In a recent Irish Times opinion piece, John O`Shea, IIA Chairman, says Ireland can bridge divide over who runs the Interent.
“The Digital Divide is not just about access to technology, nor necessarily of high cost, but has a socio-economic component… …there is a divide of confidence. The divide is also reflected in the concentration of information resources in a small group of developed countries – the imbalance of information technology assets among nations”
ITU World Telecommunications Development Conference Report 2002
Further evidence of this divide, manifested through differing levels of confidence and access to technology, is evident in the current debate about whether the UN should take a role in regulating and managing domain name registrations.
The Domain Name System (DNS) allows websites and email addresses to be found by easy-to-remember names instead of numbers. Thanks to DNS, readers can find the Irish Internet Association’s website by typing in www.iia.ie instead of 126.96.36.199. As ease of access is vital in ensuring maximum numbers of people find and visit websites, domain names have become increasingly important. The constituent elements of the domain name are generally a company, brand or organisation name (www.aerlingus.com) as well as the Top Level Domains (TLDs such as .ie, .co.uk, .org). TLDs can be country codes such as .ie and .fr, or .com for commercial or .org which was meant to be for non-profit organisations. New TLDs such as .int and .eu are currently being planned and introduced.
The debate as to how these addresses should be assigned internationally, which obviously can have major implications for both commerce and information dissemination, is pitching the two sides of the worldwide Digital Divide against each other. On the one side, the EU and USA support the current system, whereby Icann, a semi-private Californian company regulates Internet addresses in a minimalist, commercial manner that guarantees the untrammelled flow of information and ideas. Icann’s own website states that its mission is “consistent with principle of maximum self-regulation in the high-tech economy”.
Many developing nations contend however, that the Internet is a public resource that should be managed internationally by a body such as the UN’s International Telecommunications Union. Such an international body, they contend, would take into account cultural and religious diversity, and would not see its role purely to enable a commercially driven worldwide information freeflow. Such countries may also lack the technical or indeed commercial ability to establish companies to manage new TLDs, or co-operate on a regional basis. The challenges they face are to operate in a not for profit mode, assigning addresses in a fair, transparent mode, as well as technically provisioning and maintaining the domain names so that they are quickly and reliably available at as low a cost as possible..
A long-term impasse would be predictable on this issue, but for the growing threats from SPAM, viruses, child pornography, hate speech and the use of the Internet by international terrorists. Free unhampered information promulgation is no longer so desirable for the developed world, hence the issue is now firmly on the international agenda for debate and eventual resolution. However, an accord on Internet governance is not expected until 2005 at the earliest.
An example of how regulation on an international UN level can succeed, is the fact that the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) is now the established worldwide body for settling disputes over cybersquatting (where someone obtains a web address for a registered company or trademark, with which they have no connection, as was the case in 1997 when www.bankofireland.com was registered by a pub owner in San Francisco). Over 5,000 such cases have now been settled by WIPO.
Eventual resolution through a long-term process of international consultation will do little to bridge the Digital Divide, because in the intervening years, the Internet usage gap between the First and Third Worlds will continue to widen. Broadband and mobile access will deliver Internet ubiquity, and allow previously undreamed of speeds of access in the developed world, while many developing countries will struggle with the technical and commercial challenges of providing any significant growth in access and usage.
A third way of bridging this gap, neither UN-based, nor through the hope that commercial activity will eventually trickle down to the poorest countries, would be through countries such as Ireland taking a pro-active stance in sharing our technical, regulatory and commercial experiences.
Ireland recently submitted a bid to manage the .eu Top Level Domain on behalf of the EU. The bid was unsuccessful, but did highlight the technical and commercial challenges in undertaking such a venture on a regional basis, and demonstrated the positive economic benefit of job creation and knowledge which accrue to the country providing such services.
Leveraging the knowledge gained from this experience and from the depth of expertise within the Irish technology sector, Ireland is ideally positioned to offer this technical ability as foreign aid to developing countries. Just as we have provided educational and agricultural assistance for many years, now is the time to offer the benefits of our high technology learnings to the developing world. A further challenge however, would be to develop the legal and commercial operations of Internet governance in such a way as to be acceptable to more traditional and controlled environments. Our mindsets would have to move to being closer to Burundi or Bangladesh, as opposed to Boston or Berlin. By transferring knowledge to developing countries’ engineers and assisting them with the legal and commercial challenges of the Internet, Ireland could aid these countries to build confidence and develop the assets necessary to take advantage of the great benefits that can accrue from more widespread, globally-fair use of the Internet.
Chairman, Irish Internet Association
Published: The Irish Times, 19th November 2003.