GREGORIVS VATIS ADVENA
1775 Wiehle Avenue
Reston, VA 20190, USA
Dear Friends of the Internet,
It has been a pleasure for me to be a member of the Internet Society for one year. I would like to thank you for the opportunity you gave me of joining. It is reassuring to read in your statement online that one of your missions is advocating equal access to the Internet to make the world a better place. I hope this was also the spirit in which the Internet was created.
I am assuming that, when you mention equality of access, you are defending that no human being should be prevented from using the Internet. Yet if this is the assumption, it just takes a bit of observation to conclude that many people in the world have no Internet access. While the Internet was created (possibly) as a tool of freedom and for freedom, access to the Internet is not free. It is difficult to advocate equal access to the Internet without advocating free access as well. As it is now, access to the Internet is dependent on commercial transactions. If you want Internet in your home, you need to pay for a service provider like Telecom. If you want to create your own space online, you need to pay for your own domain and for web hosting. While it goes without saying that many of us are able to afford these costs, many others are not. This is the first barrier to equality: and it is a powerful one. Large communities in Africa have no Internet due to their lack of money. Non-profit or philanthropic organisations and private persons have to pay for domains and web hosting.
I do understand that business interests play an important role in the development of the Internet. It would be foolish to deny the benefits of a free-market. But if we assume that the Internet was created with a view to making the world a better place, we must also assume that the purpose of the Internet should not only serve the interests of businesses and free-market. And that the Internet should not be just about money.
I do not know the position of the Internet Society, but mine is simple: equal access is free access. There can be no equality if freedom not be at hand. Note that we are not talking about equality of opportunity in accessing the Internet, but about actual equality of access to the Internet. These are two different things with different implications. Why, if equality of opportunity be enough, then nothing needs to be done. This view implies that we live in the best possible world and you just need to work hard and earn enough money to have access to the Internet.
What I advocate, however, is free access to the Internet regardless of money; it is people being treated equally regardless of money. Everything else is equality of opportunity, but not actual equality of access.
It is admirable to hear from people who bring Internet access to remote regions and peoples. It is less-than-noble, however, when the price for this noble gesture is that vulnerable and deprived communities have to incur in fixed costs in order to maintain Internet access. What I defend is that those who have access to the Internet should not be forced to incur any fixed costs. I realise that, where third parties like Telecom are involved in bringing access, third parties deserve remuneration. I am not suggesting that third parties should work for nothing. I am suggesting that there should be no third parties. I am suggesting that remote communities should be empowered with enough knowledge for independent access to the Internet. Independent means not relying on the service provided by any third party. It means being able to build their own Internet access in a self-sufficient way.
It is also admirable that organisations other than businesses have access to the Internet. Yet it is less-than-admirable that everybody should pay for a domain, since not everybody is using the Internet with a view to making money, and that relying on social media in order visibly to exist online is not a credible and serious alternative to the freedom, I should say the dignity, of a personal website and domain. It is true that domains are not too expensive. For us. For many others who would make a difference in their communities, for example fighting for human rights, domains are expensive. I appreciate the fact that ICANN does need money to finance the maintenance of so many domains. Yet this is an institution that has existed for almost 20 years. Did they not have enough time to work out a better and more egalitarian alternative to making a tremendous amount of money out of little people's domains? This almost raises the suspicion that the problem was not lack of time but lack of interest, and that their interest is to make access to domains a matter of money. This is certainly not a scenario in which we could call the Internet free or open in any regard.
One of the good things about the Internet Society is the number of fora online open for debate and policy making. These are enriching discussions. What I could observe, however, is a certain prevalence of business interests in most debates I was able to follow. I have been missing a more generous focus on the human and ethical dimensions of the Internet, including human rights. I have been missing more philanthropy and less business. There is a danger that too much concern about technical development and business opportunities may overshadow concerns for the ethical pertinence of the Internet as an instrument truly capable of making the world a better place. While many developments can be achieved, I would affirm that the current capabilities of communication online are already good enough to provide a genuine space for understanding and dialogue between different people and peoples, if only there be more interest in truly building free and equal access to the Internet for all humankind. If in spite of good technology and business the human purpose of the Internet is not achieved, the Internet will fail. It will become a false promise. Perhaps this is just what the Internet was bound to be. Yet I will always advocate a more meaningful purpose than just efficiency and profit, I will embrace the cause of freedom and empowerment.
When I say empowerment, I mean greater focus on the development of more technologies enabling remote communities to break away from the financial constraints imposed by a few companies which de facto own the Internet and access to it. No human being is able to access their own website online without paying a regular amount of money, directly or indirectly, to companies and organisations like ICANN, Telecom etc. This has to stop if we really want the Internet to make a difference in human terms. In the 1990s, when the Internet arose, there was more understanding and sensibility for the search of a so-called "third way", and there was a degree of hope that the Internet would contribute to make this third way more viable. There is much less understanding for a third way today, where it appears to go without saying, more than ever, that the Internet is just about money. Africa is not impressed.
I count myself lucky and privileged by the fact that I did not join the Internet Society to represent the interests of a company, or organisation, or national state, and that I have the rare freedom to say what I really think. Yet I always try to convince and compel others by the force of words and arguments rather than by gifts and lobbying, given that policies which arise under the spell of gifts and lobbying mostly end in disaster. But I am assuming that there is a difference between the Internet Society and a dysfunctional parliament where politicians have their rhetorical fun in the plenary and then go to the arms of lobbyists in the corridors, ready to be taken to a corner where the auction of policies awaits. Where these are the standards, trust will never prevail. It is not helpful either when people trying to contribute to a debate are judged by formalities and appearances rather than the actual content of their arguments. The well-intentioned often say they are looking for new ideas and solutions and ready to open a debate, but the only ideas and solutions they want to hear are those of ministers, professors, CEOs, celebrities: people who epitomise a status and with whom it is more fashionable to agree. In most cases the real concern is not about what is being said, but about who is saying it. This cult of personality and obsession with status has to stop if we are interested in genuine policy-making for the Internet and for the benefit of many.
Be that as it may, I will not refrain from raising my voice, discreet and inglorious as it is, since this is the only voice I have. If I do not raise it, nobody will raise it for me. What I embrace, as I said, is the cause of inclusion, freedom and empowerment. Since you wish to work on the mission statement of the Internet Society, I believe there should be a more concrete definition, however succinct, of what an "open" Internet and Internet "for everyone" is supposed to mean in a world where the Internet is widely treated just as merchandise.
© Greg Ory 2017, Nulla Dies Sine Linea. Website by Greg Ory at The White Carolingian Office, Flat 7, 18 High Street, Petersfield, Hampshire GU32 3JL, United Kingdom; mobile +44 7821355575, e-mail email@example.com