Davos bosses fret over threats to Internet free trade

24 Jan 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

At Davos, fears the Internet will devolve into a fragmented mess.

DAVOS, Switzerland (Reuters) – Business leaders pushing for frictionless free trade have something new to worry about: the potential break-up of the Internet, which today forms the backbone of the global economy.Google may have played a significant role in establishing the Internet as we know it, but according to its executive chairman Eric Schmidt, the future of the world’s most advanced information network is for it to disappear.

The issue is a hot topic at this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, and the forum is seeking to provide a platform for debate over ways to maintain an open, cross-border Web in the face of pressures for national regulation. “Is fragmentation happening? Quite frankly, there is a temptation,” said Vittorio Colao, chief executive of mobile telecoms group Vodafone, who pointed to different regulatory regimes as an impediment to network traffic. Schmidt dismissed the concept, and said that instead technology will create new job categories—with 7 out of every 8 being non-technology roles, which will nonetheless be benefited by technology. “That somehow no one is going to have a job in the world, and it’s just going to be the Davos elite who is going to have a good time and everyone else is going to be rioting is completely false,” he said. A growing volume of business relies on the Internet, from tourism to financial services, and the Web has empowered firms, especially smaller ones, to find customers in foreign markets who would otherwise be out of reach.

Yet even as the Internet has become embedded in modern life, its interconnected nature has come under attack from interests ranging from governments to corporate brands decrying copyright abuses or fearing cyber attacks such as those at Sony. Seeking to fill these breaches, national governments, courts and regulators are pressing for local controls that could “Balkanise” — or fragment — the network. Worryingly for business, Boston Consulting estimated that economic growth was slower than it might have been in countries with limitations on online activity, and the difference could amount to 2.5 percent of gross domestic product. “People should be concerned,” said John Drzik, head of global risk at insurance broker Marsh. “National solutions won’t protect the interests of global companies.” One media industry chief executive, who declined to be identified, said the issue needed much more attention in the boardroom: “Business needs to be mobilised on this issue in the same way as it is mobilised for free trade pacts.” A closed-door meeting held in Davos on Thursday drew together government officials, executives from a mix of industries and Internet technical groups to discuss governance topics.

Company bosses appear to agree that informal moves are not up to that task of keeping the Internet open, but that neither is a U.N.-style top-down approach. Their best hope at the moment seems to be to lend support to the decentralised network of existing technical and policy forums such as the domain-name overseer ICANN, to address hot topics such as security and privacy.

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