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Access Trumps Internet Ownership Concerns

Recent estimates show the number of Internet users verged on the 2 billion threshold in the second half of 2010. Several issues arise around the implications of this user penetration, but as a result of recent political events, perhaps the most sensitive factor many are now considering worldwide is the ownership — perceived or real — of the technology, rules, applications, and direction of the Internet.

In fact, throughout the high-tech industry, in business and academic circles as well as among political elites, the notion of ownership of the Internet has become the burning issue for the decade. Yet this should not be just an academic exercise, because the answer we offer to the question of ownership will also determine the manner of Internet usage and the formulation of rules governing its development and growth.

The number of people accessing the Internet has grown worldwide more than 400 percent in just the last decade. For countries in the Middle East and Africa, the growth has been even more dramatic, running into a few thousand percentages due to the low starting numbers and the rapid adoption rate over the last 10 years.

It's easy to see why the Internet has taken hold so rapidly in developing countries and also why it has become such a major catalyst in how these societies are evolving. Thanks to the Internet, projects to support education, healthcare, public services, and everything related to citizenship development have been launched and delivered around the world.

However, the old system of absolute control is locked in a fierce struggle with the world of openness and easy accessibility. As the Internet has torn off the veils that were smothering growth, innovation, political and economic development, and emancipation, so has the fractious issue of its ownership become a new flashpoint for disagreement among citizens and political leaders.

Governments in some developing countries have made control of the Internet, and the equipment and applications supporting it, a new battleground that will have an impact on how companies involved in the design, development, and sales of these tools operate their businesses. This has sparked a raging debate on how the Internet should be regulated, the rules to be applied, and who should be in charge of formulating and enforcing any legislation on its use.

The course of the debate is being affected by rapid changes in the technology base as well as the fierce rivalry among OEMs that are flooding the market with a succession of new devices, including smart/WiFi/mobile consoles that may be difficult to control by regulatory authorities.

In December, the United Nations Commission on Science and Technology for Development set up a working group to improve Internet governance. The members were to be drawn only from member states of the United Nations. Following a petition by a group of Internet societies it was decided that participants from business, civil society, the technical and academic communities, and inter-governmental organizations — to a total of 20 — could be invited to join the commission.

The final composition of the team has not been decided, though it's been agreed, in principle, that the discussion on Internet governance must be held with all necessary stakeholders. Extending membership to the academic and scientific community that originally gave birth to the Internet is a positive step for what is likely to be a tough project.

In my opinion, the discussion over the ownership of the Internet is misplaced. At the end of the day the most important issue is not that of ownership or regulation but that of access: how to ensure the availability of this resource to everyone in the world. The UN Commission must not stray from its charge, which was to find solutions to the issues arising from the use and misuse of the Internet that are of of particular concern to everyday users.

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