Growing the Internet 2 September 2014

An Internet for the Next Billion … or Two

By Noelle Francesca De GuzmanDirector, Policy and External Engagement

With its 1.3 billion Internet users, burgeoning ICT industries and sizable online markets, Asia-Pacific is very aware of its significance to the global Internet ecosystem—this much was evident at the recently-held Asia-Pacific Regional Internet Governance Forum (APrIGF), where some 350 participants pondered the current and future state of cyberspace. But alongside the many debates on security, multi-stakeholder approaches and Internet governance was a recurring question: In a region with 4.2 billion people, how do we get the next two billion online?

Increased connectivity will help not only build the region’s capacity to contribute to wider Internet governance discussion, alleviating its under-representation in global bodies like ICANN, but also to ease broader socio-economic problems like rural poverty and economic growth. Yet as stakeholders in Asia-Pacific have learned, there is no single remedy to the digital divide that threatens to further segment its societies. The barriers are numerous, and are just as varied as the topographies, cultures and languages that make up the region, meaning that nothing less than tailor-made solutions will work.

While Pacific island states struggle with infrastructure rollouts and small economies of scale, the likes of Hong Kong and South Korea, which top ICT readiness rankings worldwide, lament the deepening gap between the majority who enjoy ubiquitous Internet access and the remaining few, such as the elderly, who are further isolated as crucial services become available exclusively online.

For a number of countries which have begun to offer affordable access, the challenge lies in making the Internet compelling enough for people to use it. Accessibility thus acquires a different quality, and often hinges on the cultivation of local — and locally relevant — content suited to people’s everyday needs. Participants from Australia were keen to see more applications which address the requirements of the differently-abled, while those from India are counting on ones that target the bottom of the pyramid, as well as on Internationalised Domain Names (IDNs) to enable its myriad linguistic communities to utilise the Internet in their native tongue.

Asia-Pacific has made significant leaps in connecting the first third of its population to the Internet, but stakeholders agreed that getting the next two people online will be a completely different story. It will entail reaching out to those who are more disadvantaged, more underserved, live in more remote areas and have even less exposure to ICT. It will involve grappling with compounding hurdles such as income- and gender-based restrictions, low literacy rates and even the absence of stable power supplies.

It is in this context that delegates at this year’s APrIGF confronted issues of equal participation and human rights online, deliberated on the usefulness of Net neutrality to developing countries, and underscored the need to make mobile—now the entry point to cyberspace for many first time Internet users—a foundational tool for Internet access. It is against this backdrop that participants advocated for open standards and open source software, which would not only make access-related initiatives more scalable and cheaper to execute, but also widen the field of possibilities for grassroots innovations.

Governments, moving forward, can play a key role in connecting the marginalised by creating policy and regulatory environments that are conducive to Internet use and investment–interventions that enable, rather than restrict online access, in the form of competition laws, fair use clauses for digital intellectual property, and universal access policies. Regardless of their source, solutions must be shared and sustainable, with stakeholders acknowledging the merits of top-down macro solutions but also encouraging bottom-up, community-based inputs and approaches, whether in creating a ruleset for an IDN, deploying wireless networks or in developing useful applications and software.

The Internet is celebrated as a borderless network of networks, but for it to be truly global, participants at the APrIGF ask that it also reflect and accommodate the richness and diversity of communities across Asia-Pacific—including those who have yet to go online.

Disclaimer: Viewpoints expressed in this post are those of the author and may or may not reflect official Internet Society positions.

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