Control of Internet will hurt uptake in Kenya

The government, working with the private sector, has enabled consumers and businesses to thrive due to policies promoting investment in, and development of, Internet infrastructure.

As a direct result of these forward-minded policies, the rate of Internet adoption in Kenya has increased almost 12 per cent in the past year, attracting 4.6 million new users, according to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU).  This is remarkable and a tribute to public-private cooperation.

The positive story of the proliferation of broadband access across Kenya is in large part due to allowing new technologies to enter the market and grow.   In 2010, Kenya’s exports of technology-related services reached $360 million, compared to $16 million in 2002.

The hundreds of start-ups that have appeared in Nairobi have earned the city the nickname “Silicon Savannah.”   Innovation and entrepreneurship flourish in the context of an open and dynamic Internet.

Standing in the way of Kenya’s continued Internet advancement, however, are certain proposals set for consideration at the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT), which will beheld in Dubai in December

It will bring together 193 member countries and hundreds of other stakeholders to update the International Telecommunication Regulations, an international treaty that does not apply to the Internet so far.  Some countries and organisations want to stuff the dynamic and flexible Internet into the straightjacket of an international treaty-level document administered by a lumbering international bureaucracy.  These proposals, if adopted, could potentially cap the ascent of Kenyan consumers and businesses.

They could endanger many other developing economies, especially those in Africa.  Furthermore, these proposals could effectively prevent Internet users in Africa from accessing some of the most valuable and interesting content, such as Facebook and YouTube.

The centralised approach to Internet governance advocated by some is antithetical to the fundamental tenants that underlie the Internet, namely freedom to create and readily access the vast amounts of data and information for the benefit of all web users.  A multi-stakeholder approach to Internet governance has served the people of Africa well since the Web’s nascent stages. This approach has allowed the Internet to become a powerful force for generating economic growth and social progress for the benefit of billions of people.  

It is incumbent upon the Kenyan government to remind fellow African countries and demonstrate to ITU member countries how to effectively promote the Internet. To date, Kenya’s digital economy and Internet access and adoption rates are on a steep upward trajectory. 

The current dynamic and flexible approach to Internet governance does not need an unwanted layer of additional bureaucracy. Promoting a multi-stakeholder approach to Internet governance, incentivising private investment, and turning away principles like “sending party network pays” will do more to promote the spread of the Internet than a command and control setup currently being contemplated by the ITU.

Dr Samarajiva is founding chairman and CEO of LIRNEasia, former director-general of telecommunications of Sri Lanka, and a board member of Research ICT Africa.