Community Leaders for Internet Health Report
Is everyone equal online? We pose this question in our Internet Health Report for Community Leaders for internet Health to open a discussion on the role of underserved communities in the future of the internet. We are drawing the conversation from the future and going back to basics.
In 1970, the architecture for the internet was designed by the founding fathers, scientists who pioneered and led the remarkable growth of the Internet from the ARPANET research network of four interlinked universities in 1969. This process was informed by the fundamental principles of open technical standards, freely accessible processes for technology and policy development, transparent and collaborative governance, and distributed responsibility for technical management and administrative functions. These considerations have defined the foundation for Internet technology, management, community, and commercialization that is used today.
Presently, as we work towards developing a healthy internet, we must recognize the voices of marginalized and underrepresented communities. It will be impossible to achieve a truly universal internet without attaining distributed ownership that stems from ensuring that all internet users are involved in processes that shape the digital future. Around the globe, users from underrepresented communities should understand the challenges and opportunities of the network as it relates to internet principles of openness, decentralization, web literacy, digital inclusion, privacy, and security. This way, we may develop the required skills to connect to the broader national and international policy environment. We will also learn the best practices involved in engaging safely with the digital world.
THE BIG PICTURE
At first look, the internet appears open and free for all. The cloud story gives us a promise of unlimited bandwidth and growth. If we put the internet through an x-ray, we will see a diagnosis of physical infrastructure including undersea cables, data centers, and telecommunication lines. It becomes easy to make the error of believing that the increasingly private internet infrastructure is a public utility. The cost of this dissonance is that the mainstream narrative is predominantly about creative futures such as artificial intelligence, e-learning, and digital IDs, for example; meanwhile, underserved communities are still grappling with basic infrastructure issues that lead to a ripple effect of poor web literacy, lack of autonomy, and exploitation of their digital footprint.
As with everything in life, what we do not see has an impact, even much more than what we see. The numbers, however, are evident. Google, Amazon, and Facebook-owned or leased 60 percent of the internet infrastructure in 2018. This is increasing. The top 10 data centers are predominantly in the USA, with a sprinkle in Europe and one in China. The top 5 technology companies, all US-based, had a revenue of 5 trillion US dollars at the start of 2020. In contrast, for example, it is estimated that 100 billion US dollars would be required to connect the entire African continent. The mapping of internet infrastructure tells a clear story – where there is robust internet infrastructure, there is higher connectivity.
Here comes the double-edged sword – do underserved communities want to get connected or not? The urgency to connect the disconnected has reached fever-peak during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The already-monopolized private sector is promising a digital utopia while others argue that the government is more equitable for the task. During the 2019 Mozilla Festival, we posed the question to the internet community and one participant’s question stands out; What stops us from operating a fully citizen-led internet – would this even be good?
THE KEY PLAYERS
Internet issues are not one size fits all. The reality of consumption and exploitation experienced by internet users differ across the globe. Therefore, we should not expect that internet best practices created in developed regions will be suitable to respond to the needs of users from underserved communities. It simply cannot work that way. For starters, in underserved regions, the technical community was at the forefront of the Internet boom. They deployed the infrastructure which connected the disconnected and brought Internet access to rural areas.
Moving on to the more recent times, the challenge is how to adopt new and emerging technologies and other sophisticated services and platforms associated with high-speed internet connectivity. In order to close the digital divide, the private sector, led by big tech giant companies introduced numerous tech innovations in the areas of artificial intelligence, Internet of Things, 5G, and cloud computing. Their activities in underserved communities have also enabled local tech entrepreneurship through digital innovation hubs that leverage these emerging technologies to output solutions that meet the specific needs of the societies.
But this does not stop there. Yes, underserved communities now have connectivity for telecommunications and they have built amazing services and platforms that work on the network. What next? They need to establish mechanisms for the good governance of the network and its services. Who should be responsible for this? Who has the power? In developing countries, power is the government. Hence we realize that decision making in these communities is most times multilateral rather than multistakeholder. Time and time again we have seen how governments abuse the power and control the internet through internet shutdowns, data privacy and security breaches, stifling of free speech online, and limiting access to information and resources over the network.
So how can the voices of users be heard on the same table with other internet stakeholders? By connecting to the Internet, civil society enters the internet ecosystem as digital citizens. Therefore, we should understand the principles of a healthy internet as it relates to trust and identity online. We need to attain a level of self-awareness online which will guide our morals in defining the dos and don’ts for the universal internet.
What does it mean to have your voice heard as a digital citizen? Whose voice counts online? At the Mozilla Festival, the internet community wrote an open letter titled I Want To Do That Too! This letter speaks to the challenges faced by minority groups as they adopt new and emerging technologies. Every voice must count and an equal understanding of open principles of the internet is what makes this possible.
POWER IN DETAILS
The big stuff matters, but so do the small ones. We must not have to sacrifice one to achieve the other. A healthy internet is only possible when the smallest unit pieces (and we’d argue the crucial human aspect) are healthy. A homogenous solution to diverse internet issues lacks the intersectionality necessary for inclusiveness and a bottom-up approach – all fundamentals of the original internet. As we have already established in this article, the internet is fundamentally unequal. How can we ensure equity online when the physical and digital infrastructure dictates internet users are not on the same page on access, literacy, and security, for example? Do we make the deliberate choice to leave underserved communities behind for the sake of progress? To whose benefit? When is it justifiable to make decisions for entire communities without their consultation?
If we argue that there is a necessity for intersectionality to exist online, a quick rebuff would be pointing at the voice the internet has given to the disenfranchised; from the Arab Spring to MeToo, and Black Lives Matter, to name a few movements that have garnered power through leveraging the internet. It’s almost like a home-owner telling a tenant that they are free because the wall fence is wide enough. But the rent is not free. The internet is not free, technically speaking. And as in matters of the Law, language becomes very important. Not only in terms of the lingua-franca of the internet which is English – but the language of the original internet which embodies principles of openness.
Learning about internet health issues should not be very tasking. Using digital platforms is not equivalent to participating in Internet governance. There is a need for critical literacy on ownership, principles, and security online. It really should be all about ‘how do we get more people from local communities talking about internet issues in an everyday manner?’ Interactive community tools, such as the Digital Rights Monopoly, creates an innovative and engaging platform for internet users to learn about internet issues which affect them. It will be extremely foolhardy for us to continue to bring the internet to rural communities without creating a plan to ensure that users from those communities fully understand all the issues that are associated with being connected safely and securely.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
The internet has been overshadowed by acronyms, big technical words, and lengthy Terms and Conditions – making it seem out of reach. The crux of the internet is people – both the private sector and government function for this purpose, though this is often forgotten. The internet has a territory, through its physical infrastructure. While our networks have no (physical) borders, the digital infrastructure dictates how different groups interact, ultimately creating an infrastructure that replicates the oppression of particular groups online.
Our focus in this README has flowed from macro-level, to the meso-level, and not least, the micro-level issues on internet health. This is to prod questions and offer a reflection of the digital future in underserved communities. 2020 is the acupuncture point for the future internet. We must be proactive to ensure that the purposes of the original internet are protected so that no one is left behind.
This special edition of the Internet Health Report features 8 young Community Leaders from 5 countries who are proactively working to address structural digital inequalities in an underrepresented community. These stories are a reminder and a hope that ultimately, the internet is about its people.
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