The fact that the internet has become an integral, almost indispensable part of everyone’s life today cannot be gainsaid. The internet’s interconnectivity has become pervasive, ruling our social and economic lives both at an individual and collective level.
In all sectors ranging from health to finance and sports to entertainment, virtually every country runs on internet-enabled systems. The internet has enabled innovativeness across the board, from the latest high-end artificial intelligence production and management systems to the man on the street whose small-scale business runs on an internet platform. The internet has not only cut costs of doing business, but it has also resulted in high efficiency and eradicated traditional management challenges.
The holding of the 10th World Internet Conference (WIC) from November 8 to 10 in the ancient river town of Wuzhen, east China’s Zhejiang Province is indeed symbolic. Although an ancient town with rivers and canals dating back about a millennia and three decades, Wuzhen is today an ultramodern town with all the trappings of the internet-boosted economy.
According to official information, the town makes full use of the internet industry to promote digital agriculture, cultural tourism, education, and industrial development. Wuzhen is actively working on the construction of an “International Internet Town” with a planned area of 110 square kilometers to create a world-class international hub for internet-related exchanges and exhibitions.
The transformation of Wuzhen from a backwater to a bustling and cutting-edge digital hub symbolizes the transformative power of the internet. Thousands of jobs are being created, helping the beneficiaries to benefit from the resources being invested in various industries. This universality of the internet is key in the economic inclusion of millions of people who would otherwise not have a livelihood.
In his virtual address during the opening of the WIC, Chinese President Xi Jinping said that the internet should be for the benefit of all countries, and emphasized the need to improve public access to information-based services, bridge the digital divide, and improve people’s livelihood with internet development.
The internet has enabled humankind to achieve feats that were previously figments of the imagination of scientists. Cyberspace has now become a playfield for both developed and developing countries. We are discovering our universe in ways that we have never known it before as the internet powers more advanced technologies of space exploration.
These are the issues that need to be canvassed during the WIC. While the internet is now widespread, there is still a digital divide, particularly between the Global North and the Global South. This has exacerbated social and economic inequalities as the rich countries make full and better use of the lucrative opportunities offered by the World Wide Web.
But this challenge is also prevalent within countries. Some sections of society cannot afford high internet charges as the service providers are predominantly private sector players with little public sector involvement. As of 2022, the estimated number of internet users worldwide was 5.3 billion, up from 4.9 billion in the previous year, representing 66 percent of the global population. Some governments have tried to bridge this gap by offering free internet hotspots in public spaces. However, these are still inadequate for the majority in the low-income bracket.
The world has entered an information age, and the digital economy has rapidly developed during the COVID-19 pandemic and become an important driving force for global economic recovery. At the Extraordinary China-Africa Summit on Solidarity against COVID-19 in 2020, President Xi stressed China’s readiness to work with Africa to expand cooperation in the digital economy, smart cities, 5G, and other new forms of industry.
Moreover, the continued growth and spread of the China-proposed infrastructural Belt and Road Initiative is a boon for national, regional, and global interconnectivity. The so-called Digital Silk Road is supporting developing countries to expand their internet connectivity and improve their internet infrastructure.
But there is no game without rules. While the internet has become inevitable, it is also exposed to abuse by people or organizations with dubious objectives. While opening the digital space, care should be given to ensuring that freedom is used responsibly and not to undermine law and order in society.
No doubt that the internet is a great human achievement and a hub of the information age. With the constant acceleration of the technological revolution and industrial transformation, the Internet has transformed the world into a global village and increasingly interconnects the international community. This interconnectivity is making a shared future a reality, placing the onus on all countries to develop, use, and appropriately manage the internet to make it more beneficial to humanity.
Stephen Ndegwa, a special commentator on current affairs for CGTN, is the executive director of South-South Dialogues, a Nairobi-based communications development think tank.