This post was written by Renata Avila, Web Foundation Senior Digital Rights Advisor. Follow her on Twitter at @avilarenata.
Many countries, even those oceans apart, face similar challenges as they work to adapt to changes driven by digital technology. Recently we heard some of these challenges during a pair of events we held in Buenos Aires, Argentina and Belgrade, Serbia, where we screened Foreveryone.net, a documentary by Oscar-winning director Jessica Yu, which tells the story of the web’s invention and Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s mission to ensure it remains an open space.
Both screenings were followed by discussions about how the web has changed our lives and what we must do to ensure that everyone can access the web’s benefits. We covered a lot of ground — from IT security and the impact of the web on local industries, to data protection and anonymity online — but there were a few key issues that emerged as top-of-mind for participants in both Buenos Aires and Belgrade.
Internet access and use
Any discussion of the web’s benefits naturally begins with access and use. More than half of the world is still offline, despite UN member countries committing to achieve universal, affordable internet access by 2020.
Participants at the Argentina event focused on physical barriers to access, including limited service availability in rural and impoverished areas, and political obstacles to more inclusive access and use. An earlier effort by cooperatives to form ISPs to deliver connectivity to underserved areas was halted by a political reform enacted in 2014, and the current government seems resistant to allowing these ISPs to continue their work. Participants also highlighted challenges associated with abrupt changes in public policy that often follow political transitions — a challenge that particularly affects digital connectivity and literacy programmes. To deliver benefits, digital policies must be designed to live longer than any single administration.
While participants in Serbia did not highlight physical barriers to access (most of the country, including rural areas, is covered), they underscored the lack of digital skills — particularly across its older population. Digital inequalities are exacerbated by limited local language content. Serbia, unlike its neighbours, uses the Cyrillic alphabet and developing a useful and relevant web will require standards that allow non-Latin alphabet languages to flourish; a number of services still do not include non-Latin scripts, citing high costs associated with doing so. Experts from the Serbian registry RNIDS, explained that while language diversity is embraced with a country domain name in cyrillic, .срб, most companies choose to register with its Latin counterpart, .rs.
Fighting for net neutrality
Net neutrality was one of the key topics covered at both events, an issue once again in the global spotlight as the US Federal Communications Commission moves to implement its repeal of current protections. In Buenos Aires, participants agreed there is little awareness of the importance of net neutrality among the general population. In order to address the lack of robust implementation in the Argentina Digital Law that regulates net neutrality, civil society needs to be better positioned to demand its enforcement and push for better net neutrality regulation — including the regulation of zero-rated services, which are common in the country.
In Serbia, participants worried that without net neutrality protections, dominant internet companies would be able to overwhelm smaller competitors, exacerbating internet centralisation. When incumbent firms can use their power to fast-track their content, up-starts face formidable — sometimes insurmountable – barriers to entering the market. The fear is that, for some users, the internet could become a small collection of apps and websites. Instead, we must ensure the market for content online remains competitive and push back on centralisation.
The internet and civic discourse
The discussion in Argentina took place in the midst of a charged political climate with protests against economic reforms. All attendees voiced concern that the internet is contributing to the deterioration and capture of the public sphere, which is increasingly polluted by hatred, racism and threats of violence, especially against women. However, they were also cautious about possible regulation — the media landscape in the country is more concentrated than ever, and the free and open web is crucial to protect diverse dialogue and, ultimately, to preserve democracy.
Since the Balkan wars, the internet has played an important role in facilitating public debate in Serbia and, in spite of repression, violence, political battles, and increased attacks against the press, the internet has never been censored in the country. Today, instead of pursuing censorship to control information, the government has facilitated the weaponisation of social media, using it to attack political opponents and to overwhelm the public with information, creating confusion and undermining public debate — a phenomenon well documented in a case study mapping political information warfare.
Defending a web #ForEveryone
Though both discussions highlighted the seriousness of the challenges we face in ensuring the web is a net social benefit and force for good, participants were clear that the web has, overall, been an overwhelmingly positive force. We must now join together to fight for and protect a free and open web that enhances human rights and allows everyone, everywhere to thrive.
Thanks to all the participants and organisers for making these discussions such a success. The event in Belgrade was hosted by Nova Iskra, a popular think-do tank within the intersection of art, innovation and technology. The discussion in Buenos Aires was hosted by R’lyeh Hacklab, a collaborative computer lab run by volunteers, where people from diverse communities gather to learn how to protect the open web.