In the long run, countries with restricted Internet ecosystems will suffer economically as their citizens will become "second class citizens" on the Web because they are not able to participate in an open and global Internet, said the Internet Society's president.
Speaking to ZDNet during her visit to Singapore to attend the Asia-Pacific Regional Internet Conference on Operational Technologies (APRICOT) last week, Lynn St. Amour, president and CEO of Internet Society, said her greatest fear was a "significantly less open" Internet which will hurt users on both the open Internet and closed Internet, as they are not able to exchange knowledge and information with each other.
St. Amour will step down in February 2014, after joining the organization in 1998. While it was a difficult decision for her, she noted that 15 to 16 years in the Internet business "is a long time" and it will be good for the organization to have a change.
"We're about to embark on a next generation of Internet Society," the CEO said, adding that she hopes the person who fills her shoes is someone who is "fully committed to another five to 15 years to the Internet".
In her interview with ZDNet, St. Amour shared what she felt was the biggest change to the Internet since she joined the Internet society, what sort of challenges the Internet still faces and how a closed Internet ecosystem will disadvantage a nation.
ZDNet: You joined the Internet Society in 1998, what do you think was the biggest change to the Internet since then?
St. Amour: "The biggest change was the scale of applications. If we look at things such as Skype, other Web applications, e-commerce and social media, those were things we always knew the Internet facilitated but never really expected to be such a phenomenon.
[But] one of the things we are certainly most disappointed is how slowly they rolled out. There are still 5 billion people in the world who are not connected."
Among the challenges facing the Internet Society, I read about how the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) is trying gain more control over the Internet. How concerned are you?
The ITU is in some degree legitimately trying to find its place in the Internet space. All of the Internet will be delivered through telephony networks, very soon.
A lot of their members which are nations called ITU member states, quite a number of them believe they should have a role in the Internet similar to how they have a role in the telephony world.
Our concern with that is: The Internet is not the telephony world. It's fundamentally a different architecture and structure. It's extremely distributed and the network itself is meant to be simple so that all the innovation happens at the edges. It means any one of us can build an application and release it. Every one of us can choose which one works for us and which one doesn't. We don't have to go through a regulator or service provider if this is OK or if that application's fine. You can set the price you want if it's not a highly regulated.
There's some legitimacy in what they are trying to see their role in the telecommunications world of the future. Our concern is when they try to apply the telephony model to the Internet.
The Internet is still unfolding. Twenty years ago, we wouldn't have guessed some of the applications we have today.
What is your biggest fear for the Internet?
That it is significantly less open. If it's not open, then it's not global. That robs those who are still on the open and global Internet of everything that those other individuals might contribute. It also robs all those other individuals of wealth and access to knowledge and information that we have.
Ultimately, nations that have a more closed Internet network. Their nations will suffer. They'll suffer economically and their citizens will suffer as second class citizens to those who participate in the open, global Internet.
There are a lot of countries that would prefer much more governmental oversight over the Internet.
On the topic of government control of the Internet. I'm seeing examples of countries in Asia, such as China or India where the government wants to control the Internet or monitor social media. Do you think this is a cultural issue?
If you want to look at how each country views the Internet, you just have to look at WCIT (World Conference on International Telecommunications) which we just talked about. The countries which wrote proposals in were from Russia, Saudi Arabia, China and a number of others. This is not the Internet Society's view of the countries. It's pretty widely known.
Being overly restricted on the Internet will ultimately harm citizens and the nation's economic growth.
I guess ultimately, a restrictive Internet might harm citizens. But now if we look at China, we see local companies flourishing because foreign competitors cannot enter the market. For example, Facebook or Twitter is blocked but the Chinese companies are innovative and they take the concept and turn it into something of their own. Do you think this is sustainable if China continues to have a closed Internet?
For a while, it can sustain them. It always has sustained them. China has pretty phenomenal growth. Most of the Asian countries have pretty significant growth as well. But I think in the long term, they will be disadvantaged.
I also think it's a matter of change and the pace of change. I think in a number of areas both geographic and topical. When people hear something happening with the Internet, their first thought quite often is quite possible is: "We need to have a cyberpolicy or cyberlaw."
In fact, the Internet is just a different communications tool. Its scale and pace make some things different. But if something was a crime or illegal in the physical world and there was a punishment associated with that. They should first look to what happens in the physical world and understand how it's applicable to the online world.
Moving to the topic of data privacy, we have companies like Facebook where users willingly give up their privacy. But we also have the Instagram backlash. Do you think users will still continue giving their privacy in the long run?
We're very concerned about trust, identity, privacy and data protection. We come from a perspective that people should know what is done to their data.
Openness and transparency are key. One of the things that a lot of services haven't done--and still have not been doing--is being transparent about what is done with the data. Some of them make efforts and come up with a 26-page terms and condition when it should be very clear paragraph: "X is done to your data and you have the right to prevent us from using/seeing/aggregating your data. All you need to do is click here to make that happen."
Users should have, and they increasingly will demand, to understand what is being done to their data. There's a saying in the Internet Society: "You need to understand the price of what free is." You might think a service is free but the way that your data is being mined and somebody else is gaining from it, usually economically.
There are also in some commercial service where people are talking about data as an asset class. If something is an asset, there's an implied value. And if there's a value, there ought to be an exchange. That exchange doesn't need to be commercial or economic, it might be higher bandwidth. For example, you use my data for marketing, maybe you can give me some more bandwidth or a discount on prices?
If we start with a notion that our data is an asset. When an asset is traded or exchanged, there ought to be a value exchange.