The World Development Report (WDR) 2016, a World Bank Group Flagship Report, is titled Digital Dividends. At 330 pages, it is a big piece of work, and it is an Aladdin’s Cave of information gems, brilliant analysis, and the fulfilled promise of a thorough-going education on its chosen subject.
According to the press statement, the report says that while the internet, mobile phones and other digital technologies are spreading rapidly throughout the developing world, the anticipated digital dividends of higher growth, more jobs, and better public services have fallen short of expectations, and 60 percent of the world’s population remains excluded from the ever-expanding digital economy. According to the new ‘World Development Report 2016: Digital Dividends,’ authored by Co-Directors, Deepak Mishra and Uwe Deichmann and team, the benefits of rapid digital expansion have been skewed towards the wealthy, skilled, and influential around the world, who are better positioned to take advantage of the new technologies. In addition, though the number of internet users worldwide has more than tripled since 2005, four billion people still lack access to the internet.
In what follows, I am going to discuss a small part of the report that I am particularly interested in. And that is the vexed subject of internet governance. As we all know by now, the dream of the founders of the internet was that it would be a libertarian paradise and a virtual monument to a transcendent cosmopolitanism: a truly free and borderless world. Sadly, all kinds of companies and governments are turning the internet into something else entirely. How to govern the internet is now a bone of discord.
The tussle matters hugely. As WDR 2016 says:
The internet’s growing popularity has increased the need to manage its worldwide operation. Whereas less than two percent of phone calls cross borders, between 60 and 75 percent of internet traffic is international (depending on the country). Despite its virtual qualities, it has an elaborate physical infrastructure that spans the globe. As a global resource, it requires some degree of international coordination to function. Information flowing through the internet has transboundary repercussions, raising other issues for international debate and discussion. (pp. 292-3)
So, how should the internet – this amazing global resource – be governed? Table 6.1 on page 295 of the report presents the two contending approaches. The first is the Multistakeholder Model (MSM). It basically says that all relevant global stakeholders will continue to work together to govern the internet in an open, transparent, consultative way. The rival approach is the Multilateral Model (MLM). This is probably more clearly labeled the intergovernmental model. It basically asserts the allegedly sovereign rights of governments to shape internet policy and regulation as each government sees fit. Happily, WDR 2016 comes down on the side of the multistakeholder model.
I say ‘happily’ because the intergovernmental model carries with it a great danger, one that is already surfacing. If that model wins rather than the internet becoming a truly global public sphere we are going to end up with a series of hermetically sealed national public spheres, each with menacing gatekeepers carrying maces and batons and knuckle dusters. WDR 2016 does not say this but what is clear is that the push for the intergovernmental model of internet governance is part of the authoritarian resurgence that we are witnessing in the world today. That’s my view anyway.
The report concludes the discussion by pointing out that the lack of consensus on internet governance is likely to prove costly. Key quote:
The lingering uncertainty is likely to affect the private sector’s long-term investment planning. Delay in agreeing on new protocols and standards could slow the pace of innovation. Some have even suggested that the internet is at the risk of being split, so that the world ends up with several local internets – Google CEO Eric Schmidt calls it the splitnet – destroying the essential global character of the internet. (p.296)
Which is why everybody who cares must join the mighty effort to ensure that the multistakeholder model of internet governance wins.
The author is a Senior Communication officer (Policy) in the Operations Communications Department, External and Corporate Relations Vice- Presidency of the World Bank Group.