Future of the internet at a crossroads
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Future of the internet at a crossroads

The future of the internet is up for grabs this week at a major decision-making conclave in Dubai. The outcome of the meeting is particularly important for countries in Asia Pacific, which would be wise to resist a power grab that threatens this critical lifeline industry.

Representatives of more than 190 countries will convene as an official body, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), in Dubai. It is the first time the ITU has assembled to write critical new rules since 1988.

Today, the internet has reached a crossroads, and decisions made this month could set it on a distinctly new path. Most worrisome are proposals from several African and Arab states as well as Russia and India that, if implemented, would raise the cost of access to the internet and limit the spread of knowledge, services and applications to citizens in developing countries.

Economically, the long period without internet regulation by a central body has been all to the good.  A major reason the internet has thrived since 1988 is that it has been run with a multi-stakeholder approach, with non-government organizations, businesses, and governments collaborating to set policies that govern the internet.  Engineers, whose main interest is having the internet work more efficiently, make the key decisions.

The internet comprises 40,000 independently owned networks that connect with other networks through 425,000 unique pathways. This complex web has always worked by allowing network operators to make “whatever sustainable interconnection agreements they wish to make, provided they can get the other party or parties to the connection to agree to their terms”.

That quotation is from the Internet Society, a 20-year-old organistation that supports the Internet’s established and successful model of cooperation among many parties.

In a study by the international consulting firm Analysys Mason, economist Michael Kende projects that the large number of global Internet users will increase from 2.2 billion today to 3.5 billion by 2020 — in large part because of this proven multi-stakeholder model.  Asia has benefited the most. In 2000, Asians represented a bit less than one-third of global internet users; today the proportion is more than half.

That could change. Representatives in Dubai will have the power to write a new set of International Telecommunications Regulations, or ITRs, which amount to a binding treaty. Some of the proposed rules, such as those from Africa and the Middle East, would give the ITU much more power over internet governance.

These troubling proposals could depress growth in Asia where the internet is increasingly critical to economic dynamism. After all, there are already 123 million Internet users across Asean, and Thailand alone boasts an internet penetration rate close to 60%.

This helps explain, for example, why Thailand’s Information and Communication Technology Minister noted in October the need for Thai officials and the Thai people to deliberate extensively before the country settles on its position before the meeting in Dubai in December.  With so much at stake, such consultations are wise and will ensure that the country’s Internet users and industry’s interests are taken into account.

The ITU would be setting a terrible precedent by legitimising a major centralised, intergovernmental role in controlling networks that have been successfully working voluntarily with their peers. Once a global government authority gets in the door, the result will be a more cumbersome and costly internet.

Who suffers in such an environment? Well, almost everyone, but the biggest losers will be people of the Asia-Pacific region and other citizens of aspiring nations that have benefited from an open internet environment dominated by cost-cutting and innovation.

As Rohan Samarajiva, a former Sri Lankan director-general for telecommunications, recently wrote, “A new, great digital divide will emerge, one that … begins to leave Southeast Asia behind.”

At this crossroads, one path leads to a new global internet governance regime; the other, which is the path developing nations have been on for the past three decades, follows the principles of free markets, free choices, and prosperity. Governments from the Asia-Pacific region should stand up for the billions of internet users and stay on that path.

James K. Glassman was formerly the US Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. He writes frequently about technology and the economy.

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