The mobile web and press freedom

Last month, the Global Network Initiative (GNI) – a multi-stakeholder coalition of ICT companies, civil society organisations, investors and academics – signed a cooperation agreement with another body called Industry Dialogue, or, to give it its full name, Telecommunications Industry Dialogue on Freedom of Expression and Privacy. Why should journalism and media policy people care about this? Two reasons…

First, as Rebecca Mackinnon has pointed out on this site before, a free, open internet is crucial for press and media freedom – and that includes the mobile internet: 

All news organisations – whether their final news product is distributed online, in print, or broadcast – are increasingly dependent on broadband and mobile networks to gather, transmit, compile, and disseminate their reports and investigations. Whether the internet remains open and globally inter-operable affects the ability of all news organisations to obtain fair access to increasingly global or geographically-dispersed audiences.

While questions of protection of internet privacy and freedom of expression, and of human rights compliance more broadly, have been given a fairly healthy multi-stakeholder airing in respect of companies like Google, Microsoft and Yahoo, these issues are still yet to be seriously hashed out with mobile network operators or handset manufacturers. Whether it’s how Vodafone complied with the Egyptian regime’s network shutdown request in early 2011, or criticisms of TeliaSonera’s operations in Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan and Belarus in 2012, mobile companies have not yet grappled with human rights and freedom of expression issues in a multi-stakeholder context. Press and media freedom groups, the media development sector, and those engaged in media policy need to make sure they’re a meaningful part of such conversations.

Second, while we’re used to thinking rather loosely about “the internet”, it’s increasingly clear that not all internets are created equal. At present 700 million people worldwide have access to internet connections through PCs, and an estimated 2 billion through their phones (according to ITU data).  As many people, especially in the developing world, come online directly and only through their mobile devices, “leapfrogging” the traditional PC-based internet experience, the widespread policy assumption has been that this is a good thing, and that it’s addressing through natural market means the global digital divide problem.

New mobile markets – increasingly rare – are keenly fought over. Take Burma, for example, where bidders for mobile licenses include global companies like Africa’s MTN, a joint Vodafone/China Mobile bid, and a consortium of Digicel, George Soros’ Quantum Strategic Partners, and Burmese investment firm, Yoma Strategic Holdings. (George Soros is also Chairman of the Open Society Foundations, which manages mediapolicy.org.) The eventual winners will be tasked with increasing affordable mobile access from 6% of Burma’s population, where it currently stands, to 80% within 3 years.

But, as a huge and ever-growing proportion of network access worldwide happens through mobile devices compared with PC-based internet access, a new report from the New America Foundation raises concerns that this will be a “second-class” or “watered-down” internet compared to the relatively full-featured PC-accessed version.

Leaving aside for the moment the privacy and safety vulnerabilities associated with  mobile devices and connections (they’re generally tied to an individual user’s identity, including their location, content creation, data usage, payment methods, and other personal details), is what they access through their phones in terms of public interest content the same as through their PC? 

Will editorial content on mobiles have the same breadth and depth as on conventional PCs, or in print (responsive design principles suggest not)? Who decides what mobile users can and can’t access, and why? Does net neutrality apply equally to the mobile web? How affordable will devices and networks be? How do tightly integrated social network apps like Facebook’s Home on Android, build – or erode – a diverse and robust information environment that supports the public interest? How will the walled gardens of mobile operating systems impact on what we can and can’t see? How global is Wikipedia if 2bn mobile users can’t easily edit it (even if monthly mobile views are north of 3bn)? And what role might open systems like Mozilla’s Firefox OS play in, as they put it, “protecting the Internet freedoms for the next 2 billion people coming online in the coming years”?

The new relationship between GNI and Industry Dialogue is to be welcomed, especially if it strengthens mobile internet policy conversations with a wider range of stakeholders. Like the digital rights sector, the media policy, freedom and development sectors all have a stake in an open mobile ecosystem, one that protects freedom of expression, diversity of content, and privacy, and that isn’t a “second-class” version of the internet many of us are used to. We’ll certainly be tracking and sharing what we can here on mediapolicy.org to help support those conversations, and we welcome your thoughts and input.

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