About a month ago I was in Athens attending the first annual Internet Governance Forum (IGF). Delegates from around the world had come together to discuss the future of the Internet and specifically, how to provide more access to the web in Emerging Markets.
Among the speakers was Yoshio Utsumi of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), a United Nations agency covering telecoms and information technology.
Utsumi complained strongly about the current system for overseeing domain names and Internet addresses, saying that poorer nations were mad as hell about the status quo. And he offered a solution – move away from the current system of Internet governance and toward a ‘new’ system with less US influence – perhaps one run by the UN. Well the truth is out. I sat through dozens of hours of sessions in Athens , listening to delegates from Africa, Latin America and the South Pacific, and I have spoken to some real IT gurus from around Africa in the month since. Mr. Utsumi was right. People from Emerging Markets are mad as hell. But from what I heard, their problems don’t stem from any excess of US influence, and they’re certainly not looking to the UN for solutions. Because they know better…
What I heard from my seat in Athens was that emerging markets delegates are indeed dissatisfied-but not about the Internet domain name system. They are angry that their own governments are not cultivating environments that attract new investment. They are disgusted by the cozy relationships between legacy telecoms and regulators which stifle the growth of new Internet Service Providers.
They are concerned by the lack of locally-relevant web content, which is vital for increasing public demand and investor interest. And they are frustrated by the slow pace of progress on Internationalised Domain Names (IDNs) which would increase the usability of the web for languages that don’t use Latin script, like Amharic or Arabic.
However, at the same time in Athens I also heard a clear voice of reason. African delegates in various presentations said, in essence: “Local demand and local pressure – NOT some magic bullet from the donor community – will fix our problems and help us build Internet access.”
What I heard was not the voice of aggrieved outsiders, but rather a matter-of-fact, non-political call from creative, practical people tired of waiting for some trickle down of technology – people are understandably suspicious of the idea that the OECD will some day come bearing gifts.
So, while the aid moguls in the north and the political-agenda folks in places like Iran, and Cuba, and Brazil have been busy talking, Africa’s growing IT community has been getting down to the actual business of making the Internet work. They have been creating innovative public-private partnerships as in Kenya, to provide governance and financial stability to a growing on-line community.
They have been buying and installing their own equipment, not waiting for aid. It is far from enough, but it should be a lesson to the international community. Follow the African example – stop talking and get real. Is the current regime of Internet management the best it could be? Probably not. The governance process is slow. We from the OECD can and should do more to facilitate investment, share best practices, and support African participation in international forums like IGF.
The OECD should add its voice when the African IT community calls for their governments to be more ‘user friendly’, and stop hindering the growth of the Internet on the continent.
Still, more than European and US bureaucrats realise, Emerging Markets – with Africa in the lead – increasingly do ‘get it’. More politics isn’t the way to get more access to the online world.