Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Consider the Caipirinha -- Brazil, IT, and the Danger of Over-regulation

Consider the caipirinha, the national drink of Brazil.

A simple mixture of lime, sugar and cacha├ža (a local sugar cane-based aguardiente), the caipirinha is a delight. Separately the pieces are too sweet, too bitter, or too sour to appeal. And yet together, when crushed up just right in a low ball glass and served over ice with the soft sway of bossa nova in the background, these three come together in a potent and highly pleasant mixture that can cure whatever ails you. Ah the caipirinha.

Now consider regulation of the Internet. Yes, regulation.

Fast becoming Brazil’s third favorite sport (hint: soccer is in the top 2), Brazil has in recent months become a leading voice calling for the implementation of the WSIS principles that have been developed to guide the future of the Internet. In theory these principles are designed to help bring more access to more people around the world, to create openness and diversity on the web. Laudable goals. However, in practice the WSIS process contains a kind of soup-to-nuts wish list representing the hopes and dreams of dozens of interest groups – many of whom can’t really be pursued at the same time.

Recently, as an example, following the WSIS principle of openness, the Brazilian Government has proposed a bill that would mandate the purchase of open source software for the entire Brazilian government, based on the idea that the Government needs access to a program’s source code. In a short period this law would serve to make it illegal for government agencies to buy Oracle, or Microsoft or any one of the most common products you might find in any typical Government office. Regardless of quality or cost. Only open source.

Ignoring the question of whether or not the Government would ever use the source code (history shows they are unlikely to) or whether they could get access to the code if they asked for it (in most cases, they likely could), the legislation could cause a whole host of other problems. Who would service these bold new products, no one has determined. How long it might take for the already busy Brazilian government sector to adapt and train for changes, niguem sabe. Who would finance the changeover or additional maintenance costs is unclear. But that, of course, is not the point. A good idea – openness – has seemingly been lost in a sea of rigid rules.

At the same time, based on another of the WSIS principles – security – the Brazilian Government has recently been considering a draft law that would make it a crime to send e-mail, post on a blog or join a chat room or download content anonymously. In theory designed to slow the spread of viruses and Trojans, the legislation is written so broadly from my reading that the kind of things we do every day – choose whether or not to show our names when communicating with the public – could be punishable by stiff fines and years of jail time. Does this make sense? Of course not. Don’t these actions appear to fly in the face of the rights to privacy contained in another one of the WSIS principles? Of course they do. Imagine if this were made a standard around the world, where the ability to comment anonymously could be a matter of life or death.

So in the end, Internet regulation in Brazil may indeed be a lot like drinking caipirinhas. Making the drink is simple enough. The first little bit always tastes sweet. Still, because they are so easy to make and so sweet on the tongue, nobody has just one. And herein lies the rub. Aspirin, water and rest can treat even the worst caipirinha hangovers. But the confusion caused by the current attempt to implement the WSIS principles through regulation could do much more long term damage to Brazil’s civil liberties and economic growth.

Brazil is an exciting, dynamic economy that is moving faster and faster to take a leading place on the web. It would be a shame to see over-reaching lawmakers leave the land of the caipirinha with a long term regulation hangover.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Do Emerging Markets really want Rescue by ITU?

I was in the big plenary room in Athens yesterday when the ITU’s Yoshio Utsumi made his big claim of the day. According to Declan McCullagh of ZDNet who paraphrased Utsumi, the ITU chief “criticized the current rules for overseeing domain names and Internet addresses, stressing that poorer nations are dissatisfied and are hoping that this week's meeting will erode U.S. influence.” If you read between the lines it’s like the old line from the movie Network – they’re mad as hell and they’re not going to take it anymore.

Well the truth is out. I sat through a grueling, numbing 8 hours of sessions today with “them”, listening to representatives of various countries from Africa to Latin America to the South Pacific talk all about the different challenges they face on access, openness and the like. And Utsumi has it right. They are mad as hell. But from what I heard their problems don’t stem from any excess of US influence and they’re certainly not looking to the ITU for solutions.

From my seat in the various committee rooms I heard that Emerging Markets delegates are dissatisfied. They are dissatisfied with their own governments who are not doing enough to create operating environments that promote IT investment. They are disappointed by the cozy relationships between legacy telcos and regulators, a situation that stifles competition from new ISPs. They are underwhelmed by the lack of locally-relevant web content, which is key to driving public demand and investor interest. And they are truly frustrated by the slow pace of progress on IDNs, especially in Arabic-speaking countries.

However, I also heard a clear voice of independence. In four different presentations in four different voices I heard speakers say in essence: “its local demand and local pressure, NOT some magic bullet from the donor community, that is likely to fix what ails us and get us to the next level of Internet availability.” What I heard was not the voice of aggrieved outsiders, but rather a matter-of-fact, non-political call from creative, ambitious people tired of waiting for some trickle down of technology and understandably suspicious of the idea that we in the OECD will some day come bearing gifts. Fair enough.

As any reader will know, I am certainly no fan of ICANN or the ICANN process. I think they’re dragging on IDNs and lagging on reforming ICANN processes. Still, the idea that somehow a move to greater control of the Internet by an even more politicized ITU will help the developing world meet its needs seems ridiculous to me.

More than the bureaucrats realize – whether they sit in Washington or Geneva – I think Emerging Markets increasingly do “get it”. We can help, but they know its time for them to push to address the local issues they face. No one who’s sat through the plenary here should have any illusion that some increased UN role will quickly improve the real facts on the ground, in country, where it matters.

In the end, is there a role for the UN? I’m honestly not sure. Perhaps a little lecture to the diplomats at headquarters – something before they return home about supporting the legitimate digital aspirations of their own people – would be time well spent.

However, I certainly didn’t hear anybody calling for rescue by Geneva today. Sorry Mr. U.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Why I care -- and why you should care -- about IDNs

Later this month many of the movers and shakers in the Internet world will be in Athens for the Internet Governance Forum (IGF). The event – part techie convention, part lobbying jamboree – promises to cover topics from a to z, with a strong focus on issues of policy, security and especially, access.

Interestingly there are now four separate IGF sessions that will discuss issues of language on the Internet. Inevitably, these discussions will look to ICANN to implement Internationalized Domain Names (IDNs). And since this issue is increasingly taking center stage (it comes up constantly at ICANN meetings too), I thought it might be worthwhile to once and for all to explain why I think the issue is so important as we move toward a more international (and less English-dominated) future.

Especially if you live in the US or Europe, you might reasonably ask yourself, “I mean really, what’s the fuss about IDNs?” After all, users can already type the name of the website they seek in the browser window using Arabic or Chinese characters (assuming they have the keyboard configuration they need). The only parts that need to be in Latin characters are the parts after the dot. The .com, .org., In the end, does it matter?

The answer is absolutely yes, especially if you believe (as I do) that south-south web trade is a big part of the future of the ‘net and a potential boost to broader economic growth and development. To explain…

First, there is the question of efficiency or user-friendliness. Consider the person working in Amharic or Arabic or Chinese who wants to do e-commerce. Sometimes there is a link, but how do you find out about sites you want to visit? In the last month I’ve read articles, seen and heard sites mentioned on radio or TV, and by far most importantly, been directed to sites by word of mouth – the most important and most reliable form of advertising in most parts of the world.

Now imagine the process. You hear of a site but then you need to change the keyboard to access the Latin character set to get to .net or .biz. I can barely figure out how to use a French keyboard (and I speak French), so I can only imagine moving from Chinese to Latin characters. Add to this the further disadvantages faced by ccTLDs and firms that wish to use them, as the more letters I need to know (and the more uncommon they are -- versus .com), the less likely I am to go there. Clearly not moving on IDNs hurts trade, and especially for Emerging Markets.

Next, look at the question of equity. I work in an office which has a number of native Japanese speakers. They complain about having to change back and forth into English (!) to go into and out of Japanese language sites, and I can't say I blame them. I know if the shoe were on the other foot – and I needed to put the suffix into Amharic or Sanskrit – I would be at a loss. Now extend this to an average person, or one with a less-than-classical education, or one from an Emerging Market economy with a much-less-than-Japanese educational system and you can see how the lack of IDNs could be an almost insurmountable barrier to participation.

Finally, there is the issue of the integrity of the Internet. We all benefit from the fact that, to a meaningful extent, there is one ‘net which we all can use. I can get info, but assuming the same connection speed, so can my sister in Boston or my friends in Geneva or Jakarta. However, the lack of action on IDNs – mostly through slow action by ICANN – has led some nations, most notably China, to consider going their own ways, essentially “forking” the Internet. We all benefit from having one system, with straightforward protocols for access. Simply put, forking would be bad. However, it is all but inevitable if ICANN does not get moving.

So, as people from around the world arrive in Athens to look at the big Internet issues of the day, let’s not forget to focus on some of the small things that really do matter. Grand discussions of access and equity are essential, but we shouldn't miss out on the chance to take a meaningful little step forward toward access to all. Access that could come with the creation of a few keystrokes.

Its time to make IDNs a reality and bring everyone to the table.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Cybersquatting, Emerging Markets and the future of the 'Net

The other day I was on the phone with a friend who does international business based in Europe. He was telling me about the recent .eu debacle – how basically before it was even launched the .eu top level domain had been corrupted (his words) by squatters who had taken over all kinds of names. Names you or I might know. Other companies’ names.

Now that’s Europe, but I work with Emerging Markets, especially Africa and Latin America. So I had to ask myself… is this something that really matters in the countries and markets that I care about most? Are domain name “land grabs” really something that Zambia should care about? And could this actually happen in Kenya, or Colombia, or Bangladesh?

The answer to both questions is yes. This kind of thing can – and will likely – occur some day soon in Emerging Markets. And what’s more, I believe it could have a really negative affect on the potential for the growth of the Internet (and Internet business) in places like Kenya where the ‘net is growing fastest.

I start with the assumption that Internet real estate abuse is a problem anywhere. Squatters don’t exactly contribute much to what we all think of as the real function of the ‘net – getting people connected with information. Customers get confused. Reputations can be put at risk. Most importantly, all kinds of companies could be forced to spend all kinds of money and time to defend their own names. So far as I can see it, squatting is generally a bad thing for everyone but the squatter.

Now take this situation and expand it ten times. Imagine customer confusion in a market where access is more limited, where connection times are slower, and penetration of e-commerce is weaker... Imagine needing – as a growing regional company with lots of international competition – to defend yourself against squatters simultaneously in 10 different regional markets, through 10 different legal systems, where squatters have the ability to harm your brand or spread mis-information about your project… Imagine seeing the value of your ccTLD like .ke or the new .africa that has been discussed suddenly evaporate, as people come to the conclusion that it will be just too big a hassle to protect … Imagine how this might affect the development of IDNs …

The Internet stands ready to explode into Emerging Markets, providing real opportunities for business and development around the world. The system for allocating new TLDs should make this easier, not harder. As the recent .eu situation shows, the system for allocating names is broken. Everyone interested in the ‘net’s expansion as an engine of growth and development – government, business, users and techies – need to stand up and push to get it fixed.

Europe may have the resources to deal with .eu, but why should the rest of the world pay for this kind of nonsense?

Monday, August 21, 2006

Should we cut ICANN loose? Not now...

There’s a lot of talk these days about ICANN’s future and specifically whether the organization should go out on its own later this year. While everyone seems to agree that ICANN must end up as an independent entity, I for one just don’t see how it is ready at this point. And, by prematurely pushing the organization out of the nest, I think we risk making a real mess that no one will be well placed to clean up.

ICANN simply isn’t ready because it doesn’t yet have the pieces in place. It takes too long to make decisions – though its making big efforts to improve processes. It has just started some programs, like outreach to Emerging Markets and more and better work with governments – but these need time to bear fruit. It also needs to formalize many of the core operating arrangements (e.g. on root server operation, on contract renewal or non-renewal, with the regionals) that it will be essential if it is to continue to provide service to a growing, worldwide and increasingly challenging Internet community.

One thing is pretty certain in my way of thinking. If as a result of political pressure the Department of Commerce cuts the cord too soon, there will be an effort to push today’s ICANN aside and replace it with some sort of UN organization. This in my mind would be a disaster.

Change for its own sake is hardly a benefit from the user perspective. Having worked with the UN system over the course of years, I hardly think they could do a more efficient job than ICANN – even without the proposed ICANN improvements. (Politics aside I wonder whether they could actually do the job at all, outside of the realm of endless debate, where they could match ICANN word-for-word). Seriously, though, as a user, I want REAL independence, not polemics. If our goal is to keep ICANN as apolitical and as functional as possible, well, the UN wouldn’t be the first place I’d recommend.

So what to do? Let’s set a timetable. Let’s really push to make the organization more open and more accountable to the “rest of the world” where tomorrow’s new users will come from. Let’s make sure they ICANN does the things they promise in their action plan. Let’s finish the job of making ICANN ready for prime time – with the stamina and resources to get the job done.
Regardless of what you think of the current relationship with the Department of Commerce, that just makes sense.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Making Morocco's ICT Future a Reality

Last week at the ICANN meetings in Marrakech, Moroccan Prime Minister Jettou addressed the crowd about the important role the Internet plays in helping to advance the social, economic and educational agenda of Morocco. In his remarks, the Prime Minister said “as we all know, the Internet today is an essential tool for the competitiveness of private and public enterprises, an effective lever of transformation and modernization for the central and territorial administration and an important tool for the creation of jobs.”

Of course, he is right. From just my quick trip to Marrakech I could see just how important Internet and e-commerce can (and should) be for Morocco's economic future – from big business to the herbalist I met in the central market, who proudly recommended I contact him by email if I wanted to buy more of his products from America.

Prime Minister Jettou’s remarks are an important realization on behalf of the government and the PM should be complimented for his foresight. However, this is hardly the first time we have heard a similar speech extolling the virtues of the Internet from an Emerging Markets leader, and real progress will take more than discussion of potential.

Morocco has unique opportunities and advantages, including its strong educational infrastructure and proximity to technologically savvy markets in Europe. Especially given the country's challenges – from immigration and employment to the need for economic diversification – a focus on investment in information technology and training seems a very wise bet indeed for building Morocco’s economic future.

On the heels of the ICANN conference, we encourage the government of Morocco to do more than just talk about the virtues of the Internet. Make the promise of the Prime Minister’s speech -- and Morocco's ICT future -- a reality.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Some lessons for ICANN from the World’s Greatest Sporting Event

Some lessons for ICANN from the World’s Greatest Sporting Event

June 27, Marakech. Over the last week or so I have heard commentaries from sources from the International Herald Tribune to the baggage handler at Air Maroc, explaining what exactly has happened so far in the World Cup, and more importantly what it all means for you, me, soccer and the rest of humanity.

And despite having spent almost 10 days in Germany during the Cup’s first round, I will not claim to understand the larger meaning of it all. However, sitting here in the conference hall at the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) meetings in Marrakech I came to thinking -- since football/soccer and the Internet may be two of the two most international institutions on earth, I asked myself: What can and should ICANN learn from the World Cup so far? Let me offer some observations…

1. Good teams play fast

Two days ago I saw the second round match between Mexico and Argentina. It was a fast-paced, creative game played from end to end. Each team needed to adapt frequently and quickly to new tactics and players. Compare this to the plodding US approach in its first game against the Czech Republic. The US tried not to lose and failed miserably. The Mexico/Argentina was an infinitely more interesting game.

I believe there are lessons for ICANN here. The international Internet game is changing fast. At each ICANN meeting there is increased pressure for action on issues from IDNs, to streamlining the process for the introduction of new TLDs and other issues. Nearly everyone agrees that ICANN needs to find a way to pick up the pace. Still, debate (which can be good) labors on (which is almost always bad). Hence Lesson #1 from the Cup: if ICANN wants to remain World Class and relevant, it needs to develop the capacity to play faster.

2. Too much referee ruins the game

One of the biggest stories of the Cup thus far has been the number of games that were literally taken out of the hands of the players by overactive referees. No one doubts the importance of having a good ref in a successful match. Still, anyone who saw the last two US games or the Italy/Australia match knows just how much an overactive referee can ruin a game. A sketchy second yellow card in the US game against Italy and a mysterious penalty in the game against Ghana, and our team goes home. I’m hardly unbiased, but nobody comes to a game – or to the ‘net – because of the ref.

Again, there are important lessons for ICANN. Governance is indeed a necessity, but it is the light hand that keeps the game intact and flowing. FIFA’s attempt to “crack down” on rough play appears to have failed miserably, and ICANN will be well served to learn the lesson. An approach which permits creativity and competition – not heavy regulation or attempts to engineer outcomes – is the best way forward. “Let ‘em play”.

3. Good teams play together and have clear roles

After Sunday’s game between Holland and Portugal I was struck by just how important it is to have clear roles for everyone on the field. Though both teams contained players from elite teams in elite leagues across Europe, the Dutch team was bigger and stronger and favored to win. However, despite their individual brilliance, from the outset I sensed the Dutch team wouldn’t get the job done. Their runs weren’t coordinated. Their positioning was unclear. They simply couldn’t work together, and in the end, Portugal advanced.

Here I think there are actually two lessons for ICANN. First, and perhaps foremost, while the ICANN structure’s focus on consultation is laudable, I am now attending my 3rd ICANN meeting and am struck by what seem to be overlapping constituency mandates and advisory groups galore – and confusion even among those most a part of the process. This leads inevitably to the second issue, which is conflict. By the end of the Holland/Portugal game you could see the frustration between the Dutch players, even though the score was still very close. So too with ICANN I think. I am often struck by the way in which registrars, registries, and other parts of the business community spend time carping at each other (ostensibly to advance their own agendas), taking their eye off the common goal of making a better, stronger Internet with more user access. By clarifying roles of each member of the team and by getting each player focused on their role it seems obvious that we could lower the volume, permitting better outcomes for everyone. Good teams get and stay on the same page.

4. Pay attention to Africa

Finally, I want to draw your attention to the teams from Africa, especially the Black Stars from Ghana. While I am disappointed that the US didn’t make the second round, I must say I am very impressed by the Ghanaians. They play a strong, creative game. They beat two good teams in the first round and played beautifully against Brazil, much better than the score would suggest. They may lack budget and experience, but the Ghanaians and other Africans are teams to watch – dynamic, entrepreneurial teams.

As in football, so as in life. From my chair here in Marrakech we can see that Africa as a region is set for significant growth on the net, and that the net can bring great commercial, developmental and educational benefits to the continent. Moreover, it is important that the world and ICANN see that this is not a question of some great, indefinite future, of “some day”. Everywhere I go in Marrakech I see progress – construction cranes building a modern city, ATMs and wireless access… Africa is on the move now, today, right in front of our eyes. Unfortunately, though we are here in Africa, and though many of us pushed for a special session on African issues in Marrakech, Africa is largely off the agenda. However, if there is one region that can demonstrate ICANN’s importance to the world community, where issues of security and IDNs and capacity building are vital, one would have to think Africa would be the place. African markets are moving, and ICANN’s work should reflect this.

So here’s to hoping ICANN can learn the lessons of the World Cup, to make itself better and to better serve the world Internet community – working faster and in a more coordinated fashion, creating a governance environment on the net that will “let ‘em play”, and doing more and better work with Africa.

ICANN’s next meeting is in Brazil. It seems wholly appropriate that now, as a community, we learn the lessons of the “Beautiful Game”.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Welcome to Andy's Global View.

My blog is dedicated to exploring issues of technology and development, looking at ways that business, government and people around the world can come together to solve problems.

Work takes me all over -- from New Zealand, to Nigeria, to Guatemala and Morocco so I thought I would start with a few observations, things I am seeing around the world. Three to begin with:

1) There are big opportunities around the world, right now, bringing technology to people in emerging markets. The pace of change is dizzying, the number of places that are "off the map" is shrinking fast. Everyone thinks about India and China, but consumer demand in places we rarely think of as prime markets (like West Africa) is in some ways even more impressive. And, though there are still many problems with connectivity, I believe that the Internet can help consumers and businesses in these markets "skip steps" in development, using the decentralized cellphone model. More on this another time.

2) I also believe that there is stength in numbers, and partnerships are key. Governments, private sector companies, international orgs and just groups of people when they come together can have a real impact on solving big problems. The key, from what I've seen is that each of them must stay "in character" -- staying with their expertise and mission, being true to their interests. Clarity about your goals makes you a better partner anyway.

3) Finally, just so you don't think I'm all seriousness, my third random observation is that the people who choose the films for international air travel must never actually go to films when they are not in the air. Otherwise they would never show Cheaper by the Dozen 2 on a flight. Shudder.

Anyway, off for a week to the World Cup and then on to the ICANN meetings in Marakech where I hope we will talk more about Emerging Markets and the Internet, specifically Africa.