Three weeks ago, on 5 March 2013, I had the pleasure to participate in a session discussing about the importance of an open and multi-stakeholder Internet framework for freedom of expression and economic growth in Africa.
The session was organized by the United States Mission to the United Nations in Geneva, in partnership with the Internet Society. It was part of a larger program by the U.S. Mission - called the Internet Freedom Fellows Program - which brings together regional young leaders at the intersection of technology and human rights activism.
The panel discussion on Tuesday 5th March included fellows from Sudan, Nigeria and Ghana, as well as Prof. David Souter, Ms. Jillian York from EFF and myself. Many insights were shared regarding Africa's relationship with the Internet and its governance; the diversity of situations and experiences among African countries in this regard provided a striking picture of the tremendous challenges and opportunities faced by the continent as its online presence grows.
Once you have access, what can you do with it?
The sheer fact that we were discussing issues related to innovation or freedom of expression online already demonstrates that Africa has come a long way in terms of connectivity. A bandwidth revolution has taken place on the African continent in recent years; starting with the single SEACOM cable connecting West Africa in 1999, there are now 13 major cable connecting Sub-saharan and Mediterranean Africa! Most of them have gone online in the past three years. This has been a major development for Internet access in Africa, supported, among other elements, by the increasing use of Internet Exchange Points (IXPs) to optimize traffic and foster more efficient and cheaper connections.
While many challenges remain towards more affordable and widespread access, connectivity is in motion in many African countries.
As a result, many debates have shifted to other challenges, gravitating around a very basic but fundamental question:
Once you have access, what are you able to do with it?
The mere fact of being connected doesn't guarantee one will be able to innovate or able to freely share information and ideas: These abilities require an enabling Internet environment, one that is based on openness and without excessive restrictions on online activities.
An open Internet
To a large extent, the notion of an open Internet relates to its architecture: A borderless, decentralized network that empowers the edges rather than the center. With such a design, the value and intelligence lies in the network's periphery; beyond a technical feature, it also means that the open network is user-centric and gives voice to the end-users. This quality resonates also with the general purpose and generative nature of the network, allowing individuals to innovate without having to ask for permission to a central authority; one of the best illustrations of this is the invention of the World Wide Web by Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Caillau, which is now a widespread layer built on top of the TCP/IP protocol.
This openness is equally essential for today's African innovators to offer competitive products and services on the global Internet.
The intervention by the fellow from Ghana, Mac-Jordan Degadjor, was very encouraging in this regard; his country seems to have a vibrant blogging community, a competitive telecommunication market, and recent news of major local and foreign investments in "Hope City", a technology center project which is to make Ghana a competitive hub in the ICT world.
The multistakeholder model of policy and technical development - governments, civil society, technical community, and business working in an inclusive manner to shape the Internet's evolution - is also a key supporting framework to this open Internet.
In Africa, some of the most successful Internet Exchange Points (IXP) have adopted multistakeholder settings, including Internet Service Providers, governments, content providers or research networks under a same roof. During the panel, Prof. Souter provided the inspiring example of Kenya and its national Internet governance framework, as the most best illustration of inclusive and dynamic Internet policy making on the continent.
Of course, there is another end of the spectrum, tending towards more closed and centralized Internet national frameworks. The archetype of this model can be characterized by top-down approaches to Internet policy making, excessive restrictions over access to content, online surveillance and monitoring, and/or limited competition in the telecommunication sector.
One way of looking at this spectrum is that some countries adapt the Internet to their societies, whereas others try to adapt the Internet to fit their societies and borders. Some are more open and ready for change, while others prefer resisting to disruptions.
While reality is infinitely more complex than a binary choice between open or closed, this tension underpins some of the current dynamics in the Internet Governance ecosystem.
The WCIT conference in Dubai was precisely an illustration of the divide that has emerged in recent years as to what the future governance of the Internet should look like, an issue which can have strong repercussions on growth in the Internet economy and the freedom to share content online.
Dubai was not necessarily a clear divide between North vs. South, or East vs. West; for example countries such as Kenya, India or the Philippines did not sign the treaty at the end of the conference. The results of the WCIT can rather be interpreted as a divide between visions of an Internet which is decentralized vs. more centralized, loosely vs. tightly controlled, or open vs. closed.
Africa at the crossroads
Our panel discussions clearly underlined the fact that there are contrasting situations on the continent between countries foreseen as potential candidates to be Africa's next "Silicon Valley's" - to use Google CEO Eric Schmidt's recent words about Kenya - while other countries and regions rather perceive the network as a potential threat, particularly following social movements that shook North Africa in recent years.
Looking ahead, one wonders whether African countries are going to seize the benefits of the Internet or rather favor a tightly controlled environment?
The discussions on the panel made it clear that there is not one single response for region, but rather many models which offer some possible insights as to what Africa's future online could be.
In this regard, a strong link emerged during our discussion regarding the relationship between economic growth and the freedom to share information and ideas. A colleague of mine from Africa told me that several years ago in his country, the government took down and entire domain name because it was hosting blogs of opposition political parties. This measure also resulted in taking offline many e-commerce platforms.
This is just one of the many examples showing that when there is an arbitrary environment with great uncertainty for freedom of expression online - technical measures used to suppress information and ideas - this same environment can hardly be properly conducive for economic activities. Online businesses need an open Internet environment to flourish. Similarly to electricity or roads, companies needs reliable infrastructure to function.
Every society must take the time necessary to adapt its own values and structures to the societal and economic shifts that can result from the introduction of a decentralized and open network such as the Internet. But there are many benefits to embracing an open Internet supported by inclusive governance frameworks; not only for free expression, but also for a vibrant Internet economy.
Meeting the fellows from the US Mission program clearly comforted great hopes for Africa's future online and offline.
Nicolas Seidler, Policy Advisor, ISOC
Want to know more? Watch the webcast of our panel discussion on 5 March, 2013