24 November, 2015
Every year a group of Internet scholars from the universities of Beijing, Oxford, and Stanford meet to discuss the issues on Internet law and policy that will require attention over the next several years. The organisers hope to improve cross-continental academic reflection on the challenges that confront the Internet around the world, which would otherwise not happen in the fast-paced world of Internet policymaking. The 2015 meeting took place in Oxford where some of the most prominent topics were zero-rating, support for data-driven business models, the value of the sharing economy models, digital rights and privacy issues.
All parties lived up to stereotypical expectations to start with. The Chinese delegation stressed that the opportunities of the Internet for social and economic development should be cherished, but considered in the light of negative consequences brought about by ubiquitous information technology and access to “too much” information. Americans criticised any idea that would threaten the open nature of the Internet, while the Europeans were keen to reflect on how age-old values and principles apply in the digital world. Interestingly, though, the exchange of ideas has lead to better mutual understanding of underlying regional problems and challenges.
For example, in a discussion on the UN post-2015 development goals, the topic of zero-rating services such as Internet.org (now ‘Free Basic’) sparked a debate about the value of net neutrality and an open Internet. Participants noted that obligations to treat all bits alike and not to discriminate between data flows originated in particular socio-economic environments that may not be easily transplantable to newly developing countries. This idea was generally embraced by the Chinese, criticised by the Americans, and questioned by Europeans. An understanding of each other’s interests and regulatory environments led to an agreement that policy decisions should be taken on a case by case basis, nuanced by local conditions, and not necessarily exported or transplanted out of ideology.
The talks and discussions highlighted once more that issues such as digital innovation, privacy, freedom of speech, amongst others, are approached very differently between the formerly planned economy, the free-market, and the fundamental rights-based welfare state representatives. While the underlying Internet technology is more or less the same in all parts of the world, current legislative and policymaking approaches find it difficult to coexist. Academics appear to be calling for more thoughtful and globally sustainable Internet policies. This may seem like utopian ivory tower-type advice that may be difficult to implement in practice. However, it will be interesting to see whether regulatory approaches will converge more in future.
Academic Liaison at Princeton University
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