Alexis Ohanian, a co-founder of reddit, was in Washington earlier this month promoting his book about the economic importance of open Internet access for everybody on the planet. Google is investing both in gigabit fiber access in some U.S. cities while launching Project Loon to bring wireless access to remote communities around the globe. Facebook and Samsung are founding members of a new consortium spending billions on Internet access infrastructure for some of the 4 billion people on Earth who do not yet have connectivity. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has called connectivity a “human right”. Some U.S. legislators are calling it a “civil right.” Mexico has made freedom of Internet access a constitutional right, though without a mechanism yet for enforcement, according to Freedom House. Tens of millions of the 4 billion globally who lack Internet access are right here in the U.S. And many millions more lack competitive choices for Internet access service.
At a recent Washington Post event on the Digital Divide, Gene Sperling, Director of the National Economic Council, noted that a lack of connectivity feeds socioeconomic inequality. FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn noted that affordability is the #1 barrier to broadband access adoption.
Meanwhile, the technology of the Internet of EveryThing is already here. The FTC is hosting a major workshop on the phenomenon today. Connected factories, warehouses, home appliances, cars and even agricultural crops in the field are not only possible, but increasingly a reality. GE talks up what it calls “the Industrial Internet.” Advanced analytics may be applied to make use of data streams from all these connected things with sensors to improve productivity, energy efficiency and reduce cost in global supply chains. But wait…
Let’s not forget about the actual humans who do not have an Internet connection for schoolwork, job applications, social interaction or anything else online that the rest of us take for granted on a daily basis, let alone advanced apps like health care monitoring.
There is a role for national and local governments in their own regions to support construction of both more Internet Exchange Points and last mile network infrastructure for residential and small business Internet access. Some local governments in the U.S. have found commercial or nonprofit enterprise partners to share investment in local network infrastructure for improved Internet access. Some national governments in Africa, such as the Sudan and even Rwanda have achieved impressive landline and/or wireless coverage. Such laudable government initiatives aimed at expanding Internet access for everybody: citizens, anchor institutions and business people should never be confused with international Internet governance, or worse “regulation of the Internet”.
Internet governance has been successfully conducted to date in collaborative multi-stakeholder settings with the benefit of technical experts and a broad range of public and private sector representation without the need for regulation by governments. Unrestricted cross border data flows among networks are a key characteristic of a healthy functioning Internet.
The Internet is continuing to evolve as a global platform for trade and economic growth. Developing nations are all welcome to get on board, and their native cultures and businesses will benefit from being part of the networked economy. People from industrialized nations on all continents already have valuable input to contribute to the multi-stakeholder governance process. The Internet and the web may have originated in the West, but that’s so last century. We should all seek to maximize Internet access and competition, not control, both here in the U.S. and around the world for the benefit of all current and future participants in the global networked economy.