When a potato disease ravaged Kenya, farmer Zack Matere searched 'potato disease' on the Internet and discovered that ants were eating his potato stems. On the same website, Matere found that the cure for his potato disease was to sprinkle wood ash on the crop. Two months later, his potatos were back to shape and Matere knew it was time to invest in the Internet. Online, he found a local buyer for his rescued crop. He now uses an Internet-enabled phone to get real-time potato prices.
As Matere's story testifies, the Internet represents a powerful force for economic development. Yet the net's very success in giving all of us unprecedented access to information has generated a worrying backlash. The number of governments that censor Internet content has grown to 40 today from about four in 2002. And this number is still growing, threatening to take away the Internet as you and I have known it.
The next battle for control of the web is set to take place within an international institution, the Geneva-based International Telecommunications Union. All of us salute the ITU's excellent work in the telecommunications space. It has set standards which encourage investment in infrastructure and ensure that a call made from Europe or America connects smoothly in Kenya or anywhere in the world. The ITU now aims to expand its jurisdiction to the Internet, what could be wrong?
While the ambition of bringing the Internet to everyone on our planet is noble, many proposals circulating around the ITU threaten to end up hurting those who arguably need the web most and those who have the least access to it. Several proposals claiming to benefit users in less developed countries would, in fact, end up raising the cost for Kenyan farmer Matere and others like him. Here's how. Traffic over the Internet flows today through unregulated commercial agreements. All Internet users are treated alike - be it a Kenyan small business owner or a Californian venture capitalist. Some propose replacing this successful system with formal interconnection agreements, requiring senders to pay for their traffic. Under such a model, Internet access would begin to resemble international telephone access with its high rates. If networks serving Kenya need to pay interconnect fees, they will have to charge substantially more to serve any business that generates a large and growing volume of traffic. Many Internet service providers would attempt to limit connections to countries with high termination fees - most likely the world's poorest countries. The digital divide would widen.
To be fair, some of the concerns that are to be raised at the ITU Dubai conference, on the shortfalls of the current Internet governance framework are valid. Reform to the current multi-stakeholder process is necessary to insure that regions like Africa receive a fair say. The Internet Governance Forum - which brings together NGOs, government officials and companies - needs to do a better job of including representatives from Africa, Latin America and Asia, and substantively addressing their issues.
Even so, the present bottom-up, civil society run Internet gives access to global marketplace to the smallest business in the most remote location. Safeguarding this open Internet represents a key factor in driving economic and social success. Freedom House's ratings on press and Internet freedom correlate against various United Nations measurements of economic and social success, GDP, innovation, number of patents filed and educational attainment. The more freedom, the more information, the more choice, and ultimately more power for each individual - whether in the United States or Africa. Let's make sure that the Internet stays open to those who need it the most.
By Ory Okolloh, Policy and Government Relations Manager, Google Sub Saharan Africa