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Days two and three of the African school on internet governance

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After three days of hard work, AfriSIG officially ended last Friday. Participants, certificate in pocket, are getting ready to get back to their countries and translate the ever changing and evolving world of internet governance into a language meaningful to their constituencies: colleagues at the parliament or regulatory agency, media organisations, academic centres, NGOs.

Looking at the evolution of the internet allows one to understand better how it works, and that’s why an entire session was devoted to its history. If he had to chose a birthday for the internet, Professor Wolfgang Kleinwachter wouldn’t pick 5 December 1969, the day when computers in Standford, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles and Utah were connected through a non-hierarchical network for the first time. As he explained at the the school last Thursday, he would pick 4 October 1957: the day the Russians launched the first artificial satellite and the United States started planning a defense strategy to decentralise communications systems to avoid a military attack. What they needed was a non-hierarchical network, and explains why even today the internet is so difficult to control.

Professor Kleinwachter presented a useful chronology of the internet, structured in five ways: military (1957-1970s); academic (1970s-1990s); commercial (1990s-2000); the internet of the masses (2000-2010); and the internet of everybody and everything (2010+). To complement this view, APC’s Mike Jensen offered an African perspective: during the 80s and 90s, groups of techies and activists started to take an active part in building these networks. In South Africa, for example, the NGO SANGONeT had the first connection to the internet outside academia and it actually provided connectivity to the private sector, helping them to generate new business.

During another session, Bill Drake underscored the need for thinking about internet governance from a holistic perspective. Internet governance, he stressed, involves a process of steering and not a relationship of authority in the realm of international institutions such as the International Telecommunications Union or ICANN. He gave an overview of the different actors at stake such as international bodies, national governments, trade agreements and end users.

In subsequent sessions the discussion went back to names (as in “domain names”), and Dr. Edmund Katiti gave a presentation on the history of the dotAfrica (.africa) Top Level Domain (TLDs), currently under review by ICANN. Why is it so important, asked one of the participants, what goes after the final dot in an url? “Identity,” answered presenter Nnenna Nwakanma. “It allows you to brand yourself as African.” Adiel Akplogan, of AfriNIC, underscored the business aspect of having tis kind of TLDs saying, “they allow economic ecosystems of domain management to grow. They can bring new ideas and generate innovation.”

The last day of the school started with a focus on human rights. The balance between privacy and security, a topic that the majority of participants identified as a main priority for their countries, generated a heated discussion. Alex Comninos and Gbenga Sesan presented the research they did in South Africa and Nigeria on internet intermediary liability. They illustrated the impact on user’s human rights and also in business if governments made them liable for the behaviour of third parties on the internet, which took the group towards more conceptual discussions. As Anriette Esterhuysen, from APC, pointed out,“are governments acting upon the internet by surveilling communications and filtering content because it’s easier and cheaper than dealing with the problems off-line?”

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