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How a Global Internet Policy Might Look

On the eve of what could be a seismic shift in government, talk has been heating up about tech policy in the United States.

But it's worthwhile to remember that it is the World Wide Web, and in that spirit researchers from Elon University and the Pew Internet and American Life Project canvassed the world's leading Internet activists to get an idea of what a global tech policy should look like.

Pew today released the responses from the attendees of the second annual Internet Governance Forum (IGF), held November in Rio de Janeiro.

A solid majority (66 percent) of respondents said there should be some form of global Internet bill of rights, a movement that could gather steam here in the next Congress. Only 6 percent said they disagreed with the idea.

The basic tenets would be freedom of information and freedom of expression, which each received a vote of approval from three-quarters of the respondents, who generally said that content restrictions weaken the Internet.

The survey revealed that the top problem confronting policy makers is uneven access to the Internet, sometimes called the digital divide. The principal barrier to universal, global Internet access? Money.

In response to the question about where the funds should come from to solve the problem, the most popular answer was through robust competition among private access providers to drive down prices.

The second-place solution to the access problem would have each country's government fund its communications infrastructure, followed by a global fund where commercial providers form around the world would pool their resources. The least popular solution to solving the global access problem was a global tax on Internet users administered by a non-governmental organization unaffiliated with the United Nations.

Opinion was splintered as to who controls the Internet. Nearly half (47 percent) of respondents said that the Internet had "no center of gravity."

Of the respondents who believe the Internet does have a centralized location, 65 percent said it is the United States. It might not be surprising then that 45 percent of the respondents agreed with the statement that the chief Internet governing body, California-based ICANN, "is not effective and should be placed in a more neutral, global control structure."

"One of the most interesting splits was between north American and non-north American folks," Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet project, told InternetNews.com. "There was a lot of concern that the United States was really in the driver's seat."

The 206 respondents represented 65 countries.

The survey also revealed a widespread belief that the Internet is an engine of global economic growth, and that it holds great potential for solving the world's health problems. Indeed, 87 percent of respondents said their countries would have scant economic success without Internet access.

Among the principal concerns expressed were the view that broadband providers hold a monopoly in too many markets, and that security needs to evolve to address persistent threats like spam and child pornography.

Regarding government involvement, the Internet activists said that technology develops at such a rapid pace that government officials trying to manage the Internet through public policy will always be a step behind. That is the very same argument that tech companies use in this country to argue against a privacy law that would impose specific requirements for online advertisers.