The 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 emerging markets, like those in the Pacific, Caribbean and Africa, 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 to 'get connected', we must now ask 'whose Internet will these new users be connecting to?'
Will the next wave of Internet users from the developing world 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 which emphasized that a trustworthy, transparent and non-discriminatory environment was essential for the use and growth of 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 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.
Local Content & Applications
Encouraging, branding, packaging and ultimately, utilizing locally developed content, applications and services is fundamental to the development of the local internet economy. Countries can debate the merits of nationally coordinated initiatives versus uncoordinated market-efforts to support local innovations and content development. No one can argue, however, that a multi-faceted is necessary to create a comprehensive and sustainable local content industry.
Initiatives can span from online Government service delivery, to support for e-transactions. It includes digitization of critical national archives from libraries and warehouses and the creation of globally-accessible online repositories. It covers media houses making the transition from print and live broadcast to online and on-demand assess to content. It also involves software developers and entrepreneurs building applications and businesses that leverage the power and reach of the web.
Human Capacity and Creativity
Perhaps the most important enabler to drive development of the domestic internet is the availability of a creative and competent local human resource pool. It takes people to transform the Internet from being just a set of inter-connected computer networks into a living, dynamic social network where ideas, experiences, expertise and life can be exchanged.
This living Internet is built on innovators, and pioneers; individuals, businesses and institutions who are not content to simply follow the status quo, but to constantly challenge it, to push it to its limits, and ultimately, to ensure that it is relevant to their needs and objectives.
A first goal of governments, and civil society groups therefore must be to increase literacy and participation in the sector.
organs can play a major role in facilitating both capacity building, and paradigm shifting required for people to believe that their contributions actually matter.
Local stakeholders are best positioned to fashion the local Internet. They already contribute by printing newspapers; running radio and television stations; creating music, art and films; building businesses; delivering government services; conducting research and mobilizing around common interests.
The task is now to fully leverage the Internet to amplify and extend the impact of these stakeholders. We can harness creative local resources to produce relevant local content, riding on local infrastructure, governed by local legislation, transacting in the local markets, to meet local needs. This is the 'Local Internet' and the key to building a robust technology driven economy.
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.
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