LIRNEasia is a regional ICT policy and regulation think tank active across the Asia Pacific (About)


Organizational innovation at LIRNEasia and why it will be harmed by ill-considered proposals at WCIT

My comments at Internet Governance Forum 2012 Workshop 142 on “Inclusive innovation for development: The contribution of Internet and related ICTs.”

I run LIRNEasia, a think tank working across the emerging Asia Pacific which seeks to promote policies and regulation conducive to inclusive growth.

I think it’s well accepted that broader access to the Internet is very useful, i.e., cheaper Internet is better than more expensive Internet. More people connect to the Internet when prices are low, as opposed to high. Few years back we were looking at the situation in Indonesia where Internet charges were very high and people were developing all kinds of complex workarounds that involved some novel applications of WiFi, supported by a lot of volunteer time and donor money. Our analysis showed that leased lines were hard to get and that when they were available, the prices were 48 times those of India.

We communicated the results through the media and otherwise. End result was that leased line prices came down by over 50 percent. Today, Indonesia is a very high user of the Internet. Arguably, we did more to increase Internet access by changing the regulatory environment than many more costly donor funded projects, pilot and otherwise.

So how does a think tank, funded by donor dollars for the most part, do this kind of research and policy advocacy sitting in Sri Lanka? Good people, attitude, etc. matter. But access to the Internet is a critical factor, a necessary condition for the kind of work we do and the organizational innovations we have implemented to make our work possible.

I came back to Sri Lanka immediately after my PhD in 1985 and did policy research, for example the starting the process that led to the amendment of the Evidence Ordinance to accommodate computer evidence. I recall writing in specific budget lines to allow me to do database searches and calling in favors from all and sundry to make sure I had access to the relevant literature and prior work. It was torture and could not have been sustained. I left the country in 1987.

When we started LIRNEasia in 2004, we did not worry too much about access to policy material for our work, though we had some concerns about scholarly literature. We had decided, based on some research I had done on Science and Technology Information in countries like ours, that we would pay for offprints as needed and not start up a library. I recall using alumni privileges to do some citation-index searches. But then Scholar.Google came out. We still order offprints and rely occasionally on colleagues who have access to modern scholarly libraries, but for 90 percent of our work, we manage quite well with Internet.

We run a virtual organization where Skype conferences are routine. We have recently started using videos off sources such as TED and the National Academy of Sciences as elements in our training and colloquia.

So the difference between 1987 and 2012 in terms of doing policy-relevant, context-specific research and capacity building in emerging Asia is the Internet. We’ve been going eight years now and no one has thought of folding up because of difficulty in getting to the literature.

We bid for work in competition with consulting firms located in developed countries, and we win some. Our focus is on pro-market, pro-poor solutions that will serve inclusive growth. The Internet makes it possible for us to work in hard environments and develop context-specific policy solutions that connect more people to the Internet and thereby contribute to inclusive growth, arguably making a greater contribution to development than hundreds of pilot projects.

Are there any dangers on the horizon? Yes, proposals coming to WCIT. If ill-considered policies to impose the sending-party-network-pays principle for Internet traffic are accepted in Dubai next month, the very existence of organizations such as ours could be threatened. We request information and bring in large amounts of data in the form of reports and videos so on. If the networks in the countries where this content is hosted have to pay (for responding to our requests), they may either decline to send information at all (Balkanization) or may turn around and ask the content providers to pay. In that case, the likelihood of content moving behind paywalls looms. We could of course pay for online content as we do now pay for offprints. But not everyone can or will. In all cases transaction costs will rise for all concerned.

But I want to highlight one additional problem. We are located in Sri Lanka, but our content is not. I actually have no idea where we have server space. We are religious about making all our content freely available on the web. This is critical to our pull-based dissemination model. When Indonesia wants to check the veracity of our research, they just take it off the web; they do not have to talk to us.

So in this strange new world some people are trying to create, even we might have to pay for disseminating our research, for making it publicly available to all. As a virtual organization that does not maintain a library, we retrieve our own research from the website.

Knowledge is key to inclusive growth. The WCIT should support knowledge acquisition from the developing world, not hinder it.

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