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Take Your Hands off My Internet

OK, we all know the Internet was actually developed by the US government in collaboration with the military and academia, but few can contest the fact it has become a widely used business tool that many companies consider integral to their operations.

Yet governments throughout the world have arrogated to themselves the power to regulate and decide who can have direct access to the Web and what sites these privileged folks can view. Despite having no role in its development and evolution, governments from China to Myanmar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, and Vietnam have engaged in dictatorial practices that limit how their citizens — and businesses — can access the Internet.

It's time for companies to take a stand worldwide against the often unprincipled curtailment of this productivity enhancement tool that has made it much easier for the smallest company to compete with larger enterprises. The world cannot go back to the era when companies spent millions developing and testing proprietary computer network systems, because such systems — in order to be secure and effective — must exclude a large portion of the audience businesses need to reach nowadays.

The ongoing political unrest in Egypt certainly dropped a hot potato in the laps of businesses and governments worldwide. As I see it, the controversy centers around one critical question: How much control should governments have over the Internet and other communication systems that have grown over the last decade to become integral parts of business operations?

When the Egyptian government shut down Internet and wireless communications services last week, the disruption impeded more than the ability of Egyptians to send messages on {complink 10867|Facebook} and {complink 11949|Twitter Inc.} It also struck at the heart of business communications and should be a pressing concern for manufacturers globally.

Internet Access Please

To say that businesses have come to depend on the Web for much of their marketing and sales outreach would be an understatement. For many companies, it represents the backbone of communication activities with suppliers, customers, and investors. In the PC market, for instance, {complink 1544|Dell Inc.} moved many of its ordering system for personal computing products to the Web and generates a huge portion of sales via this medium.

Until recently, many companies treated the Web as a fancy tool that lacked the robust capacity and security functionalities to support their operations. They relied instead on enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems that in many cases cost millions to purchase, install, and operate but still lacked the functionality of being open to the public or direct customers. ERP and other data management systems granted access to only trusted suppliers and customers. They excluded the general public and cannot support direct sales to end users.

The Internet promised and delivered more. Companies like Dell pioneered and thrived on direct sales to end-user customers who were, not only able to get information on products, but could also customize and order PCs and other equipment based on personal needs. The level of interaction with customers soared on the backbone offered by the Internet. As more people globally gained access to the Web, the universe that companies could interact with also expanded exponentially. Marketing and other sales communication messages found a new outlet that easily skirts national boundaries.

Were we all wrong to embrace the Web so deeply that many companies may now not be able to function properly if access is curbed by non-corporate powers? The Web has been under assault in totalitarian nations since its infancy, with dictators and politicians seeking to control how and when it can be used. By adopting the Web so completely, businesses may have pushed themselves out of their comfort zone and laid themselves open to manipulations by political authorities.

I doubt companies can go back to the way business used to be done before the Internet. Private or intranet systems lack the ubiquity promised by the Web and, furthermore, need to issue permissions that the Internet has made moribund. Therefore, a new set of questions needs to arise. The most important of these, in my opinion, is whether governments should have the authority to determine how, when, and if communities under their control cab have access to the Web.

I am not advocating any “rights” here but making it clear companies need to gauge the level of dependence they now have on the Internet and understand how a failure of the system, whether because of technological problems or because of a dictator's whim, could hurt their operations. It might be too late to go back to the old dedicated resource management systems, but it is just the right time to start making governments understand that the Web is more than just a tool to be feared by hurt companies' ability to conduct their operations.

18 comments on “Take Your Hands off My Internet

  1. Anna Young
    January 31, 2011

    Many bullies will get away with it but think of how successful Hosni Mubarak has been in getting the result he wanted by cutting access to the web in his country. When companies keep quiet they lend power to the dictators. By speaking up they can make a credible case for keeping the web open.

  2. Taimoor Zubar
    January 31, 2011

    I think the point here is that government's own interest are far more important than the citizen's interests. Even in physical scenarios, if there is a risk of law and order situation getting bad, the governments will suspend all commercial activity no matter how much the businesses lose. Same goes in the cyber world, except perhaps people didn't really see much of 'cyber police' earlier on.

  3. Hawk
    January 31, 2011

    Yes, government's interests are more important than those of citizens and businesses. That's why they are allowed to bomb their citizens, gas them, lock them up without trials and make sure any protests against government officials looting treasures are promptly put down with bullets, if necessary.

    So, shutting down the internet could result in job losses, who cares? The government is more important than the people and, in any case, who gave all these people the idea their jobs are more important than the ruling class' rights to reign forever? Human rights, Bill of Rights? That's only for Americans and Westerners!

  4. Mydesign
    February 1, 2011

        Bolaji am totally agreeing with your opinion. For the last couple of years (even last decade) Internet is playing a key role as the back bone of any business for information gathering and one point of communication. As we are all know that internet plays a major role in career enhancement also for the techies and becomes one of the unavoidable components in day to day life (googling in net for silly things becomes a habit for techies).  Many of the social medias (twitter, face book, orkut etc) mostly lined up with the internet and playing a major role for us to communicate with the external world. Email and Online news papers can spread news to any part of the world in an amazing faster way.

        I think, that’s the major reason many of the government/ rulers still afraid of internet. They don’t want to spread or share their internal happenings with the outside world, which may cause serious criticism and international interventions. That’s why they are banning the internet as the first step, rather than going for political decisions against such activities. The same scenario is happened in China, Saudi, Myanmar etc and now continues in Egypt also. Do to such restrictions imposed by the local government, the entire business community and techies are suffering.  So we have to think about some alternate channels for the business purposes and info gathering, rather than always depending on Internet.

  5. Barbara Jorgensen
    February 1, 2011

    Relying too much on any one tool or medium is always dangerous. The Internet is no exception. The problem with many businesses is that there is no Plan B if the Net goes down. So we shouldn't use the Internet to the exclusion of everything. As for government control of any medium, whether it is print, radio, TV or the Web, it's wrong across the board. Pressure from business may succeed where public pressure fails for more freedom on the Internet. If nothing else, it can augment public efforts.

  6. t.alex
    February 1, 2011

    Without internet, face-to-face marketing or selling seem to be the one of the most effective ways. However, with Internet, isn't it  true everything can go faster? email, messaging, whatever means.

  7. DataCrunch
    February 1, 2011

    Bolaji, based on the risks you outlined, then you must think Apple is more forward thinking than other electronics companies.  For the pad four years Apple has been opening approximately 35-40 new stores each year, with now over 300 stores operating worldwide.  While the trend for many companies has been to go towards an online model, Apple has embraced both online and brick and mortar.  Maybe they are on to something.

  8. Mydesign
    February 1, 2011

         Alex, development of technology is for advancement of business and communication. If we are NOT able to make use of the technology, then what’s the use of all the technologies we had developed so far? Billions of dollars are spend for years, for new innovation and development of new technologies. More over if we are not using the advanced technologies, then that investment may go waste only.

         I think, since we are all used to the new technology, going to older days may be difficult too. I agree that we have to look for some alternate ways for internet in certian situations and face to face business have it's own advantages too.

  9. Ariella
    February 1, 2011

    Excellent observation, Dave.  To paraphrase the old adage, don't put all your apples in one basket.

  10. Anand
    February 1, 2011

    Excellent article Bolaji. Totally agree with you, companies should start formulating stratergies to counter this trend. Either they need to start pressurising the government against these intervention's or start building their business outlets just like APPLE does atleast in sensitive places.

  11. Taimoor Zubar
    February 1, 2011

    @Hawk: while the loss of jobs, losses to the businesses and the economy may eventually hurt the government, but at least in the short run the government wants to protect itself and give priority to the short-term interests.

  12. eemom
    February 1, 2011

    The government shutting down the internet and other means of communication should not be supported unless it is trying to protect their citizens.  In the case of the Egyptian government, this is nothing more than their normal dictatorship and suppression.  If Mobarak had Egyptian security in mind, he would step down and transition to a president that would meet the needs of the Egyptian people while ensuring peace and security in the Middle East.  Now, this may a tall order, but ignoring the people's cries while you shut down their means of communication is not the answer.  I saw today that Twitter and google released a new software app that converts voicemails to tweets (essentially a speech to text app).  This is an example of how companies can augment public efforts and reject unacceptable government practices.

  13. Parser
    February 2, 2011

    Control of political minds is known everywhere under any government. The only difference is its intensity. A similar revolt in China would meet decisive shutdown of any communication means and those who try to bypass it would probably face death penalty. In Cuba they would face long prison sentences. In Muslim countries access to internet is heavily filtered in its infrastructure. On funny note: in one company I worked, a few years ago, I could not search suppliers in town named Essex, New Jersey. This was an individual company policy to comply with government policy. Here doing business succumbed to mind control. 

  14. bolaji ojo
    February 3, 2011

    Parser, Interesting that you brought up China. Just imagine if this had happened in China. That's a subject we'll be exploring in future because it's important to the electronics industry.  I wonder how Western manufacturers would be responding now if they wake up one morning and China had shut down web services. Could this really happen? I doubt not that China would do this if the government felt pressed.

  15. stochastic excursion
    February 4, 2011

    The risk to the bottom line up to now in China is seen to be mainly from American companies who are unhappy with abiding by the restrictions on discourse–for instance Google.  Anybody who wants to register a domain name with a top-level domain of “.cn” has to sign on to China's restrictions on any kind of political thinking that is not state-sponsored.  That's just Network Solutions terms of service. 

    With the exception of some hacker attacks on Google, which the company maintained were government sponsored, China has been very dedicated to fostering a stable business climate, but you don't have to lose your shirt to lose your soul.  While businesses keep an eye on their wallet, they ought to keep an eye on what kind of system they are complying with.  By trading with China, we are encouraging them on a path to where basic liberties are guaranteed.  American businesses are partners in this goal and should be working to keep the Chinese honest in more than a monetary sense.

  16. t.alex
    February 6, 2011

    Toms, totally agree with you. Companies have spent millions and millions of dollars to get equipped with the latest technology to get things move smoother. People are videoconferencing via highspeed connection nowadays.

  17. bolaji ojo
    February 7, 2011

    Well put. I dare say it is even more in China's interest to foster an environment that encourages investment because it has slipped its hands into the West's gloves. Political leaders in China can talk the Communist talk as much as they want but we all know they walk the capitalist walk. China can no more disengage from the West than the West can walk away from its investment in the country.

    That's not to say a cataclysmic development cannot precipitate a crisis huge enough to force the West and China to de-link business processes but both parties will suffer heavily. This would be a very ugly scenario that we can conjur up in our minds while working at all levels — business and governmental — to ensure it never come to pass because the toll on everyone would be disastrous.

  18. NidaAmber
    December 18, 2017

    good one..

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