Posted by Joseph Peart 26 Oct 2011

Recently the sense of smell has been defined as one of the strongest emotive senses as it is so evocative of flower gardens, hayfields and summer beaches.  As yet it cannot be sent over the internet, so we settle for sound, images and text.  Among these, music often arouses memories and emotions in a grand and inspiring way: “Do you hear the people sing … [they] … will not be slaves again”, from Les Miserables is one such musical setting .

It fits Victor Hugo’s story, and it also fits the determination of groups, such as the Internet Governance Forum.  It reminds us of the political vulnerability of the wired world, discussed recently at the UN-organised conference of 2000 Forum delegates from 100 countries who met in Nairobi. 

This latest round of talks highlighted the differences between governments want to have more say on the running of the internet and the OECD countries which support of the ‘multi-stakeholder’ model.  This model of internet governance, is based on an eclectic mix of participants (operators, academics and ‘netheads’, as well as government representatives) all of whom have an equal say in decisions that are reached by ‘rough consensus’.

The ‘multi-stakeholder’ model is a concept which gives one both a visceral and spiritual surge of pride in humanity, not unlike the emotion of Les Miserables.  But it also brings an intellectual satisfaction that common sense and logic can survive political ideology and expediency.

However the model is under threat, according to the Economist (Oct 1 2011), because it the same approach which is used by the manager of internet domain names – the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).   ICANN is also a target for governments who want a greater say over generic top level names, such as .com.  They point unhappily to new domain names like .xxx and .jesus as justification for a strengthening of their existing right to object.

Whether it will be governments or the might foursome – Amazon, Facebook, Google and Microsoft – who rule the web remains to be seen, but we can all continue to support the open-access and random creativity of social media while others strive to monetise web content.

In that regard, the Kindle is consolidating Amazon’s rout of top bookstores and is being reinforced by the Kindle Fire, which has Wi-Fi connectivity and gives access to e-books, films and music.  Like Apple’s iPad, the Kindle Fire allows users to store content in the cloud, but it costs $US199 compared with the cheapest iPad, at $US499.  (Shoppers in America and Auckland tell me the cheaper Kindle e-reader is priced at $US79 or $NZ99.) 

Amazon’s warrior strength is even more apparent in a survey by Wiliam Blair (an investment bank) which notes that Amazon’s prices for hundreds of general items range down to one-third cheaper than retail stores and other websites. 

What’s more you may not need Wi-Fi to reach Amazon in urban areas if current development of visible light communication (VLC) progresses beyond the laboratory.

According to New Scientist (July 23 2011) researchers at Heinrich Hertz Institute in Berlin have reached data rates of 500 megabytes per second, by using white-light LED to send binary pulses via line-of-sight (another of our primary senses). While many are cautious about the possibilities for VLC to provide an alternative to fibre, it is seen by others as a way to solve the bandwidth crisis.  Also, because it does not need radio-frequency signals, it can be used safely in aircraft, hospitals and even under water, where Wi-Fi cannot go.

If wireless and visible light provide alternative transmission channels to cable, they may also allow activists to bypass roadblocks set up by governments to suppress dissidents.  Many of the governments who want more say in the governance of the internet are those same governments who would like to disconnect their own citizens when they see the internet being used to organise revolution.

When Egypt’s former regime shut down their country’s main internet services, the P2P Foundation (a group which monitors how data is shared online) began work on a project called ‘Chokepoint’.  It’s an app which allows users to identify the exact location of a network outage on a map, enabling people to reroute through open paths, or use services located abroad, such as Telecomix, which converts messages sent to fax machines into emails.

It brings to mind another musical cue, this time from ‘Evita’, in which the following phrase has an ironic twist.  But I can’t help thinking when it comes to the internet’s governance and its infrastructure for social media: “The voice of the people cannot be denied” .

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