Wikipedia defines the term “digital divide” as a “gap between those who can benefit from technology and those who cannot”. The results of the World Conference on International Communication (WCIT), that ended last Friday on December 14th in Dubai, may eventually fill the term with new content. More specifically, it may signal an upcoming new divide within the region of our direct interest: Eastern Europe.
Much speculation happened around the topic of the WCIT and its potential impact on the future of a free internet. Voices of sceptics, predominantly so-called cyber-activists and human rights defenders, could be heard far outside the specialised circles of IT-specialists, who are alarmed that nation states are trying to introduce new a international regulation providing them with the possibilities to control and limit the flow of information on the internet.
Although these attempts have failed, the very course of the conference has demonstrated the existence of two camps: nations willing to maintain the current status quo in the field of internet governance, and those (mostly more or less authoritarian) who opted for more possibilities to control the web, at least within their own national borders. “The Economist” has recently described the situation as a “digital cold war”. Due to the opposition from the United States and European Union member states, the updated International Telecommunication Regulation (ITR) appeared to be bereft of the most controversial elements. Furthermore, it only ended up being signed by 89 of the 144 countries who participated in the conference.
According to Panoptykon Foundation (a Warsaw-based organisation specialising in human rights which clash with modern technology), such a situation may eventually result in emergence of two separate internet regulation regimes as soon as the updated ITR enters life without having a global range. It is also currently hard to predict how it might impact further development of the world wide web. Undoubtedly, it will create a potential threat for the internet as a global information environment, which is predominantly not influenced by the existence of physical borders between states.
Significantly, the dividing line came across the Eastern Partnership region. Ukraine and Azerbaijan appeared to be the only countries to sign the updated ITR, standing thus by the side of the Russian Federation. Georgia, Moldova, Armenia and even Belarus stayed outside the “signatories club”, along with the US and EU member states. This situation in itself does not constitute “proof of authoritarian tendencies” existing in this or that country, although it does signal a potential problem in the field of the convergence with EU norms and standards.
This is particularly true in the case of Ukraine, which is constantly signalling (at least on a rhetorical level) its will to integrate closer with the EU. According to the Association Agenda (a document designed to facilitate Ukraine’s preparation for signing the Association Agreement), the country will “further work towards the approximation of the legislation in the field of electronic communications with the EU acquis”. It should be regarded as one of the most important elements of the improvement of the climate of investment, which should be supported by the association with the EU.
A lack of a joint position of the EU and Eastern Partnership countries in the field of internet regulation displays a lack of strategic thinking on both sides. Whether intended or not, Ukraine’s putting itself in a potentially different regulation regime on the issue of common interest with the EU is an example of the creation of an artificial problem that could be avoided with little effort. Once again it has shown that seemingly unimportant technical issues should be paid as much attention to as much more spectacular problems of a purely political nature, because the line that separates them is often imaginary.
This text is published as part of the Digital Eastern Europe column.
Igor Lyubashenko is an academic teacher, new media enthusiast and international relations analyst. He has a PhD in Political Science from the Maria Curie-Sklodowska University in Lublin. His professional experience includes implementation of international projects in Ukraine and Moldova, academic teaching as well as working in the field of marketing communication. His scholarly interests include external policies of the European Union, political and economic processes taking place in Central and Eastern European states (in particular in Ukraine and Moldova), and more recently influence of information technologies on social and political processes.