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The Internet as a global public resource: Learning from other policy areas

Published on 06 May 2015
Updated on 05 April 2024

Report from the fourth panel of the conference The Internet as a Global Public Resource (29‒30 April 2015), which tackled the question: What can Internet policy learn from other policy areas where the concept of a global public resource has been used (e.g. climate change, health)? The panel speakers were Prof. Beat Bürgenmeier, Professor Emeritus, University of Geneva; Prof. Lichia Saner-Yiu from the Centre for Socio-Economic Development in Geneva; and Mr Jasper Schellekens from the Malta Chapter of the Internet Society. DiploFoundation director and Geneva Internet Platform head Dr Jovan Kurbalija moderated the panel.

What can we learn from other policy areas such as the environment? The comparison of the ICT policy area with the environment was the focus of Prof. Beat Bürgenmeier’s intervention.

The Internet as a global public resource: Learning from other policy areasBürgenmeier, Professor Emeritus at the University of Geneva, compared the two from an economic standpoint, focusing on the efficiency-equity trade-off, and the belief that if we improve efficiency, equity will follow. We also rely on pricing rules, which however brings up the issue of what is just and unjust.

In the efficiency-equity trade-off argument, Bürgenmeier believes in distinguishing between what is efficient enough to be left to market regulation, and what is just to be left to politics. On one side, therefore, scientifically based regulations refer to markets, whereas idealogically based references point towards the political field.

He believes there is a conceptual difference between a resource and a good. One needs to justify new property rights in order to justify resources before one is able to create new markets. The definition of property rights is done mainly in the private field, mostly through contracts.

On the other hand, while resource is a factor of production, a good also involves the consumer, which becomes more complicated for the regulator since consumer protection is then involved.

So why should the Internet be a global public good? Bürgenmeier explained that it is not so much of an object, but more or less a service. If a global public good is non-excludable, to whom does this apply, he asked. Does it apply to citizens, or consumers, or third world countries? The discussions needs to weigh carefully the criteria of exclusivity and non-exclusivity in a normative world where there is no objectivism, he warned.

Furthermore, non-rivalrous implies there is no competition, and is therefore an argument against efficiency. This becomes an ethical principle: how can one not be in favour of efficiency?

Bürgenmeier believes that there are good reasons for declaring the Internet a global public good, yet the path is not easy. By comparison, for example, the need to define property rights does not arise in the environment policy sector. And if one had to focus only on market and business solutions for the Internet, one would be pushing away other considerations, which leads to a blinkered view of the actual situation.

In the environment sector, we need to understand the ecosystem, and define the carrying capacity and consequences of the economic system, so that it is the market which becomes an externality to the environment.

So where does one draw the line? A possible go-between is the commons (with reference to Elinor Ostrom’s award-winning work on common pool resources).

Bürgenmeier advised that the state first needed to promote Internet access, and then equity. The collective decision-making also needed to be delegated to other levels.

Prof. Lichia Saner-Yiu, from the Centre for Socio-Economic Development in Geneva, discussed the issues from the perspective of the sustainable development goals (SDGs).

She explained how we are nearing the deadline for achieving the millennium development goals (MDGs). By the end of the year, states will agree on a new set of post-2015 SDGs. The ‘low-hanging fruit’ have been collected; we now have to achieve more difficult goals, which are admittedly more ambitious, she explained.

The process and goals are very important for the Internet community. How do we make an impact at societal level in terms of the ecosystem, and how do we tackle uncertainty and ambiguity?

Saner-Yiu described the process as exciting, as we are now looking at issues from a different perspective, requiring us to work together for a common future. Given that each country has its own difficulties and constraints, although the process involved national goal-setting, some leeway will be afforded in setting national objectives.

Emphasising the importance of data and timely access to information, she said that the Internet and technology will play a very relevant part in the process, from a compliance point of view and a monitoring perspective. There are also many references to ICTs in the SDGs, including to significantly increase access to ICT and to provide universal and affordable access to the Internet.

Mr Jasper Schellekens, from the Malta Chapter of the Internet Society, referred to a few concepts from a different angle, starting with a definition of jurisdiction.

Schellekens explained that the Law of the Sea is based on different levels of jurisdiction: from full jurisdiction over the territorial sea, extending to the contiguous zone (which relates to issues such as migration and pollution), the exclusive economic zone (for national resources and security), and the high seas (in which there is no exclusive jurisdiction of the state).

Similarly, there are different layers to the Internet, which makes the Law of the Sea a good analogy to how the Internet could be tackled. Referring to piracy as defined by the Law of the Sea, the harmonisation of treaties and legislation at national level would also facilitate the regulation of the Internet internationally.

Another interesting parallel is transit on high seas, which allows vessels the freedom to navigate provided they carry a flag. Other countries have the right to check a vessel’s flag, but not to board or visit the vessel. The analogy to the Law of the Sea also allows us to discuss resources and their equitable use.

Schellekens concluded that while the seas have existed since time immemorial, the Convention on the Law of the Sea was signed in 1982. ‘It took a long time, but this is a starting point. While states may not agree to signing agreements, customary international law can slowly establish some principles,’ he said.

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

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