Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Internet as a Right

There have been a few moments in my life where an idea was cooked up and should have been followed. Those who know me personally would probably agree. One of the biggest missed opportunities in my life happened at the end of 2000. I had discovered a device known as the iOpener a few months before. Basically, the iOpener was an Internet only computer, which had a format similar to today's iMacs; a flat LCD screen with the computer built in behind it. It ran the QNX operating system, and used a dial-up connection. It was being offered as a package by one of those companies that has long since left this earthly realm; within a year of its introduction, the iOpener was gone, its company ruined. Their business model (basically, you got the computer cheap if you signed up for their Internet service) was flawed.

The iOpener only allowed access to the Internet, nothing more. It was an interesting idea to me at the time. Considering its price, it could have provided the end user with a basic computer, but no provision was made for it to load anything but the built in operating system. However, it could reach the Internet, albeit limited to 56k dial up.

That is where the synthesis for an idea took place. What if we provided the client with applications on line; cloud computing.

As is typical with me, I never followed up on the idea, one which, I might add, is becoming fairly ubiquitous. Even now, these words are not being typed in a word processor or even an editor, but ZOHO Writer, an online application. Since my initial idea of almost a decade ago, the notion of cloud computing has grown.

So, for that matter, has the on line community.

I cannot even estimate the sheer number of people who use the Internet today, but I do know from some of my contacts that Internet access is almost universal, it seems. I receive Linux tips from Uganda, talk astronomy with friends in Belgian, Ireland and Bulgaria, read the news in Tokyo, the list goes on. If I am accessing these sites, then surely the citizens of those host countries are doing the same. We have gone beyond cloud computing.

In recent years, a number of countries have declared Internet access as a human right, notable amongst them France, Finland, Greece and Estonia. They feel that there is more to the Internet than just entertainment, and of course they are right. This is interactive, this is international, this is community of the broadest scale.

It has been tempting to compare the Internet to television. Many pundits here and abroad have done so already. The difference is participation. You watch television, you cannot interact with it. If a news anchor reports on something, you cannot comment on it, for instance. If a news agency or even a blogger makes a similar comment on line, in most cases you can. This is the participation society at its best, and it knows no bounds.

Beyond the entertainment aspects of the Internet, there is information. Ideas can be shared, collaborations made. Communication is open, uninhibited. The Internet has provided the planet with a neural network.

More and more, information is being moved to the Internet that is crucial to many people worldwide. Information such as how to repair cars, plant crops, avoid diseases, community engineering, even personal development is being moved on line. While libraries are still a precious part of this information chain, there are many communities that lack them. Furthermore, in some areas, libraries are losing material, cutting staff and hours, and in some instances, being shuttered. Information is being throttled, restricted.

The ideas that are being presented here are neither unique nor revolutionary. What is needed is the will to follow up on them and the capital to do so.

Internet access should be universal and, in impoverished communities, free.

These networks will be open to all, regardless of economic strata.

The tools needed to access the Internet should be easy to use.

These tools should inexpensive; use recycled equipment where available

If these tools lack the necessary software, it should be provided, again for free.

We should not restrict access to the Internet to the newest, most up to date devices. Legacy access should be allowed.

It shall remain device and software neutral, requiring no additional software to serve as a gateway.

It may not be much of a manifesto, but these ideas are potentially powerful. We live in a time where the opposite sides of the planet are simply a millisecond away digitally. This is the path our world is taking. It is time to let others begin walking it.

Who wishes to join me?