I’m in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar for a two-day conference where representatives of government, non-profits and businesses from throughout the Middle East will join their counterparts from other regions to discuss “Promoting Online Safety and Cyber Ethics in the Middle East.” The conference is run by the Washington-based Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI) along with ICTQatar. Sponsors includeGoogle, Microsoft and Vodaone.
Social media and Arab Spring
I came to moderate a panel on the impact of social networking where speakers from Facebook, Yahoo, Aljazeera and OfokSystem talked about the role social networks like Facebook and Twitter played in Arab spring. Although conditions on the ground in Egypt, Tunisia and other countries were responsible for the unrest, social networking provided a vehicle for protestors to spread the word and organize protests. There was a general consensus among the speakers that the best path for governments going forward is to encourage openness and a free flow of information lest other leaders risk following in the footsteps of ousted Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak.
The conference’s opening sessions featured a discussion between FOSI CEO Stephen Balkam and former U.S. ambassador David A. Gross, who took delegates on a walk down memory lane about the history of Internet regulation in the U.S. and Europe.
Balkam asked Gross to comment on the tension between the tendencies to want to protect children via Internet regulation and government imposed filtering vs. wanting to promote free speech.
“Every parent naturally as a matter of biology as well as intellect wants to protect children,” said Gross. “A lot of these issues are variations of an old theme with each country wanting to make its decisions in their own way based on their own culture.”
But what’s different is that kids are often more tech savvy than adults. “The extraordinary and maybe unprecedented twist is that technology and Internet related technology seems to be more intuitive for young people than the adults who are making the rules.”
Gross said that the Internet does not lend itself to being heavily regulated by government but instead “a more organic multi-stakeholder approach that includes government but also schools, parents, non-governmental organizations and corporations “coming together to field their way through it.”
Changes over time
Gross pointed out that the difference between the nineties and now “is that the issues are more complex,” thanks in part to cloud computing and the rise of international companies like Google andMicrosoft. Also, the discussion, which used to be between Europe and the U.S. is now “a conversation that is truly global which means that the complexities have gone up enormously. Instead of two players you now have 100+ players,” he said.
Recognizing cultural differences among countries, Gross does not advocate a one-size-fits all policy. “Ultimately there are going to have to be accommodations and how these things get resolved will fundamentally determine the economic well being of many countries.” While this may seem daunting, he’s optimistic that it can be worked out. “With technology and clever policy making everyone will be able to live within their own set of rules.”
In the past, said Gross, “what your future would turn out to be depended mostly on who your parents were and where you were born but, because of the Internet, that is no longer the case.” Access is truly global and truly open, but the danger, he added,”is from those who will shut that down.”
The conference is being held in conjunction Qitcom 2012, a technology exhibition and conference that features technology companies from around the world seeking business opportunities in Qatar and neighboring states. Forbes lists Qatar as the world’s richest country while the CIA World Fact book estimates Qatar’s per capita GDP at $102,700.
While Internet safety advocates and tech professionals were meeting at the FOSI and Qitcom events in one part of the city, eight heads of state from the Arab region, government ministers and Arab tech industry leaders were participating in the Connect Arab Summit to talk about expanding technology opportunities in the region.