Last December Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, wrote a piece in the Scientific American advocating to make access to the Internet and Web content a human and legal right. With the growth of the Web, Berners-Lee feels that the egalitarian principles of democracy and universality, under which he envisioned the Web, are under threat by the very entities whom have successfully propelled the Internet’s use. He attempts to make a compelling argument to reconstitute the meaning of these principles by providing real world examples of how the Web, as initially envisioned, has taken some directions which do not align with the values and principles to which he refers. He lays out his argument by exploring the values inherent, and violated, in the debates around free speech, freedom from government/third-party monitoring, freedom from information filtering/censoring, and freedom from ISP interference and disconnection without due process. All of which are valid points, despite the faulty utilitarian logic he uses. Also against this backdrop of growing threats to our internet freedom, Berners-Lee urges for transparency in standards to enable more intra-website information sharing. (He offers the idea of “linked data” as one solution).
This piece captures the increasingly common issues of net neutrality and the digital divide, which are being bandied about a lot these days. In Canada last week, the government’s attempt to reverse an internet usage cap and billing decision by the Canadian Radio & Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) was largely in response to citizens’ reactions. Generally, the decision was not made for consumers’ best interests and would create an anti-competitive ICT market that could potentially widen the gap between those with and those without internet access. Meanwhile, in the US, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has been busy tackling problems with US telecoms. Berners-Lee mentions a federal court ruling last year which denied the FCC from stopping major telecoms from interfering with customers’ connections to certain sites by blocking or slowing traffic to competing sites. The FCC has been hard at work to overturn this by drafting new policy. And this week, the FCC, in a public-private partnership, announced its plans to resolve the issue of rural wireless broadband access. The involvement of the telecoms funding the proposed project is predicted to have billing implications on their customers. Yet, amidst the flurry of business activity, Berners-Lee should be pleased to hear that this week the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has appointed Columbia University law professor, Tim Wu, as a new senior advisor on the agency’s Office of Policy Planning. Wu founded the principle of “net neutrality” and it is expected that his work will cover policy in consumer protection, competition, law and communications technology.
Another potential boon for efforts in bridging the divide, ahumanright.org (a charity founded by Kostas Grommatis) is embarking on a rather ambitious but noble initiative to bridge the information disparity gap by providing global access to information by the use of satellites. Like Berners-Lee, Grammatis believes that internet access should be a human right. Like Bill Gates views on creative capitalism, Grammatis’ idea is premised along similarly technologically deterministic lines and ignores concurrent systemic social problems. Yet, not to diminish from the sincerity of the idea, this project is unique in that it aims to build a free communication network available anywhere in the world. This endeavour contrasts One-Laptop-Per-Child (OLPC) programs. OLPC programs may be unsustainable ventures insomuch as they make the presupposition that governments will follow suit by subsidizing infrastructure development to make internet access available in the very regions these programs target, regions where there are presently no networks available.