01.08.2016 - Communication & Information Sector

Internet Universality on the agenda at international research conference

Panellists (left to right): Robin Mansell, Melanie Dulond de Rosnay, Justin Schlosberg, Efrat Daskal, Lucia Jimenez-Iglesias, Mariam Alkazemi © UNESCO

A lively panel discussion on the Internet last week debated the issues of the universal and the particular. It took place at the conference of the International Association for Media and Communications Research (IAMCR), in Leicester, UK.

Speakers assessed the challenge of balancing international standards for the Internet, with the diverse local dynamics of regulation, culture and ethics.

The debate was based on the concept of Internet Universality, endorsed at the 38th General Conference of UNESCO Member States in 2015.

Director for Freedom of Expression and Media Development, Guy Berger, unpacked the concept and its history. He explained that UNESCO believes that for the Internet to be universal and to contribute to the Sustainable Development Goals, the essential guiding principles are human rights, openness, accessibility and multistakeholder participation (summarized in the acronym ROAM).

The session deliberated on whether these principles entailed more specific international standards that should be applied in every country, and how diversity could be recognized at the same time.
Online privacy served as a microcosm of the issue.  Some discussants called for countries to have state regulation of internet companies in order to ensure respect for the right to privacy online. Others expressed caution over this use of power, and proposed that the matter should rather be an issue in the realm of ethical choices and self-regulation.

Another view was that state regulation could be good in some regions, and not in others, and so priorities and strategies could vary accordingly.

It was also noted that there could be key differences depending on the online issue being addressed – for example, health, gambling and intellectual property each had distinct qualities, and different implications for who should exercise power over the particular field.

The participants further commented on issues arising from the UNESCO study “Keystones to foster inclusive knowledge societies: Access to information and knowledge, freedom of expression, privacy and ethics on a global Internet”.

Issues of regulation, or not, for open access content, and access for minorities, were additional matters seen as important.

Digitisation of historical records was recognized as key for access to information and knowledge. On speaker noted that, in the face of financial challenges, partnerships with Internet companies were tempting, but at the risk of producing archives that were limited to paid-access for the public.

An alternative cited was an experience in the Netherlands where volunteers linked to Wikipedia made possible the digitization of unique historical records of Indonesian heritage with no barriers on access.

The case served to show the value of sharing good practices as a way of making Internet Universality a reality.

Several academics noted that they had included the Keystones study into their curriculum, and they further welcomed UNESCO’s ongoing research series of publications on Internet freedom.

For further information, contact X.Hu(at)unesco.org

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