TechKnow: Slowing Our Global Roll

In our January column we mentioned the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) situation that emerged at the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) (TechKnow: The Year In Review.) A brief recap: the US controls the organization that doles out domain names and the rest of the world isn’t particularly keen on this power continuing to rest with a nation that insists on bringing democracy to the world by military force.

Also, browsers like US-owned companies Google and Yahoo are striking Faustian bargains with the Chinese government to turn over information from its search engines. Such bargains have led to the arrest of some whom President Hu Jintao considers enemies of the state. In both cases of US interests in the medium, the rest of the world is concerned about the imbalance in power in terms of running, maintaining, and regulating the Internet and the World Wide Web.

When offering the idea of a global village, media theorist Marshall McLuhan was referring specifically to radio in the ’20s. With each advancing communications technology, distance has collapsed and information travels at greater speed. And clearly, “global village” is a prescient term because the idea has since been applied to television and now the Internet. The ideal is that these modes of communication offer the world a single, unified entity through which the people of all nations communicate, trade, research — and look at porn (the Internet’s biggest money maker). What we have at the moment is a global village with some dodgy side streets.

The Internet as global village, though, is more of a problematic sentiment than a reality. Like the US Constitution, a global village is an ideal, but it’s an ideal that becomes a reality through trial and error. Freedom of speech is enshrined in the US Constitution, but the Supreme Court continues to hear cases related to the extent of that right. For example, Right-to-Lifers continue to argue before the court that blocking the sidewalks and entrances to family planning clinics constitutes free speech — and the court keeps knocking them back. Similarly, and ideally, the Internet connects each of us to someone across the globe, thus allowing Internet users a form of freedom of speech. Whether through Voice-Over-Internet-Protocol (VOIP) programs such as Skype or via email, it is possible to connect with friends and strangers throughout the world and, for those of us with access, anyway, we communicate thus, unfettered.

But that connection has several conditions and those conditions continue to be a challenge. Many people in the world don’t have computers, much less broadband. Of those who are not “wired”, many are concerned with, oh, you know, daily survival issues such as safe food and water, clean air, shelter, jobs, health care… Even within developed nations, critics lament the digital divide created by differences in class. And even if we as individuals can bridge our differences via technology, a global Internet village, like freedom of speech, is under constant threat from interests that tout democracy, such as the US and the EU, and those that give no pretence of a priority of human rights for its citizens, such as China.

My own doubts about the Internet global village and US control over ICANN aside, the rest of the world seems ready to stomp out of the cyber-communication playground and create new toys on their home turf. As Christopher Rhoads Reports in the 19 January 2006 Wall Street Journal article “Endangered Domain”, other nations are actively seeking and developing alternatives to the Internet.

The League of Arab States (22 nations including Syria, Somalia, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan) is rumoured to offer its own Arabic suffixes as options other than the .com, .org, .net, etc. Likewise, China has created suffixes with their own language characters. For beaucoup money, an Amsterdam-based company, UnifiedRoot, is offering top-level domain names for a $1,000 registration fee and $250 yearly maintenance. In short, by establishing their own Internets, non-US entities are trying to take control over their economic and cultural destiny in the face of both aggressive (military) and soft (cultural) American imperialism.

With more than half the Internet’s users living outside the US, is it any wonder that the majority of the global village would want an information delivery system that serves its needs? It’s not surprising that countries such as Cuba, which get lumped into a comic book concept like “Axis of Evil”, would want to develop an alternative to the US-controlled domain name system. Crippled for years under a US embargo, why should Cuba lag behind the rest of the world in Internet technology?

Likewise, why should Japan — a country significantly ahead in the technology curve — loiter in the English-speaking Internet, waiting for the US to catch up? Why not develop its own Japanese language system? What makes the Bush Administration, in the soup for wiretapping its own citizens, appropriate guardians of the Internet and able to best determine its use? If so-called “rogue nations” defy the US’ demands that they stop developing nuclear weapons, I think figuring out their own independent Internets is just one more, if minor, declaration of autonomy.

Two responses to non-US innovations become evident: 1. The seemingly technological limitations multiple Internets pose and 2. Human rights concerns. Regarding the first concern; the Chicken Littles squawk about fragmentation! The balkanization of the Internet! Global disconnect! This group worries that a resource (a resource that is, in reality, already circumscribed and not accessible to most of the non-English speaking world) will be limited in who it reaches. There’s more than a pinch of paranoia at work here. It’s an attitude indicative of the American who makes the choice to never learn a language other than English. After all, everyone in the world learns English, so why bother?

And yet, put that mono-lingual American in an elevator with people speaking French, German, Portuguese, or Arabic and the American may think, “What language is that? What are they saying about me?” It’s this fear of not understanding what the rest of the world is saying, but refusing to learn another language, that drives a great deal of the US government and big business'(increasingly one in the same) paranoia toward other nations developing their own systems.

Other critics of separate information delivery systems like the Internet position themselves from a moral standpoint, using a human rights framework. Their concern is that undemocratic nations might further cut their citizens off from the rest of the world with a closed, censored information delivery system. China’s dubious courtship with US-based technology companies such as Yahoo, Google, Cisco Systems, and Microsoft brings their fears to fruition, as shown in the arrest of dissidents. In exchange for access to the Chinese Internet market, these playas decided it’s okay to censor content. Hey, Chinese Internet user — do you Yahoo? Go right ahead…if you want to end up in the Shanghai clink.

These corporations belie the idea of the Internet as a free and easy global network if they’re merely concerned with their bottom line. There’s no free lunch and we need to ask: what price are corporations willing to pay to access untapped markets? And just to make the distinctions between nation-states and corporations even blurrier, one begins to see the absurdity: at a Congressional hearing in February, Yahoo and Friends had their asses handed to them by the same government that wants to take a look-see at Google’s search data — your search data. Under the guise of reviving anti-child porn laws that were struck down as unconstitutional, the Bush Administration subpoenaed Google’s search engine data, including approximately one million web addresses and searches (“Feds After Google Data“, by Howard Mintz, 19 January 2006, SiliconValley.com). Not claiming to be the sharpest tool in the shed, does it strike anyone else as contradictory that the US government can’t get it’s position consistent on how to deal with Internet Service Providers? Yes, I realize the Bush Administration and Congress are two different entities. However, from a distance, US government policy around Internet searches seems to mirror its policy on nuclear weapons: do as I say, not as I do.

Corporations and individuals that predict global fragmentation will result from multiple Internets suffer from the same capitalist impulse masquerading as altruism. They persist in thinking of the world as developing markets rather than as developing nations. If one were truly concerned with the fracturing of the fragile global village, it would be better to think about the kinds of information and resources that can make a difference in alleviating societal ills.

At the WSIS meeting in Tunisia, media outlets were abuzz about MIT Media Labs’ $100 laptop (see TechKnow: Paranoid Much?). Almost immediately, the criticism kicked into gear and not all of it was unwarranted cynicism. This cheapo laptop winds up with a hand crank, for chrissake! I’d suggest that wiring communities with electricity might be a better place to begin in assisting developing nations that being resigned to the deficiencies and working within them. The goal of the new nonprofit, One Laptop Per Child is to provide the kiddly-winks with a (slow 500Mhz) laptop with flash memory so that they can communicate with the kid at the next desk. (MIT Media Laboratory)

The bigoted naysayers, slaves to the “African corruption” narrative (that is, all Africans are incapable of justly governing themselves), think these laptops will be immediately stolen and sold on the black market. A host of partypoopers like myself have sussed out the problems with giving children in developing nations what is, essentially, an iPod Shuffle with a keyboard. These problems mainly center around maintaining the infrastructure to make these computers useful. How will servers to connect these laptops operate? Is this the best use of resources for villages and towns without electricity? A quick Internet browse yields a number of electronic educational toys that (with the addition of internal batteries) would prove to be more far effective than a glorified Etch-a-Sketch. These piecemeal offerings of Western largesse come off to the developing world as insults.

The other pitfall of both the human rights advocates and Chicken Littles is that they view the Internet and its alternatives through a scarcity model. Do we really face limits on bandwidth, content, ingenuity, or enterprise? Perhaps it might be useful to take a step back and consider what problems might be solved if more people from more varied places and economies could access the Internet. Is it really feasible, or desirable, for everyone in the world to have access to all the information that exists on the world wide web? How might national sovereigns benefit from control over their own information delivery systems that develop outside the constraints of English-only or US business-dominated enterprises? For example, would its own Internet-type system allow France and Germany to more easily exercise their laws banning the sale of Nazi propaganda, thus shutting out ideas proven to have catastrophic consequences to humanity?

Internet law still grapples with libel and defamation laws ability to figuratively cross international borders. For example, the same article printed on a US website, but read in the UK, about Britney Spears kicking her golddigging husband Kevin Federline out of the house is protected by free speech in the US. But, since the article is accessed worldwide, defamation and libels laws where the article is read apply. Hence, Catherine Zeta-Jones’ lawsuit over her wedding photos appearing in US publications is actionable in the UK. How cool would it be if independent Internets could ensure that libel lawsuit happy celebs like Zeta-Jones and Tom Cruise had to stay on their side of the Pond and suck up the criticism that their excessive celebrity has wrought? I, for one, would welcome such a development.

It’s possible that, yes, other countries will develop their own Internets. But if the world does prove to be increasingly one big global village market, demand will indicate the need for the supply of ways to reconnect the various systems. We may find that Internet development, still relatively new compared to other media, is cyclical. It could go through phases of inclusion and exclusion, both within countries and between them.

Since I spent the first round of the Internet boom in the ’90s as a poverty-stricken grad student, I make no claims to being on the cutting-edge when it comes to predicting where new systems will go. Like you, I’ll have to wait and see what happens while the real movers and shakers get on with pushing the boundaries of technology. The promise is more than McLuhan could’ve dreamed possible.

— Kimberly Springer

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