Editor   05 May 2015   Internet Governance

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Report from the third panel of the conference The Internet as a Global Public Resource (29‒30 April 2015), which tackled the question: How can we deal with the positive and negative externalities of the Internet as a global public resource? The panel speakers were Mr Nick Ashton-Hart, executive director of the Internet & Digital Ecosystem Alliance (IDEA), and Dr Richard Hill, president of the Association for Proper Internet Governance. The panel was moderated by Mr Godfrey Vella, Digital Champion of Malta, and member of the Board of the Malta Communications Authority.

The key to having the Internet recognised as a global public good is to bring the private sector on board and to strengthen its belief that it has an interest in achieving that objective.

Mr Nick Ashton-Hart, executive director of the Internet & Digital Ecosystem Alliance (IDEA), believes that we need to find a way for the private sector to profit in a manner that is socially useful, and therefore meets both social and economic needs of the world.

Historically, it has been private infrastructure and the profit motive that has extended access to new markets. Yet, Ashton-Hart said he wished there were more discussions, especially in International Geneva, on policy frameworks that support lowering the access costs and increasing Internet access.

To have a global public resource, we need to have a global resource in the first place, especially when we think about the world’s Internet penetration rate currently standing at less than 50%. Technology is the only way in which some of these issues, for example educating large masses of people, can be tackled.

The technology and business sectors are not particularly keen on regulation, yet they cannot operate in uncertainty. Regulation which is compatible across jurisdictions is a better option than uncertainty. Although this can be of support to the private sector, we are not witnessing many discussions on cross-jurisdiction compatibility of regulations. There is no joined-up approach.

And yet, if we want the Internet to be declared a global public resource, we need to interconnect the different forums, and the many dimensions related to global resources. Ashton-Hart believes in the need to adopt a holistic approach. It should not be a zero-sum game, which leads to a cynical and unhealthy society, rather we should work for a positive end result – which is what people expect from policymakers.

People expect an agenda based on hope and opportunity. We are more than the sum of our parts, and the Internet is the greatest communication device we have ever devised. So he asks: How can we leverage this to gain better results? How can we produce a sum of our aspirations, instead of our fears, from these complex policy discussions?

Dr Richard Hill, president of the Association for Proper Internet Governance, believes that two externalities need to be discussed:

  • A positive externality, wherein the more people that are connected to the Internet, the better educated they will be and the more they can contribute to the economic growth of the world in general.
  • A negative externality, in that if people are not connected, they will be disenfranchised and excluded, which would in turn lead to social problems.

He explained that a public good is non-excludable and non-rivalrous. Taking the example of the air that we breathe, non-excludable does not mean that one cannot be excluded, but that one should not be excluded. Some states exclude people from parts of the Internet for justifiable reasons, while other states exclude more people in more ways. However, many people still cannot afford to connect to the Internet, and the biggest challenge emanates from the fact that this implies a right to connect, which is different from the freedom to connect.

Non-rivalrous implies that the use of a resource by one person does not reduce its availability to others. Transposed to the Internet, the presence of congestion reduces one’s enjoyment, while our access to a scarce resource (bandwidth) is a negative externality.

Through various examples, Hill explained that the services we use on the Internet carry many externalities. Our behaviour online also creates externalities if, for example, we are careless about the security of our computers and mobile devices.

The key to tackling these externalities is to internalise them: typically, this entails intervention by the government, such as providing the public good itself (e.g. education), or by regulating the provider (e.g. telecommunications), or by subsidising the provider (e.g. healthcare), or by penalising certain behaviour (e.g. taxation, which is partly used to help those in need).

Hill believes that two important areas for research emerge from the discussion on externalities: measuring the externalities related to security, and measuring the externalities involved in providing affordable access – or a lack thereof.

Reacting to the speakers’ interventions, one question related to access asked how profit could be made when those who are not yet connected, barely earn enough money for food. Ashton-Hart offered a word of caution: we should not assume that profit alone can magically connect everyone to the Internet. However, in telecommunications, it is one of the solutions for the provision of a universal service.

In answering another question on the need to be more future-oriented, Hill referred to the EU’s telecoms regulatory framework as being a big success, specifically because it was fairly future-proof. Its generic framework, which admittedly needs some reform, has worked well for years. We therefore need a set of general rules, or a set of principles, that will survive through technological innovation.

More reports from the conference on The Internet as a Global Public Resource are available on the conference webpage.

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