A top trend that emerged from the 2012 World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council Survey (which received almost 1,000 responses from the world’s leading thinkers) was the “digital and communications revolution.” But who laid the conditions for this revolution? And how are we going to continue to reap the benefits from this new era?
The answer may surprise you. The people who established the standards and rules allowing 99% of the computer servers worldwide to speak to each other, freely and openly, were not in the US government, Google, or even the UN. Rather, they belonged to civil society – academics and technologists – such as Vint Cerf, Bob Kahn, and Tim Berners-Lee, the participant in the opening ceremony of the London Olympics who few people recognized.
Let’s recap that revolution. Over the past five years, 21% of GDP growth in mature economies came from the open Internet. Growth will spread east and south as broadband connections via mobile in emerging economies smash through developed world’s subscriptions in 2013, as reported in the World Economic Forum Global Information Technology Report 2012. If the members of Facebook were part of a single sovereign state, it would be the third-largest country in the world; and its terms of service is looking more like a constitution determining people’s rights than an ignored contract with a service provider.
The world includes a new generation of digital natives, people born after 1990 who are accustomed to having an instant answer to every question and access gigabytes of data at the touch of a button. These digital natives are not only in the US and Europe. They are everywhere, communicating in every language, living out an unprecedented narrative explosion online – a revolution of which we are all a part.
How did this come about? To my mind, it’s a result of civil society’s three basic tenets underpinning the Internet: rights, openness and participation.
Let’s take rights first. Frank La Rue, the United Nations Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression underscored “the unique and transformative nature of the Internet not only to enable individuals to exercise their right to freedom of opinion and expression, but also a range of other human rights, and to promote the progress of society as a whole.” Civil society innovators and technologists recognized this early on and developed technologies creating more affordable, secure and accessible networks.
In 2012, the Human Rights Council also recognized this by passing a unanimous resolution prioritizing access, demanding that rights must be protected online to the same extent that they are protected offline. No one should be denied their freedom of expression – the “enabler” of all other human rights – and, therefore, no one should be denied access to the Internet. That is now what the world’s people are telling us, that access to the internet itself has become a human right.
After “rights” comes openness. It is an organizing principle, a philosophy and mode of operation that includes everything from open source, open standards, to open government. Open-source technology, with no proprietary restrictions on the source code, is the digital genome of the Internet. Brazil has been fostering the adoption of open-source software in the government and Chile became the first nation to legislate network neutrality, a bid for transparency, openness and fairness in Internet service provision.
Finally, “participatory governance”. What has made the Internet revolution work is not government oversight or corporate control but rather a governance framework of all stakeholders – commonly referred to as multistakeholderism – where decisions about technology and policy are determined through cooperation between companies, states and civil society. Again, Brazil has embraced participatory governance, putting openness to work in the very crafting of new legislation.
Of course, this stands as an exception amid the tide of laws criminalizing speech online, and others that prioritize surveillance over privacy and freedom of expression. Across the world in nearly every jurisdiction, a rash of new regulations is making its way through legislatures and regulatory bodies that would de-prioritize rights, limit access, and put governments at the centre of decision-making. Companies are often doing deals with the governments of emerging markets without revealing what is being asked of them, and creating walled gardens that do not connect or interface.
We are not expected to know exactly how our e-mails are sent, our videos streamed, or our statuses updated. But we hope that all Internet users understand that the only way to keep its economic and cultural revolution on track is to recommit the three tenets that have set such a strong foundation: rights, openness, and participatory governance.
Brett Solomon is the co-founder and Executive Director of AccessNow.org an international NGO that works for Internet freedom and digital rights. He is a member of the Global Agenda Council on the Future of the Internet.
Photo: A visitor works on his notebook at the “Hannover Messe”, the world’s leading fair for industrial technology. REUTERS/Christian Charisius