European Union calls for universal broadband: Potential for ICT4Peace

The BBC reported recently that the EU is considering legislation in 2010 that, pursuant to consultations with telcos and governments, will make broadband internet access available for all citizens.

Current statistics suggest about 36% of households in EU member nations have high-speed net access. When a majority of EU citizens are using a telecoms service, EC rules dictate that it becomes one every European should be able to enjoy… Figures from the EC suggest that from 2003-2007 broadband use in member nations tripled to 36% of households and had an annual growth rate of 20%. Despite this, said the EC, there were “striking gaps” among member states and the coverage thir citizens enjoyed. In nations such as Denmark, Luxembourg and Belgium, 100% of the population can get broadband if they want it. By contrast, 60% of Romanians cannot get broadband access. Even in nations such as Germany and Italy, which have booming broadband sectors, about 12% of the population is not covered by high-speed access.

While the process of consultation leading up to legislation in 2010 will determine, inter alia, whether narrow band / dial up access is sufficient to permit “functional internet access” I would argue that even in a country like Sri Lanka, it is not, given the nature of the web services and multimedia production that the majority of users deal with.

The BBC report and the EU does not however define “broadband” which is not a technical standard, with significantly varying interpretations of speed and quality of service from country to country and even from ISP to ISP within a country.

Universal access to broadband also involves some form of network traffic management, and it remains to be seen whether the EU, informed by the vibrant net neutrality debates in the US, also legislate for forms of network traffic management that are protocol agnostic.

What does this mean for ICT4Peace?

For starters, it means more pervasive access of narrowcast content, a model of media dissemination and a pattern of content production that we do not know the social and political effects of yet.

While on the one hand citizens will have access to more views and opinion, it will also be the case that markers of professionalism, indepedence, credibility, accuracy and responsible reporting will be as varied as the audience that consumes the content. The site submission guidelines on Groundviews may restrict the number of comments / commentators who engage with the content on the site, but it in no way restricts conversations based on the content on it elsewhere on it that may or may not be in line with site guidelines. Writ large, this means that users will be able to access content from wherever they are and engage with it either on the same site, or as is increasingly the case, by referring to it (or republishing it) on other sites, including social networking sites. Broadband allows for videos to be annotated, tagged, audio to be overlaid with text, text to be hyperlinked to multimedia, and graphics to be embedded with rich media – a content smorgasboard as it were. Navigating this will pose problems for the uninitiated and calls for media / web (?)  literacy development, but having such a rich content base means that perspectives and inconvenient truths for repressive regimes, as well as issues such as corruption, are going to be very difficult to shove under the public gaze.

Universal broadband also means, inter alia, universal VoIP. This convergence of telephony and media means that it is possible to think of a EU where every citizen can be contacted individually, if need be, and for free or little cost. The flip / darker side of this is evident and the resulting prospect of an Orwellian society positively frightening, but the best defence against such an eventuality is also universal broadband.

Citizen journalism will exponentially grow. Bearing witness to whatever that moves citizens will also grow, be it footage from a live rock concert to Police brutality. Once uploaded, this content will be increasingly difficult to track and curtail the dissemination of, leaving government more vulnerable (or accountable – depending on whether you are in government or not) to citizens.

Hate speech will grow. Bad content will exponentially increase. The number of pet tricks featured on YouTube will grow. Flickr will feature more blurred images. Sites will feature more doctored images.

Products like Photosynth will really take off.

Human rights will be strengthened, with citizens acting as monitors themselves.

The challenges to peacebuilding will also grow, but on balance, universal access increases the potential of the web as a tool for engendering peace and reconciliation and strengthening democracy. And that’s a good thing, though one can never assume that it will be so automatically.

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