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WSIS, Development, and Internet Governance: A Plea for ‘Star Trek’ over ‘Mad Max’

Humanity continues to find itself at a crossroads. Ahead of us lies an uncertain future filled with predictions of imminent doom and ominous prospects along with the wonders of science and technology. Behind us lies a century marked paradoxically by both devastating global conflicts and unparalleled global collaboration. As societies continue to globalize, we are increasingly becoming more connected—to the point where it is difficult, if not impossible, to divorce ourselves from the interconnectivity in contemporary systems of commerce, economics, politics, and culture. Keeping this reality in mind, I view ensuring broad development and advancement across a host of social indicators, including class, nationality, and geographic location, as one of humanity’s primary responsibilities for itself. Such responsibility stems from a deeply rooted, if not cringeworthily idealistic, motivating belief I hold that if the basic needs of more individuals around the world are ensured—especially those in low- and middle-income countries—we can collectively focus more time, energy, and human capacity toward a universal goal of progress to protect, in the words of Elon Musk, the “light of consciousness.”

The fact that it is much more difficult for someone to ponder the universe when their stomach is empty is self-evident. The same is true in environments when women and girls must travel for two hours one-way to collect water (that is often contaminated), or when individuals in positions of power siphon aid money that is meant to educate children or provide healthcare to communities. Indeed, much work needs to be done across many developmental indicators to continue to inspire hope for a better future so that we can foster a world similar to “Star Trek” and avoid one resembling “Mad Max.” Yet, when it comes to the role of technology vis-à-vis development, it is also undeniable that the internet and information and communication technologies (ICTs) can help empower people with the wealth of humanity’s accumulated knowledge.

Development will continue to take center stage at various internet governance (IG) fora, discussions, and processes this year in light of the United Nations adopting 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in September 2015, including a target regarding access to ICTs, as well as the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) Multistakeholder Advisory Group (MAG) choosing the theme “Enabling Inclusive and Sustainable Growth” for IGF 11 and the overwhelming consensus to support the World Summit for the Information Society (WSIS) process. And as access becomes more ubiquitous, the internet and ICTs can provide a key tool for development. In particular, as one author suggests, it can engage youth and include them in the development process; identify resources and map patterns for better decision making or public action (such as with Ushahidi); quickly gather information to aid in the investigation or dissemination of information or instructions, e.g., with disease outbreaks such as the Ebola crisis or natural disaster relief management; support accountability, transparency, anti-corruption efforts, and human rights; and improve municipal services and information management.

Although ICTs are not a panacea for the world’s problems, using the story of the young, famed Malawian inventor William Kamkwamba, who built an electricity-producing windmill out of scrap, in part, due to access to his local library, as an example, it is clearly deducible how the ability to locate pertinent information, access existing patents, research scientific literature, or connect with a knowledgeable person or resource can make a significant difference in the lives of underprivileged people in particular. Yet ensuring that such knowledge and information is open and accessible so that it can be used as a resource to help both individuals as well as organizations solve the developmental challenges of the 21st century and fulfill the 17 SDGs is imperative to progress. While access to knowledge and instant communication technologies themselves will not feed the hungry or resolve civil conflict, they can provide access to solutions, new ideas and perspectives, or communities or nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that can support innovation and creative problem solving.

The role of internet governance

Thus, it is the responsibility of the internet governance community and all involved in expanding accessibility such as governments and international NGOs to empower sustainable development by ensuring the needs of developing societies and the underprivileged are met. This should incorporate multiple courses of action, including but not limited to protecting openness and accessibility; upholding internet access as a human (or civil) right; expanding network interoperability and security; supporting technological innovation and infrastructural development; providing platforms and fora where the multiple and often competing interests of stakeholders can be addressed and discussed; promoting collaboration and cooperation among stakeholders; and engaging in capacity building and education, specifically technical skill building and digital media literacy education. Four areas in particular require concerted attention as well as a multistakeholder approach to devise effective solutions and bridge the digital divide(s):

1. More widespread internet infrastructure, which also includes wider availability of Internet eXchange Points (IXPs), IPv6, and Internationalized Domain Names (IDNs)

2. More easy-to-use and affordable services

3. Relevant local digital content and local language support

4. Higher digital literacy skills

Ultimately, the relationship between sustainable development and internet governance relates to the future of the internet as a whole, which affects all countries regardless of income level. If accessible information and instant communication can continue to be a staple of the contemporary paradigm of existence, this robust system must be safeguarded from fragmentation or other threats to internet infrastructure and operability.

Moreover, driving the future of the internet forward in a way that emphasizes the inclusivity of stakeholders and focuses on dialogue, negotiation, consensus building, and collaborative problem solving is vital to ensuring more investments in the internet and ICTs can be made. Such investments include upgrading infrastructure, expanding mobile access or Creative Commons-licensed content, or incentivizing ideas such as the OneWeb satellite constellation, Mozilla’s zero-rating initiatives, Facebook’s Project Aquila, or Google’s (Alphabet’s) Project Loon. Engaging governments and other stakeholders to promote cooperation and foster inclusive, consensus-based sustainable outcomes is equally as important to solutions that involve technical or tangible means.

Policymakers, activists, educators, organizations, and a host of other stakeholders in the internet governance community certainly have a hands-on role to play in terms of short- and medium-term sustainable development. Internet governance is, however, inextricably tied to long-term developmental goals and outcomes, especially since ICTs can be a driver of the progress sustainable development is meant to facilitate, but on a global level. Thus, while technology is changing and being adopted quickly, it is critical that we address how governance structures and institutions can maintain a constructive pace as well. Operating under the assumption that such structures and institutions practically and historically have taken long periods of time to adopt and adapt to significant changes, moving forward into the future also brings with it much ambiguity that can be mitigated in part by more robust collaboration, more constructive dialogue, more transparent and accountable processes, and inclusive strategic planning.

Current trends may suggest more conflict, especially political conflict, as well as diverging long-term interests between stakeholders, in particular in emerging economies where sustainable development outcomes are often most needed. Such conflict challenges the entire notion of democratizing the internet, especially when there are so many interests in play and stakeholders invested. While it is advantageous to model potential outcomes, refining current processes will help ensure a smoother transition going forward and continue to create better mechanisms to address any future complications or challenges that arise. Genuine interest in collaborative decision making through dialogue and sincere engagement with stakeholders is key to strengthening confidence that internet governance and internet-related policies are robust, inclusive, engaging, bottom-up, and consensus-based.

Additionally, the internet governance community must use the opportunity that the various fora allow to build consensus on difficult and contentious topics. Does the community take a clear stand on access to information, for instance, by promoting censorship-circumventing virtual private networks (VPNs) when information is blocked by an authoritarian government? Would that alienate certain stakeholders, erode the multistakeholder model, or become too politicized? What boundaries and limitations should the multistakeholder internet governance community respect in terms of its operation? And are there clear values that need to be agreed upon and defended? Is reaching consensus on and adopting such values achievable given today’s political climate? These are only a few of the questions that the internet governance and larger development community must continue to work through in terms of its purview and responsibilities as the internet further grows and develops as an ecosystem. These are not rhetorical questions, either; for instance, the work of the IGF’s Dynamic Coalition on Core Internet Values, the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) transition process, the NETmundial outcome document, and the continuation of the WSIS process as well as the 2003 WSIS Declaration of Principles seem to suggest that consensus on certain internet functions and values can be achieved. On the contrary, answering such questions is vital to preserving the potential information society provides so we can more effectively incorporate the next billion internet users and ensure a more promising future for all.

By Michael J. Oghia, ICT Sustainability Advocate

Michael J. Oghia is a Belgrade-based independent consultant, researcher & editor working within the Internet governance ecosystem on sustainable access, digital rights, media literacy, and development & capacity building. He specifically focuses on the relationship between the Internet, the environment, and sustainability. Twitter: @mikeoghia

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