Reining in internet will only widen global digital divide

This year could be an important turning point in the history of the internet. A meeting scheduled for December will determine if the globally connected network of networks continues to be a source of robust economic growth, particularly in the developing world; or if a new, great digital divide will emerge, one that benefits wealthy European nations and begins to leave Southeast Asia behind.

E-commerce is thriving in Asia because internet services are affordable.

The World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) will convene in Dubai with internet policymakers and industry leaders from around the globe. The participants will consider changes to the International Telecommunications Regulations, the multinational treaty that governs how information and data travel over the global internet.

The stakes could not be higher, particularly for Asia and for developing countries in this region.

Consider that nearly half of all internet users on the planet today live in Asia. What’s more, this region is also the fastest growing in the world in terms of new internet usage.

A recent article in the Bangkok Post noted that e-commerce in Southeast Asia has exploded over the past few years. This has transformed the region’s economic landscape and its potential.

There are already 123 million internet users across Asean. Thailand alone boasts an internet penetration rate close to 60%.

A growing middle class across Asia is increasingly empowered by broadband and wireless internet access. It also enjoys greater access to credit. This emergent class is flexing its muscles in the digital marketplace.

Despite this rapid recent growth, we are still only in the early stages of Southeast Asia’s online revolution. Nations with large and aspirational populations, including Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and others all have lots of room for continued internet growth. That growth will be even more pronounced thanks to the maturation of mobile computing and social media platforms.

We have only scratched the surface of the liberating potential of the internet for the residents of developing countries. It is not just e-commerce, but education, finance, health, medicine, entrepreneurship and more are all set to be reinvented as access to digital technology deepens and literacy spreads.

That is unless certain proposal by European special interests and other regional actors stifle this growth.

Some of the proposals currently being considered by delegates who will attend the WCIT later this year would fundamentally change the economics associated with the internet. This could result not only in higher prices, but also a lack of access to content.

For example, one proposal being pursued by European telecommunications operators would force online content providers to pay hefty taxes to reach end users across the globe. This means content creators in the wealthy West would favour their home markets and be less inclined to trade their goods in Asia.

Such a move would instantly balkanise the internet. Access to large portions of the world’s information and communications platforms would become a function of how wealthy a nation already happens to be. Such a tax regime would deprive the developing world access to enormous sums of online information, applications, and communications technologies. This means the wealthy West would gain at the expense of the developing South and East.

The recent 15% annual growth rates in e-commerce enjoyed throughout Southeast Asia would be jeopardised by the proposed rules. Those robust growth rates have been made possible by strong international capital flows and foreign direct investments. The proposed rules would make investors more favourably disposed toward mature internet markets where infrastructure has already been developed. The developing world would suffer as a result.

There is no doubt that the rules governing the internet must be updated and modernised in response to the realities of its quarter century of explosive growth. But it is important that all participants reaffirm the multi-stakeholder approach to internet governance that has generated unmatched economic growth and paved the way for foreign investment for the developing world.

Under this model, international non-profit NGOs, academics, engineers, the private sector, and governments negotiate a consensus for standards on usage of the internet. That system is not broken, so the delegates to WCIT should not try to fix it by fundamentally altering it.

Any changes to the way the internet is governed must take into account the tens of millions of current users across Asia. But they must also take into account the interests of the hundreds of millions of Asians in developing countries who are not yet full participants in the digital ecosystem.