By Bevil Wooding
Understanding the Global Internet Through a Local LensThe beauty of the Internet is the unprecedented efficiency with which it serves the diverse information appetites of so many across the world. However, even though any individual can now potentially reach a global audience, the internet landscape remains unevenly dominated by the cultural and economic powerhouses of the world. Like an imbalance in trade, an imbalance of content can come at a heavy and deleterious socio-economic price. For developing markets, like those in the Caribbean, it can drown out indigenous content and restrict local economic opportunities.
As more national and corporate budget allocations go toward improving Internet connectivity and increasing access; and in the maddening rush to give more students and young people laptops, tablets and smartphones to ‘get connected’, we must now ask ‘whose Internet will these new users be connecting to?’
Will the next wave of Caribbean Internet users be able to easily access indigenous literature, art or news? Will they find perspectives and values that are familiar? Will they be able to access services, to easily buy and sell goods – in their currency, fulfilled by their financial institutions, covered by their laws?
Many countries do not have satisfactory responses to these questions and are becoming aware that they should.
Local is Global
The concept that local access to the internet gives users global reach is well understood. This consumer paradigm is in fact most prevalent, as users routinely go to the internet to get something, typically from a foreign source. The notion that satisfying ‘local’ needs can create global opportunities is, however, less prevalent. The producer paradigm, where users in a jurisdiction are encouraged to leverage the Internet as a platform for publishing content and deploying services, needs to become more prevalent.
For local users Internet access should firstly be a portal to a domestic network that gives access to local content, enabling local transactions, reinforcing local values, empowering local communities and developing the local economy. This is something Internet users in the developed world take for granted.
A user in New York expects to easily find a list of the best coffee shops in his neighbourhood. A user in London expects to be able to go online to get the latest bus schedule. In each case the user expects to go on the global internet to satisfy a local need. This should be no different for users in the developing world.
For ICTs to deliver on their promise of economic and social development, it is essential that countries adopt enabling infrastructure, legal and regulatory environments that support development of the internet ecosystem.
The importance of this enabling environment was recognized in the Declaration and Action Plan of the UN’s World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), which emphasized that a trustworthy, transparent and non-discriminatory environment was essential for the use and growth of ICTs in the developing world. However, awareness of the need for a proper support environment does not make it any less of a daunting task for policymakers.
Even as best practices emerge from countries that have successfully crafted policies to facilitate ICT-based development, there is no single magic-plan that can be followed. Every jurisdiction needs to define its own “best-practice”.
In this regard, the role of regulators and regulation itself must be re-evaluated. Regulators must shift emphatically toward a more development-focused philosophy as they seek regulatory reform in key areas such as the regulation of communications services and infrastructure; data privacy and protection; cyber-security; intellectual property rights; public infrastructure; Internet governance and general principles of competition.
Part 2 of this article will follow tomorrow.
Bevil Wooding is an Internet Strategist with the US-based research firm, Packet Clearing House and the Chief Knowledge Officer at Congress WBN, an international non-profit organization.