Waiting for the Internet to be ‘broken’ before fixing it means acting too late
Not just about technology, but about the economy, society, education, etc.
THERE was a drinking game going on with remote watchers of the opening ceremony of the ninth Internet Governance Forum (IGF) that took place in Istanbul, Turkey.
For every mention of the word ‘multi-stakeholder,’ you had to down a shot. At least, that was what the Twittersphere was advocating, as I sat in the auditorium at the Lütfi Kırdar Convention and Exhibition Centre, fighting sleepiness and hunger.
I don’t know how the players fared but it was safe to assume that only the hardiest of drinkers survived, for the opening ceremony, which was three hours long, encompassed two opening speeches by officials 10 minutes in length, followed by about 15 more speeches, about five minutes each.
The running commentary on Twitter was far more interesting, given my own cynicism and the fact that humankind doesn’t quite have a great track record in getting along with others, let alone trying to come together to decide on weighty matters such as freedom of online expression and the management of critical infrastructure that underpins it all.
Only two speeches stood out, containing within them messages that I think cut right to heart of why the ways in which individuals, organisations and nation states conduct themselves in a digital and connected world is a discussion that deserves attention from each and every one of us.
The first came from Ivo Ivanovski (pic), Minister of Information Society and Administration from the Republic of Macedonia.
He noted that he saw only the ministers of ICT or the ministers in charge of telecommunications, or the bodies that represent that institution or sector, in attendance – no ministers or officials from sectors such as education, healthcare or agriculture.
“Does this mean that the Internet is not interesting for them? I beg to differ. They all know it and they all appreciate the power of the Internet, and they all use it to the maximum of their capabilities to improve their sectors. They are just not well aware of what is at stake these days,” he said.
And the stakes are high, in Ivanovski’s eyes. Should the Internet become fragmented or broken, governments would start wondering what to do.
“As the saying goes, ‘If it's not broken, don't fix it.’ Well, if the Internet gets broken, fixing it will not bring it back. It will not be back to the same point. It will not be feasible. It will be like buying a car by spare parts. It will cost you 10 times more than buying a new car.
“This involves everybody. Internet governance is not only about telecommunication. It is about everyone,” he said.
His speech garnered some of the loudest applause for the evening, because his pointed observation highlighted the very real fact that meaningful participation in the information economy requires input and understanding from all.
Technology has been presented as the gateway tool to solving some of the most persistent problems in modern society but before the benefits can be reaped, there must first be understanding about the complex impact its introduction to the masses would entail.
And the ones who need that understanding the most are those whose mandate it is to enable and govern its use with that commitment to protect the most vulnerable of its citizens from the pitfalls.
I had heard that delegates from the Malaysian Government were in attendance at IGF, but at an event which saw more than 3,000 attendees, featuring six parallel conference tracks, I am sorry to say I did not cross paths with any.
I hope that will not be the case for future IGFs and other international conferences that are being hosted with increasing frequency around the world.
I look forward to the day a non-ICT government representative of Malaysia stands up on that stage to deliver a speech, not about how important technology is, but how it has already been used in this country to make life better, and what lessons were learnt in the process.
The benefits of technology and how access to the Internet can change lives is no longer a thing that needs to be sold.
It is time now to move beyond just accepting these tools, to take a serious look into what happens after, and to reach a consensus on how to conduct ourselves in this changed reality.
And it is a conversation that everyone needs to join in on. This is isn’t something you leave to “the IT guys” to sort out.
If you needed a refresher course on just how important it is, I will share with you what I thought was the second most impactful speech from that IGF opening ceremony.
Given the monotony of previous speeches, it was a breath of fresh air when Diego Molano Vega, Colombia’s Minister of Information Technologies and Communications, took to the stage.
He promptly proceeded to throw out his prepared remarks upon realising that it was 30 years to the day that he made a fateful decision to become a telecommunications engineer, after graduating from high school.
“Why was that? Because I had the belief that with telecommunications, I could help my country reduce poverty.
“I had that belief … And I have delivered on that. I have seen how my country has changed a lot thanks to telecommunications,” Vega (pic) proclaimed.
But three decades later, the world is at a crossroads, and that the dream is now in danger.
“If the whole world, if these multi‑stakeholder organisations do not do the right things, that dream is going to be at stake. And we are seeing that now. Look at the Internet economy, very positive. But you know what? The gaps are growing between the haves and the have-nots. Jobs are being destroyed everywhere.
“We all have to focus on that. How can we keep that dream alive, how can we keep fighting poverty with technology, how can we reduce inequalities with technology?
“We have to deliver because consumers and citizens are expecting that from us – results. We have to focus on giving results. We have to work on short-term wins in terms of Internet governance.
“For example, we have to work on consumer protection internationally, or child protection. We have to take measures to deliver resources on Internet Governance, but we have to go beyond rules and regulations,” he said.
So here’s my message: We have to graduate from being mere users of technology to becoming engaged stakeholders helping to determine the shape of this connected future driven by it.
It is time for us to grow up.
This column originally appeared in the Metro Biz section of The Star and is reprinted here with its kind permission. Gabey Goh was reporting from the Internet Governance Forum in Istanbul, thanks to a grant by the South-East Asia Press Alliance (Seapa).
Previous IGF Reports:
Internet governance: Time for Asean to step up
Cybercrime: Malaysia not lagging but needs to level up
Malaysia’s Sinar Project wins regional award, seeks to level up
Trust key for IXPs’ role in driving digital economies
Post-Snowden revelations, action still a long way away
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