NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana — Over 2 billion people globally use the Internet, and this number is rapidly increasing. Since 2000, Internet use has increased 566 percent.
While over 75 percent of North America’s population uses the Internet, the number falls to about 40 percent in the Middle East.
However, with increasing Internet access, a variety of countries, developed and developing, are struggling with whether or not to restrict access to the information available online.
The United States, for instance, is considering significantly limiting the freedom of information on the Internet. As revealed by a leak to OpenMedia, in closed negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Strategic Partnership Agreement, the U.S. is attempting to include the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.
Essentially, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act applies significant copyright laws to Internet users, extends copyright life and forces major search engines to limit access to websites, pictures or videos with unlicensed copyright material. This would apply, as Vice reported, a “notice-and-takedown regime.”
These copyright laws extend from small to large violations, including uploading videos with copyright protected songs playing in the background. According to Huffington Post, some users could be blocked from Internet usage for mere accusations of copyright infringement, without evidence or trial. Thus, in its fight against copyright infringers, the U.S. government is also limiting access to Open Internet.
The United States is pushing for the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to apply to other countries involved in the trade agreement. This includes Canada, Vietnam, Singapore, Peru, New Zealand, Australia, Brunei, Chili, Japan, Malaysia and Mexico. These 12 countries represent nearly half of the global economy.
On the other hand, the Iranian government is considering decreasing restrictions on its 30 million Internet users. As of 2013, the Washington Post reported that a majority of the Internet’s 500 most popular sites are blocked, as well as websites categorized “art,” “society” or “news.” Moreover, the Internet in Iran runs nearly 50 times slower than the US Internet speed.
Since 2006, the number of Internet users has risen 400 percent, and some leaders of the Iranian government propose evolving to incorporate the rapidly rising use of technology.
According to the Economist, President Hassan Rohani is leaning towards increasing access to Internet sites. So far, he has rejected the ban on Instagram and WhatsApp.
“Filtering has not even stopped people from accessing unethical websites. Widespread online filtering will only increase distrust between people and the state,” Rohani said. “The virtual space is a tool and it can be an opportunity or a threat. I remember that Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani once called social networking websites such as Facebook a welcome phenomenon. Indeed they are.”
Changing Internet restrictions requires the approval of a committee that decides what is offensive. This committee, which initially proposed banning Instagram and WhatsApp, includes the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameini.
Ironically, both Rohani and Khameini use banned websites like Twitter and Facebook, thus violating their own censorship laws. This rejection indicates that attitudes toward Internet usage in Iran are changing.
Increasing access to free Internet is a positive step for Iran, whose poverty rate stands at 44 to 55 percent of the population. Disintegrating economic conditions indicate that the number of impoverished in Iran is rapidly increasing.
A report by the United Nations in 2010 argues that increased Internet access is key for reducing poverty and completing the Millennium Development Goals.
“The Internet can help eradicate poverty, educate people, sustain the environment and create healthier populations,” said Jomo Kwame Sundaram, The Assistant Secretary General for Economic Development. “Let us recommit ourselves at this forum to identifying the barriers that prevent stakeholders from using the Internet for development, and suggest ways to bring down those barriers.”
Further, access to the Internet can open doors for widespread poverty-reduction initiatives. According to research from the United Nations University, unlimited Internet access could reduce poverty in rural communities and improve development programs. It does so by providing language support, promoting gender equality, evaluating the effectiveness of poverty reduction initiatives and increasing access to education and tools to promote grassroots movements.
While the U.S. is pushing to limit Internet access in order to combat copyright infringement, these actions could hurt countries with high rates of poverty. Unlimited access to the Open Internet is a powerful tool that could increase access to education and improve economic conditions. For these reasons, some Iranian leadership members are considering employing this tool. However, the effort to decrease Internet access demonstrates the limited scope of the U.S. government’s consideration during Trans-Pacific Strategic Partnership Agreement negotiations.
– Tara Wilson
Sources: The Cultureist, UN, Vice, Huffington Post, Washington Post, Economist, The Guardian, Borgen Magazine, UN University