Q: Who Are “Internet Users”? A: Everyone

Posted on August 11, 2014

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Q: Who Are “Internet Users”? A: Everyone

The term “Internet Users” is bandied around a lot, particularly recently.

As discussion about the Internet has shifted from discussions within fairly narrow circles of techies, to marketing folks, cultural analysts and now deep thinking policy people the question of who exactly are “Internet Users” is becoming of wider interest.

The answer to the question of course, depends on who is asking the question and for what purpose. The original folks asking the question were those who were involved in designing and building the Internet. Who exactly were they building for and who (at the time) was actually using it and for what purposes? In the early days, answering that question was relatively easy since for the first few years everyone using the Internet more less was interchangeable with those who were building it (and vice versa) and as the circle of “users” expanded, it expanded by word of mouth and by more or less trusted networks of friends and colleagues.

But then the Internet started to break out and the number of its “users” began to expand exponentially as the value of being able to communicate with folks at a distance without incurring the cost or inconvenience of a telephone call or fax or the time delays of paper mail, telex or telegraph (remember those) became more widely recognized. At that point the notion of who the “Internet users” were began to shift somewhat to quantitative measures of who might be doing things on and with the Internet, what they might doing, how many might be doing what and how much they might be spending (or be induced to spend) for the various privileges and opportunities involved.

The number of “users” jumped very quickly from the ten’s to the hundred’s to the thousand’s and then to the hundred’s of thousand, then millions and now billions. As the number has grown, some of those with an interest began to be concerned with the question of who were not Internet “users” and why. Discussions and analyses and of course, research concerning the “Digital Divide” (between those using the Internet and those not) followed in train.

And equally all of the previous concerns with who the “users” might be from a technical and design perspective and from a marketing and sales perspective continued as well with armies of professionals becoming involved with figuring out how to turn non-“users” into “users”, making casual “users” more active “users”, enhancing the “user experience”; and extending the opportunity to become “users” further and further into untapped areas in Less Developed Countries, remote and rural regions, among the poor and even among the illiterate.

However, as the Internet has become ever more widespread (the current number of “users” is presented as being in the 3 Billion range!) the question of Internet use and Internet users has shifted again with questions of Internet policy and Internet governance coming to the fore. Who are the “Internet users” Internet policy is meant to influence/impact and perhaps more particularly who are the “Internet users” identified to be participants in the processes and mechanisms involved in Internet governance.

The current practice in Internet governance discussions appears to be to talk about “Internet users” in a manner similar to the early technical or marketing discussions. Those who “use” the Internet in the context of the currently somewhat disputed but widely promoted Internet multistakeholder Governance model, are “stakeholders” in the sense that they have a “stake” or interest in how the Internet operates currently and is managed into the future. By implication then, those who are not current Internet users do not have such an interest or “stake” and thus should have no role or standing in matters concerning Internet Governance and Global Internet Policy development and decision making.

Thus for example the first bullet point in the NetMundial Outcome document under Internet Governance principles is as follows:

• Multistakeholder: Internet governance should be built on democratic, multistakeholder processes, ensuring the meaningful and accountable participation of all stakeholders, including governments, the private sector, civil society, the technical community, the academic community and (Internet) users. (my emphasis)

While on the face of it this statement seems rather non-controversial in fact, at least one element of it is very suspect. Is it reasonable to only include those currently “using” the Internet (as defined by techies or markets) as “Internet stakeholders”? Is it not also important to include in these discussions those who are not current “users” but who will be users in the very near future, what about those who would like to use the Internet but who for reasons of cost, locations absence of infrastructure and so on are not able to access it, or those who are impacted by the Internet in some manner either through the provision (or absence) of a service, or through the enablement of some in a broader socio-economic environment and the associated disablement of those non-accessers in the same environment?

Who exactly are “Internet users” from a public policy or Internet Governance perspective? Is it sufficient to simply be concerned with those physically connected to or in bodily interaction with an Internet input or output device? Well probably not. From a policy perspective it makes much more sense to consider/include all of those directly or indirectly impacted by or interacting with the Internet–it is they for whom public policy should be directed and equally it is they who should have some role in Internet “governance” — determination of Internet related public policy matters at least if one wishes to approach this from the context of democratic governance.

Public policy concerning social welfare isn’t determined solely by those who obtain (err “use”) social welfare, nor is the determination of public policy concerning water standards undertaken excluding those who currently don’t have access to clean water and so on and so on. Public policy is concerned with issues impacting the public and it is hard to argue that the Internet now is not more or less impacting the entire world’s public although there are different impacts for those with the opportunity of communicating or interacting directly with the Internet and those for whom the impacts are indirect or mediated by state institutions, corporations, or individuals.

The significance of this recognition and this shift in perspective may be quite substantial since by assuming that we all are “Internet users” then we all have a “stake” in how the Internet functions. In the context of democracy it follows that all should have an opportunity to influence how the Internet is governed and managed which would be a quite considerable shift from the current practice. Of course, the current approach serves the interests of those who wish to maintain the current Internet status quo and to keep the mechanisms of governance closed to only those from within certain operational circles.

Also, of course, there is a value in “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” particularly with respect to technical operations.  However, when it comes to broader issues affecting broader public policy and the broader public interest such as for example–taxation policy and revenue distribution, censorship, and the application and enforcement of human rights–means need to be found to ensure the broadest possible inclusion in the mechanisms of governance if only on the basis of classical democratic principles.  As well and perhaps of most importance as the Internet becomes the basis for more and more aspects of public life and civic engagement, the denial of principles of universal suffrage with respect to Internet governance is a denial of democracy itself.

So let’s drop the terminology and conceptual apparatus of “Internet users” at least in the context of Internet policy and Internet governance. Rather let’s think about everyone as actual or potential “users’ of the Internet and everyone as being impacted either directly or indirectly by the Internet. Thus we are all “stakeholders” in Internet governance and we all should have the right to participate in the decisions which will impact on the future management and governance of the Internet — our common heritage and destiny.

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