Michael Gurstein, Director of the Centre for Community Informatics Research, Development and Training, Canada, speaks to Newsclick about the importance of Internet governance in the current juncture. He says Internet is a powerful instrument for generating wealth and also for the distribution and re-distribution of wealth. It has strong in-built tendencies towards monopolization. Underlining that there are no easy solutions, Gurstein explains how and why Internet governance is an issue of Social Justice.
US: How and why is Internet governance an issue of social justice?
MG: Depends what you mean by social justice but for me social justice has to do with issues of equality, of access to resources and benefits and Internet governance is concerned with the overall way in which the Internet is governed or not governed. The Internet now is probably the most powerful machine in the world for generating wealth and for distributing and redistributing wealth. What you see now is a tremendous generation of value and wealth as a result of the production and sale of the hardware of the Internet, and now of the software of the Internet and also of the content on the Internet. Those resources, those benefits are not being equally distributed. Individual countries, individuals don’t have any degree of equivalent access to the benefits that are being realised. So the issue of social justice is one of how one can manage the Internet to achieve some kind of equitable distribution of rewards and benefits, and really whether you should be doing that. To a considerable degree, the question of whether you should be doing that through Internet governance has been excluded from that discussion.
US: What do you see as the most pressing problems from an economic perspective with current systems of Internet governance? And how do these specifically impact the Global South?
MG: There’s a number of issues. The way in which many of the the Internet companies operate… particularly now, many of the content companies like Google or Facebook or Twitter make their money by aggregating information and then reselling that information to advertisers primarily. Either directly to advertisers or to companies that are concerned with marketing and sales. Now all of us who participate in Google or Facebook or Twitter are providing that information, including all the people in the Global South, but the value that’s being realised from the sale of that information is only going to those companies. Those companies are based in the developed world and so there’s a net transfer of value from the participants in the Internet, the contributors in the Internet, to those companies in the Global North. The way in which the Internet is structured is that for a variety of reasons it’s very difficult for Internet content and activities to be taxed, particularly for there to be any equitable distribution of tax benefits because taxes are only on the end product in the Internet. So if you’re in the UK and you purchase something through Amazon, the payment of the tax has primarily been to Amazon in the US because the revenues go to Amazon in the US. That means maybe a net tax loss to the government of the UK. If the same thing happens in less developed countries, similarly there is a net tax loss to the US. So as the Internet becomes more widely used, difficulties of taxing and the loss of tax revenues in the developing countries becomes ever greater.
US: How will internationalising Internet governance systems help in overcoming issues of digital divide?
MG: The current systems and operations of Internet governance are primarily… the actual involvement and participation in that is largely through the developed countries- civil society from the developed countries, governments from the developed countries and corporations from the developed countries. What that means is that they pay little attention to issues around overall access. As I said in my talk, the issues of access have been left to processes that really have no action or effect. Internet governance is an area where there probably will be, or could be, more actual effect and more significance in terms of national policy making and international policy making. At the moment there’s almost no, or very little, international policy making in the area of the digital divide. So what that means is that the issues of access- and I think particularly issues of use of the Internet- are left primarily to the marketplace. What that means is that the overall argument that because people have access to 3G or 4G mobiles they have Internet access, because they have access to Facebook they have Internet access, is in fact not true. They’re providing some personal social information but they’re not actually being able to use the Internet in a direct productive way. So the development of mechanisms through Internet governance processes, real mechanisms of linking Internet use and content development to development processes is really being ignored. That would be something that if you had more active participation in Internet governance processes, it would in fact lead to programmes and policies that would respond to the digital divide.
US: This is linked to what you’d said on tax. Given that there is an increased focus on e-commerce, how are you viewing the threats to tax revenues of the Global South? And how can the new governance model that we’re proposing, rectify this?
MG: I’m not sure there’s a new governance model being proposed yet. I think there are models being discussed. They way in which the Internet taxation and revenue and e-commerce curently flows is that you’ve got a global system- the global Internet system of production, of distribution of contents and of goods. It’s a global system. To a considerable degree it’s a boundaryless system but that boundaryless system is not one without nodes of power and concentration. Those nodes of power and concentration are largely in the US and in the developed countries but primarily in the US. The tax laws and the regulatory structures are not globalised, they’re all based on national systems. So the national systems.. you’ve got a globalised e-commerce development but the regulation and taxation framework within which it fits are national. So the way in which the companies who are facilitating, who’re most actively involved in this e-commerce, are governed not by some global regulation, by some global system regulation but by the specific rules of the US tax law; to a lesser degree European but primarily US tax law and US regulatory frameworks. That obviously is designed to benefit the commercial systems in the US, it’s responding to the political system in the US and the cultural system in the US. So the fact that there is no global framework of governance within which the Internet fits means that all of the roles that govern the activities in e-commerce are largely being set outside of the countries of the Global South. As the countries in the Global South become more actively involved in e-commerce, that will become ever more acute unless something is done about it. You’ve got parts of the world that are very well developed, that are using that development to become even more developed, more rich and you’ve got other parts of the world that don’t have those kinds of possibilities, that as time goes on have even less of those possibilities. So there’s a need for some kind of a global framework that ensures some degree of equity, some degree of opportunity to participate, opportunity to grow and develop for the entire world. Otherwise you’re going to have one part of the world that has all the wealth and control because of the Internet and you have huge parts of the world that have none. That’s a real challenge. The US is extremely wealthy, they identify skilled people in India who’ve been trained and educated in the Indian system and they can offer them salaries that they could never possibly achieve in India. So all the talent goes to the US and India’s not able to develop. India’s large enough that that is maybe less of a problem but when you think of countries in Africa which have very many fewer skilled people or other parts of Asia where there are many fewer skilled people, the problem of all of the resources.. in fact what happens is that if a graduate of IIT in India moves to the US, all of the investment in the education of this person has been made in India and all the benefits are going to the US. Is that fair? Should there not be some way of ensuring that if some of the benefits are going to the US, some of the benefits should also go back tot the country and the framework that created this persona and this talent. These are issues of social equity and social justice and these aren’t being covered in an Internet governance framework that is only concerned with fairly narrow technical issues or even human rights issues because human rights issues have to do with how the individual interacts with the Internet not how collectively we interact with the Internet- collectively as a country, collectively as communities how we interact with the Internet. That’s a real challenge and that’s what we’re trying to talk about here today. I don’t think there are any solutions, we don’t have any easy solutions yet. It’s really a question given the way in which the debate has been structured up to now. It’s ensuring that those questions are asked because the real difficulty, and the reason for this meeting is because these questions aren’t being asked in the current framework. So we have to find a way of inserting, of insisting, of ensuring that these questions are being asked as the global framework for Internet governance is being developed. Right at this moment it’s being developed, the meetings that are being held, the agreements that are being made or not being made are determining what the Internet is going to look like for the next who knows how long. What the Internet looks like for the future is really going to determine what the economic systems look like in the world, what the political systems look like in the world and to a large degree what the social and cultural systems look like in the world. So we really need to try and make sure that we get those right and that those do, in some sense, represent decent human social values; the kind of values that create the kind of societies we want to live in.
US: What is the degree of monopolisation right now with regard to Internet companies? And how can this be combatted?
MG: It’s huge. There are what they call ‘network effects’ and what that means is that the more people in a network, the more benefits come to the network and more people then come to the network. If a network just consists of you and I, it has a limited value. If the network consists of all of us, it has greater value. If the network consists of all of us, it has ever greater value. What seems to be the case on the Internet- given these network effects- is that there are natural tendencies towards monopoly. If one group accepts a particular system or a particular technology, it means that all of the other organisations with which they networked, there’s very strong pressure for them to also accept the technology and that grows exponentially; because we’re existing now in a boundaryless environment that can become global, and that’s what’s happened. That’s why Google has 60% of the mail in the world and 80% of the search in the world, that’s why Microsoft had, I think, 70% of all the personal computing software, that’s why Twitter is the only short messaging service of its kind, that’s why Facebook has a billion and a half people where people are and so you want to join these networks. These have very strong effects. So there’s a very strong, in-built tendency towards monopolisation, very strong in-built tendency to support the first mover or the first actor in the space. Because of the nature of the US for a variety of reasons- partly because they’re very innovative, partly because they have the money, they have the skills and partly because it’s their marketing capacity and they have a very large market- there’ a very strong pressure for those kinds of companies to develop in the US. The US was first to the Internet so Microsoft was able to become almost-monopolies very quickly. What that means is that those countries that are slower to get in, or later to get in, to the Internet that don’t have the resources, are subdued to the same monopoly; they can’t develop their own companies and their own companies can’t compete.