Google at odds with African ministers and musicians over internet regulation
The Google chief executive, Eric Schmidt, has been on a lobbying tour of India, in an attempt to convince the country not to regulate the internet.
"Now is the moment for India to decide what kind of internet it wants for them [sic]: an open internet that benefits all or a highly regulated one that inhibits innovation," he wrote in a recent op-ed for the Times of India, as if those were the only two choices on offer.
"As the internet has emerged in many of these different countries, there's quite a few countries that have no laws that pertain to the internet at all and those internets tend to be free and open with almost anything goes," he said at the Big Tent Activate Summit in New Delhi.
It's no surprise Google wants an unregulated internet. It detests competition regulation and copyright enforcement, no doubt because it affects the corporation's bottom line. But in Africa, a continent that has experienced the effect of infringement of intellectual property on both innovation and the ability of its citizens to make a living, ministers are coming out in force to protect it.
In sharp contrast to Schmidt's announcement, African policymakers attending a ministerial-level meeting in Tanzania agreed on the importance of developing national intellectual property frameworks in order to foster innovation.
If an unregulated internet where "almost anything goes" is so liberating, how come those who live with that reality are far from content with the status quo? Perhaps they realise that the reason their continent has been lagging behind is not simply for the lack of wider access to unregulated telecommunications (though a recent United Nations study shows that more people on the planet have access to mobile phones than toilets).
The African policymakers said they wanted to protect their citizens' IP rights in order to attract investment and "ensure that intellectual property becomes a tool for African economic emancipation".
"To know that your knowledge is not just for free, you can also add something, and if you discover something, it's for you," Kenya's minister for higher education, science and technology, Margaret Kamar, told Intellectual Property Watch. "If we allow this to be learned when students are very young, it will be easier for them to hold on to it and be able to exploit it."
It echoes the sentiment of the European Court of Human Rights, which recently ruled that this human right trumped the "human right to pirate" that the Pirate Bay founders claimed in their appeal against their Swedish conviction.
Rather than feeling liberated by the "sharing" of their work, African artists have voiced their despair at the rampant piracy their "anything goes" internet has brought upon them.
In an article about Zimbabwean artist Thomas "Mukanya" Mapfumo's concern about piracy, Chris Tongogara wrote: "By committing such nasty internet acts of pirating on our Zimbabwe musicians' products they are feeding on other people's blood. This is in cases where most of our entertainers throw in their blood, sweat and tears to emerge with such scintillating music hoping to make headlines, best sellers and earn decent income.
"Once we stop supporting our own music then we are doomed. Simultaneously, the more support we give to the bootleggers, the more we have killed the talent among us."
As Jaron Lanier said at a recent Guardian talk, the open concept creates power concentration. Initially, he said, you feel you get free treats, yet it comes at a cost. But those who own "the biggest computer" (Google) get only rewards. Perhaps that's why Schmidt is on a lobbying tour of emerging markets, such as India. It looks like his manifesto may not be met by unbridled enthusiasm once he makes it to Africa.