Defending a free and open Internet

In just the last decade, broadband Internet revolutionized every form of communication for 2.5 billion people across the globe. The transition from clunky 20th century technologies like landlines, fax machines and the printing press to mobile computing and e-commerce produced explosive economic growth, new frontiers in health and education and unlimited ways for people to connect, share and express themselves.

But there’s been one catch.

The only nations to reap the full benefits of the Internet were the ones that embraced the reason for the Internet’s success in the first place -- that it is a free and open network, with technological standards designed to ensure access for anyone who wants to plug in.

It may take decades, but the rest of the world’s population -- nearly five billion people -- will slowly get online. What’s less clear is what kind of Internet they will access.

Losing control of the Internet

Many governments -- afraid of losing control over the flow of information -- reacted to the free and open nature of the Internet by blocking sites, imposing tools that ease monitoring of users and restricting all kinds of vital technologies.

Freedom House, one of the world’s leading free speech watchdog groups, found that 19 of 47 countries it surveyed in the last two years enacted new laws and regulations that adversely affect free expression online.

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Many of these governments are banding together at the International Telecommunications Union, an arm of the United Nations, trying to do what none of these governments can do alone: impose new regulations, taxes and rules that could handcuff the global Internet and its users forever. So far, they have failed.

Alone and or together, these governments will ultimately pay a price if they achieve their goals, through weakened economic growth, less educated citizens, and societies less connected to the rest of the world.

The governments where the next five billion users live have a choice. They can join the free and open Internet as it was conceived and as it continues to thrive, or they can adopt a restrictive China-like model and suffer serious long-term consequences.

The Arab world is grappling with these choices every day. Internet access is growing at a very rapid pace in the region, increasing 1000 percent over the past decade to reach 153 million people. This number is expected to grow to 625 million within ten years.

Big challenges remain. Only 56 million internet users search in Arabic. Fewer than one percent of the world's content in the region is in Arabic, even though the Arabic speakers represent about five percent of world's population.

As the Arab world moves to increase Arab language content and take full advantage of the Internet, it, too, will have to decide which type of web it wants.

I recently visited Tunisia and spotted encouraging signs. Following a 2010 revolution that swept in democratic reforms, Tunisia’s government made new commitments to free expression. The nation recently became the first Arab country to join the Freedom Online coalition, a group of 21 countries that support Internet freedom, and is currently engaged in writing a new constitution. We hope it will cement online liberties for the Tunisian people and, just as important, set a model for the region.

Ultimately, the choices these countries make will affect everyone on the planet. The Internet of the next decade and beyond must be one where a person in the Middle East can upload a video that can inspire billions. It must be one where an entrepreneur in India can reach customers in China or Brazil. And it must be one where kids across the globe can learn about each other, become friends and make this planet truly one giant community.

It can’t be an Internet that's filtered, censored, fragmented, or that takes power from the people and into the hands of the elite.

Two distinct paths: one toward a bright future, or one looks too much like a failed past.

We will succeed only if all kinds of businesses, academics, brave government officials and people across the globe stand with us -- so that the Internet can move forward unshackled as the greatest tool for humanity in history.



Ross LaJeunesse is Global Head of Free Expression and International Relations for Google. Before joining Google, LaJeunesse served as Deputy Chief of Staff and Senior Advisor to California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. He developed and executed the Governor’s ambitious policy agenda, on a broad range of issues from infrastructure investment to education reform and economic development, as well as numerous environmental initiatives.

Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 13:50 - GMT 10:50
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