What kind of internet do we want in the future? Do we want an internet that is biased, exclusive, dangerous and riddled by surveillance, or one that is diverse, secure and accessible to all, regardless of age, class, nationality or location?
Those are just some of the questions posed by a new report, One Internet, that is one of the most comprehensive surveys of the past, present and future of the world's digital realm.
Launched at a ministerial meeting of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) on the digital economy in Cancun, Mexico, One Internet presents the findings of the Global Commission on Internet Governance (GCIG) .
The commission is a panel of 29 members, chaired by the former Swedish prime minister Carl Bildt, given the task of producing a comprehensive stand on future internet governance.
The UAE’s Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi was one of two commissioners to be recruited to the GCIG from the Mena region.
The Sharjah-based Emirati businessman is a Media Lab Director’s Fellow of the world-renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a widely published commentator on Arab affairs.
“My knowledge is really about the Middle East and the Arab world, so I came in with the experience I’ve accumulated over the past 10 years reading and writing about the region,” said Mr Al Qassemi, who is also founder of the Barjeel Art Foundation.
“Are my ideas representative of the region? I’m not sure but there are nuances and even though I don’t think there is an Islamic perspective on the internet I do think there are experiences that can be shared.”
Mr Al Qassemi insisted his contribution to the final report, the product of two years’ worth of international meetings, debates and research conducted by a back-office team of 45 global researchers, was modest.
However, he did feel able to make a contribution when it came to the role of the internet as a tool for job creation, in helping refugees and to boost the use of minority languages, such as Arabic, online.
“We also discussed how to explain that, despite the reservations they may have, governments should have a thick skin and that it’s in their interest not to shut down access to major websites,” Ms Al Qassemi said.
“A comment here or a video there shouldn’t be a reason to shut down or prevent access to an entire website because when you shut down these outlets for creativity, you also shut down opportunity for creating jobs.”
He cited the use of Instagram across the Gulf as a case in point.
“It has allowed women at home to create commercial opportunities where they can sell their art, their design, their fashion, food or even music,” he said.
“This may sound trivial to some but this is an example of how the internet has acted as a tool of empowerment.
“These are people who have created opportunities and revenue streams where there wasn’t one and if it wasn’t for the internet they would not be employed.”
Mr Al Qassemi believed one of the report’s key findings was that access to the internet was no longer a luxury but, as a tool of education and of commerce, it ranked as a fundamental right.
He said it had the power to make an enormous difference to people throughout the Mena region, particularly the displaced.
“When we hear about refugees we presume people are displaced for a few months but the reality is that the average refugee is displaced for 17 years,” he said, explaining it was essential for them to have access to this tool of education and commerce.
“Refugees can spend their entire life in a camp and these young people can adjust better to a society if they are better educated.”
With the One Internet report complete, the next steps involve a year-long programme of international presentations and advocacy to convince policy and decisionmakers of the need for urgent action.
The report outlined three very -different scenarios, outlined by one of the GCIG's co-directors, the nuclear physicist Dr Patricia M Lewis. "We've looked at what we would call a dangerous and broken cyberspace, where it is lawless and where we see criminality and where people are -essentially driven away from the internet because they cannot trust it," said Dr Lewis, who is also research director for international security at the London-based think tank Chatham House in London, one of the institutions behind the GCIG.
“We’ve already seen a lot of cybercrime and if we can’t get a grip on that, people just won’t be able to trust the internet.”
The second scenario outlined by the report was described as one of uneven and unequal gains.
In the fragmented situation that exists, Dr Lewis said, internet users fall into digital “haves” and “have-nots”, disenfranchised because of poor infrastructure, lack of technology or their governments stopping them getting online.
“Instead of creating the one internet we want and need, we’re getting a very patchy internet,” Dr Lewis said.
“What we need is an internet that people can trust, where there are rules that allow for innovation and protect people online – their safety, their security, their human rights and dignity.
“If we’re going to make this a resource for humanity then governments also have to be trusted not to turn it off or to put up barriers.”
Mr Bildt said it was clear the internet was “at a crossroads”.
“The threats to privacy and the risk the internet will break apart are real,” he said. “The internet touches almost every aspect of our lives and has become the most powerful infrastructure in the world. Its importance will only grow.
“But basic access to the internet is -under threat – people don’t trust it to be secure and the technology that underpins it is due for a major update.”
A failure to respond to these challenges, he said, could have implications way beyond the realms of technology.
“The internet may lose its ability to support innovation and many of the gains we have seen over the past two decades could be erased,” he said.
The commission called on decision and policymakers across the world to implement its -recommendations to ensure that the internet remained the world’s most important infrastructure.
The GCIG was launched at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2014 as a two-year initiative to produce a comprehensive stand on the future - of multi-stakeholder internet governance.
Its list of commissioners reads like a Who’s Who of contemporary international affairs.
They include: the Harvard University American political scientist and -academic Joseph S Nye, the -pioneer of concepts such as soft and smart -power; Michael Chertoff, the former secretary of United States homeland -security and co-author of the USA -Patriot Act; and Sir David Omand, the former director of the UK’s government communications headquarters.
The presence of figures such as Dr Nye and Mr Chertoff made the GCIG sound more than a little western-centric and hawkish, so the commission set out to balance its composition by recruiting members from as wide a range of experience, backgrounds and geographical locations as possible.
The commission attracted representatives from around the globe including Dorothy Gordon, the director general of the Ghana-India Kofi Annan Centre of Excellence in ICT, the Bangalore-based Tobby Simon, founder of the strategic think tank the Synergia Foundation, and the online human rights campaigner and head of the Tunisian Internet Agency, Moez Chakchouk.
“We tried to get representation from different sectors and from different -regions of the world,” Dr Lewis said.
“The only gap we couldn’t fill was Russia.
“There are some brilliant people in Russia but they could not necessarily carry the government and those that could wouldn’t necessarily be able to speak freely.”
For more information on the Global Commission on Internet Governance and the One Internet report visit www.ourinternet.org