The internet equals power

2012-08-26 09:10
Ory Okolloh
Open access must be protected for growth

When a potato disease ravaged Kenya, farmer Zack Matere searched “potato disease” on the internet and discovered that ants were eating his potato stems.

The website gave Matere a cure – sprinkling wood ash on the crop.

Two months later, his potatoes were in good shape and Matere knew it was time to invest in the internet.

Online, he found a local buyer for his rescued crop. He now uses an internet-enabled phone to get real-time potato prices.

As Matere’s story testifies, the internet represents a powerful force for economic development.

Yet the internet’s very success in giving all of us unprecedented access to information has generated a worrying backlash.

The number of governments that censor internet content has grown to 40 today from only four in 2002.

This number is still growing, threatening to take away the internet as you and I have known it.

The next battle for Web control will take place in an international institution, the Geneva-based International Telecommunications Union.

All of us salute the union’s excellent work in the telecommunications space.

It has set standards that encourage investment in infrastructure and ensure that a call made from Europe or America connects smoothly anywhere in the world.

But the union now aims to expand its jurisdiction to the internet.

Why be concerned?

While the ambition of bringing the internet to everyone on our planet is noble, many International Telecommunications Union proposals threaten to end up hurting those who need the Web most and those who have the least access to it.

Several proposals claiming to benefit users in less developed countries would in fact end up raising the cost for Kenyan farmer Matere and others like him.

Here’s how. Traffic over the internet flows today through unregulated commercial agreements.

All internet users are treated alike – be it a Kenyan small business owner or a Californian venture capitalist.

Some propose replacing this successful system with formal interconnection agreements, requiring senders to pay for traffic.

Under such a model, internet access would resemble international telephone access, with its high rates.

If networks serving Kenya need to pay interconnect fees, they will have to charge substantially more to serve any business that generates a growing volume of traffic.

Many internet service providers would attempt to limit connections to countries with high termination fees – most likely the world’s poorest countries. The digital divide would widen.

To be fair, some of the concerns that are to be raised at the International Telecommunications Union Dubai conference on the shortfalls of the current internet governance framework are valid.

Reform of the current multistakeholder process is necessary to ensure that regions like Africa receive a fair say.

The Internet Governance Forum, which brings together NGOs, government officials and companies, needs to do a better job of including representatives from Africa, Latin America and Asia, and addressing their issues.

Even so, the bottom-up, civil society-run internet gives access to the global marketplace to the smallest, most remote business.

Safeguarding this open internet represents a key factor in driving economic and social success.

Freedom House’s ratings on press and internet freedom are correlated against various UN measurements of economic and social success, GDP, innovation, number of patents filed and educational attainment.

The more freedom, the more information, the more choice and ultimately the more power for each individual – whether in the US or Africa. Let’s make sure the internet stays open to those who need it most.

» Okolloh is Google’s policy and government relations manager for sub-Saharan Africa