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How Next Billion Users Will Reshape the Internet

It's an open source future.

Michael Geist 11 Dec 2007TheTyee.ca

Michael Geist holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law. His column on digital media runs every Tuesday in The Tyee. He can be reached at mgeist@uottawa.ca or online at www.michaelgeist.ca.

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New values, cultures.

Last month hundreds of people descended on Rio de Janiero, Brazil, for the second annual Internet Governance Forum. Sponsored by the United Nations, the IGF attracted politicians, business leaders, technologists, civil society representatives, and others interested in the global issues facing the Internet.

While media coverage of the forum focused primarily on domain name issues, those concerns were overshadowed by a far more important and challenging question -- what will the next billion Internet users mean to the Internet itself? With more than a billion Internet users worldwide, doubling that number -- which should happen within the next decade -- will obviously have a profound effect on the network, technology, the computer software industry, access to knowledge, and our environment.

Understanding the effect of another billion Internet users starts with considering the origin of those users. Although some will reside in North America, Europe, and other developed countries that close their domestic digital divides, the majority of the growth will undoubtedly come from the developing world. China is already the second largest Internet-using country in the world and it will likely surpass the United States (the current leader) within the next year or two, adding 250 million Internet users over the next decade.

Countries such as India and Brazil should add another 200 million Internet users, while the fastest rate of growth is likely to come from Africa, which is starting from a much smaller base.

Many tongues in cyberspace

The next billion will differ in more ways than just geography. Most new Internet users will not speak English as their first language, which should lead to increased pressure to accommodate different languages within the domain name system. Moreover, many new Internet users will have different cultural and societal views on hot-button issues such as online free speech, privacy, and copyright. As they demand a voice in global policy making, those users will help shift the policy debate.

The next billion may also use different technology to access the Internet. The recent introduction of the XO laptop -- previously known as the $100 laptop -- demonstrates how the developing world has different requirements and how the technology industry will have to adapt to those changing environments. Indeed, flashy, high-end laptops with large screens, fast DVD players, and enormous hard drivers may give way to devices that are energy efficient, sturdier, and better suited to users with varying levels of literacy.

The operating systems and software installed on those machines may also be different. Microsoft and Apple may have been the preferred choice for most of the first billion, but the next billion is far more likely to use open source software alternatives that are free and offer the chance for local customization.

World o' wireless

Not only will the devices be different, but the next billion will employ alternate modes to access the Internet. Widespread broadband may be too expensive to install in some developing communities, leading to greater reliance on wireless and satellite-based connectivity. Those users may use mobile devices as their primary way to connect to the Internet, experiencing slower speeds of access and forcing e-commerce companies to adapt to a changing marketplace.

The message of the Internet Governance Forum was that the next billion is an enormously positive story -- a tale of the improving economic condition that will allow for much broader participation in the communication, culture, and commercial opportunities most Canadians now take for granted.

As we welcome the next billion, we must recognize that they will do more than just use the Internet. They will help reshape it in their own image and with their own values, languages, and cultures.

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