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Free Expression + Open Architecture = Innovation without Permission & Human Progress

Free Expression + Open Architecture = Innovation without Permission & Human Progress

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Responses - Stakeholder Private Sector

Zahid Jamil, Jamil & Jamil, ICC Pakistan, Chairman Center for Strategic & Policy Analysis

“Freedom of speech is the first step to democracy. Unless a nation is free to express its demands and ideas, how can it achieve its desired society?”

Freedom to innovate is the first step towards economic growth. Unless innovators and entrepreneurs are free to demonstrate their innovations, how can economies progress or prosper?

Sustainable economic growth and progress for humanity is a result of environments that have an “enabling default”[1] that allows openness and innovation.

Zahid Jamil.jpg
Zahid Jamil is a Senior Partner with the family law firm Jamil and Jamil. He serves, amongst others, on ICANN's Executive Committee for the The Business Constituency, on the IGF Multistakeholder Advisory Group and on the Advisory Board of the .pk ccTLD (PKNIC). He is extensively involved in issues of cyber-security and Internet freedom in Pakistan.

Economic growth and progress tends to be unsustainable and at best slow where innovation tends to be stifled and faces the challenges of a closed and “disabling default”.[2]

Disabling defaults tend to be the antithesis of an enabling environment that not only smother entrepreneurship but also throttle innovation including in the fields of science, research and those elements that are key to human progress and prosperity.

Most developing countries had and still tend to have a disabling default, requiring individuals to ask government to approve license, permissions and “no objection certificates” before they can even begin to test or deploy any new idea or innovation. The internet has flattened this barrier to innovation by providing developing country innovators and entrepreneurs with direct access to a globally networked environment with enabling defaults.

The open architecture of the internet allowed innovators to learn from resources hitherto unavailable, share ideas, collaborate on innovation, test and deploy innovations without the need to seek permissions, licenses or no-objections from governmental authorities. This allowed developing country innovators not only to be part of but play a prominent role in the innovation explosion powered by the internet. Skype from Estonia, Tata, Infosys and Ibibo from India, Baidu, Shanda and AliBaba from China[3] are just a few examples.

The recent efforts by some of these governments to voluntarily implement measures that would raise barriers and widen the development gap between their citizens and the rest of the free world, thereby widening the digital divide into a grand canyon tend to make little sense. Why would these governments shoot the economic future of their citizens in the foot?

Is it only a matter of control and manipulation of their own people by throttling the freedom of expression and preserving their ideologies and regimes, or is there more to this madness?

This article argues that there is a further economic motive behind these measures.

The traditional controls of many developing country regimes which used to be able to control and channel prosperity through patronage, permitting economic success only to those who would consolidate the incumbent government’s political power and private economic interests through corrupt means have been bypassed by the open architecture of the internet. Suddenly, economic success could be achieved by individuals in developing countries without seeking permission and without the need to be part of the entrenched establishment of these states. This new economic success would also enable power to be diverted to sections of the populace which may not necessarily be aligned with the establishment’s views. The internet, through its disruption of the economic and, thus, political status quo, poses an existential threat to both corrupt and undemocratic regimes.

Although the restrictions to access content on the internet being applied by a few countries these days, are usually viewed from a freedom of information and expression perspective, in some of these developing countries the issue has serious and far reaching economic dimensions. The restrictions are not just limited to the curtailment and barriers to trade but extend to economic freedoms and empowerment of the people and their right to the pursuit of prosperity and the hope of improving their lot in life. It is these rights that tend to be the underlying target of such measures.

In some of these developing countries there exists democracy only in name, insofar as elections are held, but these may or may not have been transparent or fair. Votes in such jurisdictions are fraught with corruption, intimidation, patronage and, in some places, bought for a mere plate of rice. The government of the day does not effectively reflect the will of the people at large on issues on an on-going basis. The power structure in these regimes tends to flow from the top down. The view taken by many such governments is that once they are elected, they are a power unto themselves and thus not answerable to the populous for the duration of their tenure. Instead of working for the people, they tend to further consolidate the finances, power, resources and means that led to their coming into power and which, in the future, must ensure their return.

Such countries have little in the way of institutions and processes that sustain or secure truly democratic values. The environment that enables democratic values and processes tends to be scarce and institutions (ranging from the courts to the media) that are supposed to safeguard these values can either be controlled by the government or simply be corrupt. In any case, the bottom line is that the ecosystem does not allow for freedom and democratic values.

Such governments have, over time, created both a political as well as an economic elite whose members are a power unto themselves and who have a vested interest in little other than self-perpetuation. The means of retaining and consolidating this economic power include the monopoly of information, knowledge and especially access and communication by businesses and opportunity from abroad to this elite. Access to contracts, foreign agencies and global economic intelligence are handed out as patronage. The right to innovate, establish businesses, trade, send and receive capital from abroad are jealously protected through a deliberate, complex and mysterious culture of licensing and 'no objection certificates'. Quite the opposite of truly free and democratic cultures, one has to ask permission for everything even before exploring business opportunities (or doing anything). This maintains control over who can do what and ensures that opportunities remain the preserve of a corrupt elite. It is vital in these regimes that economic power inextricably and solely serves the economic interests and perpetuation of this elite, to the exclusion of a strong (politically or economically) middle class. Such a system necessarily relies upon systemic corruption. Hence, any transparency or distribution of economic power to other classes is a threat to this political and economic elite and its vested interest.

The flattening of this system by the open architecture of the internet and the more even playing field that it creates enables not only access to information and communication but also access to prosperity and power to those who may not belong this elite. This tends to be the underlying reason in several such countries for advocating restrictions to the internet under the guise of security and even religious and cultural differences, etc.

The recent drive by such governments to restrict access to the internet is thus not simply a matter of freedom of expression. These governments like to be perceived as allowing what seems to be freedom of expression and access to information only to the extent that it does not threaten perpetuation of their economic and political power.

As noted above, the progress that is enabled by the internet is not just beneficial for developing countries, but is a benefit to human progress in general. It lets loose the captive energy of not just the men of the developing world but also of women and girls across the globe. It flattens the distinction between age, gender, caste, creed, race, geographic location and background. It enables the human race to collaborate and cooperate for economic progress like never before, unleashing the true potential of human civilisation as a whole.

The geometric progress of humanity over recent years, enabled as a result of this network based upon the values of freedom and openness, only underscores the great importance of the internet to the human civilisation (not just as an issue limited to bridging the digital gap). It is thus vital that we all work to thwart attempts at rebuilding barriers, created by mighty firewalls and various treaties, within this now networked human civilisation. Only in this way can we ensure the continued pursuit of economic and social progress for humanity (in the developed and developing world), fuelled by innovation without permission and the values of openness and freedom.

  1. Environments where all activity is legal unless declared illegal, i.e. where people have a right to earn their living through innovation, without seeking permission or restrictions, unless it is illegal.
  2. Environments where all activity is legal unless declared illegal, i.e. where people have a right to earn their living through innovation, without seeking permission or restrictions, unless it is illegal.
  3. http://www.slideshare.net/keleimang/chinas-innovations-on-the-web
Gordon Süß
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