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Growing the Internet 30 March 2016

Why an open Internet matters

By Walid Al-SaqafFormer Member, Internet Society Board of Trustees

As an Internet Society board member coming from the Middle East, I’m often confronted by the question of whether it is enough to have Internet access, or must we also ensure that the access is open and unrestricted. I hereby lay the case in this short article in defense of the argument that having an open Internet does matter and we ought to ensure it remains so.

For development

With an open Internet, there is a steady stream of ideas that flows to and from users around the world. Sharing ideas freely without restrictions bolsters innovation and development. Let us take the example of online social networks. We have seen how a simple idea of creating a public profile and sharing it across a campus or city results in greater social interaction, leading to millions of users across the world discussing ideas and creating communities.

Social networks today not only promote the emergence of new ideas and discussions on the respective platforms, but also lead to many income-generating businesses in the remotest parts of the world.

When I participated in TEDxSanaa in 2013 in Yemen, I was delighted to attend a talk by entrepreneur Safaa Al-Aghbari who was able to start her own cake-selling business Carmen Cakes Ag from her home using the Internet. Over time, she gained many customers simply because she was given the opportunity to put her ideas into practice without the need for a mediator. There are many similar examples across the world, indicating how an open Internet is literally an open door to innovative and creative businesses that support economic development.

If the Internet were to be restricted and social network websites censored, not only would she lose her business, but her confidence in any future venture she might start on the Internet would be damaged.

For freedom of expression

Another important aspect of the Internet is its inherent capacity to allow all people to speak out and express an opinion on matters that they feel strongly about. In the pre-Internet era, speaking out publicly on an issue was very difficult because a mediator such as a newspaper editor or a radio host would be needed to get that opinion, if allowed, out to the public. Today anyone can use the Internet to make their voice heard. The fundamental right of free speech promotes dialogue and helps address societal problems in a civil and constructive manner.

As someone who had once had my own website (YemenPortal.net) blocked by the Yemeni government, I have seen first hand how interfering with the open structure of the Internet impacted my freedom and limited democratic participation. But the open architecture of the Internet allowed me to see to it that even then, my website and other blocked websites would still be accessible through other tools and services that worked around the government interference.

An open Internet is therefore necessary to preserve freedom of expression, which is crucial in any democracy. The UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights has upheld freedom of expression as a human right in Article 19, which states that everyone “has the right to freedom of opinion and expression”. Hence, ensuring an open Internet is one way to respect freedom of expression and promote democratic participation.

An open Internet is one way to ensure that no one feels disenfranchised and that subjects are addressed in an open and deliberative fashion. Over time, it creates a culture of understanding and tolerance. And while no freedom can be totally unlimited, it is important to recognize that interference in the way the Internet functions by setting up firewalls, practicing surveillance, or implementing other technical limitations without taking proper due processes in a democratic fashion would be counter-productive and do more harm than good to society.

For tackling global challenges

While achieving development and freedom of expression are perhaps among the first priorities in any singe nation state, one thing that makes an open Internet stand out is its ability to harness millions of people to address global challenges.

Over and over again, we hear about the wisdom of the crowd as superior to the wisdom of individuals. Among the classic examples is when 800 people participated in a competition to estimate the weight of an ox in the 1906 Plymouth country fair, the average of the guesses was 1197 pounds, which was almost the exact real weight of the 1198-pound ox.

With over three billion users around the world, the Internet can be seen as the ultimate manifestation of the power that the wisdom of the crowd, particularly when using it to address all sorts of global challenges from climate change to combating epidemics and creating technological advancements. If communities, researchers, scientists, engineers and others were not allowed to openly participate with their ideas and proposed solutions, we would be severely impacting the Internet’s potential and promise to help address problems affecting all of humanity.

For the future

With the Internet still growing as the next one billion users go online, it is more important than ever to ensure that whoever joins the Internet enjoys the power that its openness brings. This openness that manifests itself in the Internet’s open architecture and design, must also be strongly evident in accessibility and reach.

We have come a long way since the first host-to-host message on the ARPANET was sent at 10:30 pm on October 29 from UCLA to the Stanford Research. While we appreciate the enormous strides that the Internet has made over the decades, we must always remember that what made the Internet great in the first place is its ability to allow people like you and me to interact and innovate freely.

The Internet Society and all its chapters, members and staff invite everyone who cares about this marvel of human ingenuity called the Internet to do all they can to keep it open for us – and for the sake of our planet’s future so that we leave to the next generation a legacy we can all be proud of.

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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