UN forum examines Internet risks and opportunities
The dangers and opportunities of the World Wide Web dominated discussions on the final day of the United Nations Internet Governance Forum in Rio de Janeiro, at which many of the nearly 1,400 participants, ranging from sceptics to supporters, provided a glimpse of what might lie in the future.
The British writer Andrew Keen warned “the future is not good.” Despite much talk about the profound democratic transformations wrought by the Internet, he said there were also “unintended consequences” and the technologies of what is often described as “Web 2.0” – the second generation of web-based communities and hosted services – would bring less, not more, democracy.
User-generated sites like Facebook, Wikipedia and YouTube were the future of the media, Mr. Keen said. But the explosion of user-generated content was not benefiting the talented. Profit was not going to the creators of content, but to a tiny corporate minority.
The Internet was also trivializing politics by helping to create a “cacophony of opinions, where one cannot sort out the truth.” The remedy was to teach young people not technology, but media literacy and a healthy scepticism.
Robert Pepper of Cisco Systems pointed out the continuing trend to lower cost. For instance, local and regional Internet Exchange Points (IEPs) allowed traffic to be routed within a region, lowering global Internet costs.
Information technologies could also be used to address issues of energy and the environment, Mr. Pepper said. Technologies could not only improve the supply of energy where it was not easily available, but at the same time help to address climate change.
Vinton Cerf, sometimes described as one of the “fathers of the Internet,” said there was increasing understanding of the need for Web responsibility.
“Global Internet law” would have to be developed at some point, Mr. Cerf said. “We will have to arrive at global agreements about what people can and cannot do,” as well as ways to enforce laws globally when people did infringe the law.
“This will be very complicated, something like the Law of the Sea, but perhaps we will need such a matrix to sort things out.”
Fatimata Seye Sylla, a leader of Senegal's civil society, said that for Africa access remained paramount, but “you cannot govern something that almost does not exist.” Africa was still at the bottom of the list in terms of infrastructure, capacity and content. Work was ongoing across the continent to build capacity and create local content, she said. There was a need to develop public-private partnerships and a regional regulatory and policy framework conducive to investment in information technology.
“But until projects are fully implemented by Africans, there will be no sense of ownership,” she said, calling for more involvement by civil society and for stronger political commitment by national leaders.
A total of 1,376 people from 109 countries attended the four-day Forum. The largest participation (380) was from civil society, followed by government (302), the private sector (168), the media (104) and intergovernmental organizations (67).
Eighty-four events held in parallel with the main sessions included 19 events on the issue of security, 11 on openness and freedom of expression, 12 on development and capacity-building, 10 on critical Internet resources, nine on access and six on diversity.
The Forum's third meeting will take place in New Delhi in December 2008.