agree, I also feel that the internet is becoming an increasingly necessary tool to keep up with developed nations. As we incorporate the internet into our government, health systems, school systems, business and personal lives, we shouldn't leave other behind if we can do something about it. Again, I know that these hopes are lofty, and quite idealistic. But the Digital Divide is real, and it's effects are too. It is promising that the nations that assembled at the WSIS agreed that those of us who are blessed with certain benefits (from basic human needs to comfort items and internet access) should try to bring those benefits to those who do not have them.

Below are just a few links to websites that I felt would be helpful if you wish to find out more about internet governance, and more specifically, the WSIS. You can take a look at the conference summary and several other helpful documents. And no, Wikipedia isn't a 'primary source', but if you want a quick look at the issues, it's quite handy. Good luck, and thank you for your input and insight into my presentation.

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