By Bernhard Schell
“A digital divide has no place in the information age and 21st century knowledge economy,” according to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. “Our overall objective must be to ensure universal access to information and communication technology – including for the two-thirds of the world’s population currently not online,” he says.
In a video message to a major meeting organized by the United Nations International Telecommunication Union (ITU) in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates on December 3, Ban said the management of information and communication technology should be “transparent, democratic, and inclusive”.
He called on delegates from 193 nations attending the ITU World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT-12) to maintain the free electronic flow of ideas and information, adding that the UN “stands behind the goal of an open Internet.” A free Internet is part of the digital citizen’s “right to communicate” and share ideas across all media and all frontiers.
“Information and communications technologies are transforming our world, opening doors, educating and empowering people, saving lives,” Ban said, pointing to the effects of social media and technology in driving the Arab Spring protests and similar democratization efforts around the world. “We must continue to work together and find consensus on how to effectively keep cyberspace open, accessible, affordable and secure for all,” he added.
The 11-day conference that concludes on December 14 is reviewing the current International Telecommunications Regulations (ITRs), dating back to 1988, which function as the binding global treaty designed to facilitate international interconnection of information and communication services, as well as ensuring their efficiency and widespread public usefulness and availability.
“The current ITRs set the stage for the mobile revolution and the information society – and we are confident that the 2012 ITRs will help usher in the knowledge society. Simply put, WCIT-12 is about putting ICTs in the hands of all the world’s people,” says ITU Secretary-General Hamadoun Touré.
Addressing the ‘Internet Governance Forum’ (IGF) on November 6 in Baku, Azerbaijan, Touré described as “ridiculous” misleading stories about the ITU or the UN “taking over the Internet”.
He said: “ITU continues to play its role in the realm of the Internet, as we have done since the Internet’s inception – for example through ITU-brokered and ITU-approved global standards for the critical transport layers of the Internet and Internet access technologies. But this does not mean that ITU wants to ‘take over the Internet’ or ‘control the Internet’ – indeed, I don’t even know what that might or would really mean, in practical terms.”
Even though the ITRs set out general principles for assuring the free flow of information around the world, media reports have anticipated diplomatic clashes between Member States over the level of global oversight necessary in regulating the internet, with some delegates reportedly voicing concern that too much regulation would potentially stifle online freedom of expression and ease of communication.
Bridging digital divide
The need to bridge the ongoing digital divide and ensure that everyone around the world can harness its benefits is underlined by the fact that two-thirds of the global population is not online. There were 2.3 billion Internet users worldwide at the end of 2011. In addition, mobile broadband reached more than 1 billion subscriptions, while the use of fixed broadband was estimated at 590 million subscriptions.
The need for adequate measures to ensure that the Internet, which is a powerful global information resource, is accessible to everyone has also been stressed by the UN Special Rapporteur on cultural rights, Farida Shaheed.
Working in an unpaid capacity, independent experts, or special rapporteurs, are appointed by the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council to examine and report back on a country situation or a specific human rights theme.
“Since the Internet is essentially a global resource, it is crucial that appropriate Internet governance supports the right of everyone to have access to and use information and communication technologies in self-determined and empowering ways,” she said on May 18, 2012, adding that a “human-rights based approach to the issue should always be adopted.”
Shaheed made her remarks prior to a meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, of the UN Commission on Science and Technology for Development, which included discussions on policy issues regarding Internet governance. She emphasized the importance of governance on this issue since the Internet has become a powerful medium through which individuals can exercise a wide range of human rights.
“The Internet has become a key element for the enjoyment and the promotion of human rights such as the right to freedom of opinion and expression, including the right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds regardless of frontiers; the right to share and enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications; the right to participate in cultural life and engage with others through inter-cultural dialogue; as well as the right to development,” she said.
Shaheed noted that the Internet can also play an important role promoting democratic participations, accountability, transparency and economic development, and this highlights the need to “maintain it as a global source for all to enjoy.”
In particular, she stressed that the Internet should not be divided into national spheres and it should be guarded against any monopolistic appropriation which could reduce the public spaces where social actors interact as equals.
“The principle of net neutrality, whereby all content is treated equally over the Internet, is a foundational principle of the Internet and should be upheld”, she said.
“The Internet started as a collegial enterprise of communication and sharing informed by the principles of equality, non-interference and non-hierarch,” she added. “Its architecture was constructed in a manner which ensured that the flow of content was independent of the carrier infrastructure, making it very difficult for anyone to control the flows on the Internet. It is essential that these basic elements that make Internet such a unique and important tool for communication are maintained,” the UN Special Rapporteur on cultural rights said.