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Opinion: Internet Should be Common Heritage of Humankind – Part II

Branislav Gosovic worked at the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP), the South Commission and was Officer-in-Charge at the South Centre in Geneva (1990-2005). Part I of the article appeared on May 21:

Srun Srorn, a trainer for the E-learning project, walks teachers at Koh Kong High School in Cambodia through a new online sexual education curriculum. Credit: Michelle Tolson/IPS

Srun Srorn, a trainer for the E-learning project, walks teachers at Koh Kong High School in Cambodia through a new online sexual education curriculum. Credit: Michelle Tolson/IPS

VILLAGE TUDOROVICI, Montenegro, May 28 2015 (IPS) - The Internet – and the applications that it has spawned – is the single most important technological innovation that has brought together and interlinked humankind in a real, tangible and interactive way.

Among other benefits, it has:

While having a universal presence in each country and in the life of the majority of humankind that enjoys its amenities, the Internet is untouchable, controlled by someone somewhere who is invisible and unknown.

  • Made possible instantaneous worldwide communication and interaction
  • Simplified and facilitated many previously time consuming, onerous and costly tasks
  • Enabled a networking that can serve as a means for building a global community, and developing understanding and cooperation
  • Created the “Internet dependence” for the well-being and functioning of society, economy, and daily life and existence of individuals, which has generated a common and shared interest in keeping the Internet functioning, in good order, and continuously improving it.

The Internet has meant a “great leap” forward for humankind and made it possible for it to “leap-frog” and “short-circuit” many of the obstacles and challenges that it had faced earlier on its road to a shared but uncertain future.

However, this great technological communication advance has not been accompanied by a corresponding socio-political leap of systemic change, and the Internet has been weighed down by the legacies of the past and the nature of the existing world order.

Rather than aiming to place the promise and capabilities of the Internet at the disposal of enlightened, common global objectives of humankind and to subject it to democratic multilateral governance, some of the key actors seem to view it primarily as their own property.

They want to be in charge of it and use it for their own strategic ends and objectives, for global expansion and dominance, and the exploitation of new technological possibilities to harvest the planet for what amounts to unlimited creation of wealth, including via virtual means, and massive “invisible” transfer of resources to the core countries of the North.

The resulting situation has been depicted aptly in the recent draft, “Tunis Call for a People’s Internet”, circulated at the Workshop “Organizing an Internet Social Forum – A Call to Occupy the Internet”, held at the April 2015 World Social Forum. It merits to be quoted:

“The Internet today has become an integral and essential part of our daily lives, more and more of our activities are organized through and around the virtual spaces, the networks, online services and the technology it comprises.  It has restructured the very way in which we live, work, play and organise our societies. In many aspects, this is so even for people who at present have no direct Internet access.

At the same time, we are alarmed to see how both our private and public spaces are being co-opted and controlled for private gain; how private corporations are carving the public internet into walled spaces; how our personal data is being manipulated and proprietised; how a global surveillance society is emerging, with little or no privacy; how information on the Internet is being arbitrarily censored, and people’s right to communicate curtailed; and how the Internet is being militarized. Meanwhile, decision-making on public policy matters relating to the Internet remains dangerously removed from the mechanisms of democratic governance.”

The Internet has become controversial not only because of the hegemonic attitude of the key country and because of the free hand given to its monopolistic global Internet-based corporations, but also because it is rooted in and fueled by larger controversies, including decades-old, unresolved development issues.

This includes the questions of transfer of science and technology, intellectual property regimes, and international regulation of transnational corporations, all of which have been on the international agenda for five decades without any visible progress having been made.

There is also the question of “ownership” and “participation”. There is a complete dependence on the Internet worldwide, an addiction that cannot be shaken off. While having a universal presence in each country and in the life of the majority of humankind that enjoys its amenities, the Internet is untouchable, controlled by someone somewhere who is invisible and unknown.

This dependencia when it comes to the Internet governance and control exercised by the interlinked centres in the North, which include military and security apparatus as well as cyber-corporations, produces a palpable feeling of discomfort, frustration, helplessness, exposure and loss of sovereignty, especially but not only in the developing countries.

Drawing on past experiences, principles of the U.N. Charter, and the developing countries’ initiatives for the establishment of a New International Economic Order (NIEO) and New International Information Order (NIIO), one can arrive at some conclusions and recommendations regarding a reform of the Internet and the bolstering of its usefulness to the international community and its common goals, including improved functioning of human society.

The aim should be to defuse the mounting conflict and discontent through political and conceptual liberation of the Internet by making it into a global public good and service within the U.N. framework, with specific objectives and functions directed at satisfying the needs of humankind and helping to overcome problems and challenges, including those stemming from past history and uneven progress and development of the international community.

The Internet should be declared as the common heritage of humankind, a global public good and service embedded within the framework of the United Nations.  This implies and requires, among other things:

  • That the Internet becomes part of the U.N. family by creating a UNINTERNET organization in the framework of the U.N. General Assembly, one inspired by democratic governance and solidarity of humankind
  • That the Internet management and innovation be shared and participatory, and that they involve both public and private entities in cooperative endeavours
  • That current international intellectual property regime undergoes a major review and fundamental modifications
  • That income generated by the Internet, including by global taxation of profits made by services that it enables, be used for global causes of public good within the framework of the United Nations and that in this manner the Internet becomes a major source of international funding for public purposes, including those related to overcoming poverty, sustainable development and climate change, food security, education and health, which now get a few drops from these massive global flows via philanthropic gestures of some who have become enormously wealthy thanks to the Internet
  • That the Internet global infrastructure be public property of the international community and that international non-profit enterprises be established under the U.N. auspices to provide Internet services, software and applications that would be in the public domain
  • That new modes of international accounting and regulation be evolved, as a means to obtain a global overview and control of the financial flows and services via the Internet
  • That a set of goals and objectives of the Internet be elaborated and adopted as the U.N. Declaration or Charter on the Internet, which would serve as the basic reference and guide for the Internet’s future development, management and operation.

Given the recent developments on the world scene, the overall context seems to be ripening for advocating the above approach, which implies a major departure from the present practices and would be a serious competitor to the existing North- and private corporations-dominated Internet.

It would also represent a return to the basic values embodied in the U.N. Charter and the decades-long U.N.-based efforts to evolve democratic and equitable world economic and political order.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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