The 4th Internet Governance Forum: maximizing accessibility

Sharm el-Sheikh — There are a number of rules governing Internet access, not least of which is the need for licensed software. But how can such rules infringe upon one’s ability to stay connected?

At the fourth annual Internet Governance Forum, held in Sharm el-Sheikh from 15 to 18 November, talks focused on the need to liberalize these rules so as to increase accessibility to the World Wide Web. While some discussions tackled platforms through which access can be maximized, others focused on the content that these platforms incubate.

Participants posed the vital question: to what extent can intellectual property regimes strike a balance between providing access and protecting the rights of innovators? These issues of open access and open content are fundamentally linked to the notion of the "right to knowledge" — a mainstay of human development.

A workshop devoted to the issue was presented by the Access to Knowledge Global Academy, a cooperative venture between several institutions, including; Yale Law School; the American University in Cairo (AUC); the University of Buenos Aires; Beijing Normal University; the University of Cape Town; Addis Ababa University; Fundacao Getulio Vargas; and the National Law School of India. The collective effort focuses not only on access to information per se, but on access utilization and the promotion of knowledge for the purpose of human development.

Nagla Rizk, an Egyptian economics professor at AUC specializing in knowledge content in the digital economy, presented one of the pillars of Egypt’s access to knowledge, namely open-source software. With a source code open to the public — without copyright limitations — open-source software can act as a premium platform for access to knowledge.

But in order to survive, open-source software — an industry still in its infancy — requires a nurturing environment, explained Rizk.

“Historically, nascent industries have been protected from the threat of imports, with countries protecting them until they became independent enough to compete,” he said. “In our analysis, we found that the expansion of nascent industries has not been enabled by the current market structure or through an enabling government environment."

"Open-source software in Egypt is quite limited," Rizk added. "It’s not an issue of competition between the two, since there is scope for open-source software that will have a strong development impact on the Egyptian economy and people.”

South Africa and Brazil represent two other examples where official copyright regimes are neither developed nor inclined to liberalizing online access.

Tobias Schonwetter, lawyer and member of the University of Cape Town’s Intellectual Property Research Unit team, pointed to the contested copyright law in South Africa. Being the largest economy in Africa and home to an active publishing industry, he said, access issues are particularly germane.

“The copyright environment does not maximize effective access to learning material,” Schonwetter noted. “There’s a literature about the issue. It’s not written by academics or researchers, but rather by user groups and rights advocates.”

Carlos Affonso Pereira, vice-coordinator of Brazil’s Center for Technology and Society at the Getulio Vargas Law School, spoke about the intellectual property rights ecosystem in his country.

“The copyright law is so strict that it ends up encouraging illegality and piracy,” he said, pointing to the wide use of peer-to-peer networks through which creative content such as music and film can be downloaded for free. With the country caught between strict laws on the official level and a series of "open" practices on the public level, Pereira gave some examples of grassroots alternatives that bridge the gap.

“Technobraga is a music movement where artists sell their records to street vendors that are then sold on at very cheap retail prices. It’s a situation where street vendors live in harmony with artists and people," he said. "If you go to a record store, you won’t find a Technobraga CD — you have to go to the street vendor. It’s a very natural, productive model of music distribution in which street vendors are integrated.”

As far as the Arab World is concerned, meanwhile, online piracy is attributable to a series of misconceptions with regards to intellectual property rights vis-à-vis creative content on the web.

“Many basic concepts of copyright — how content should be licensed and reused or fairly used or republished — are not clear to most content producers such as authors, bloggers, and creators of videos and photos, and, subsequently, to the consumers of that content,” said Ahmed Gharbeia, a Cairo-based communications-technology consultant and blogger. “Many people believe that, as long as something is published on the Internet, it’s there for the taking, and that the Internet needs a different kind of law than the ones that protect authors in the publishing industry."

Gharbeia spoke at a workshop devoted to open content and open licensing in the Arab World. The workshop focused on "Creative Commons" as a model legal tool that can be used by creators to pre-clear copyrights to their work. In other words, while the standard copyright stipulation is “all rights reserved," a Creative Commons copyright license merely stipulates “some rights reserved."

Creative Commons’ licenses, therefore, can become a solution to lingering copyright issues, according to experts.

“The problem with copyright online is that, when you need to obtain permission, it can be difficult — especially if you want to identify the copyright owner,” said Rami Olwan, a Jordanian PhD scholar at Australia’s Queensland University of Technology. He also noted that copyrights bear a direct relation to moral rights, which are seldom differentiated from economic rights. This is where Creative Commons becomes useful.

Creative Commons’ licenses are based on US common law, enjoying 50 jurisdictions around the world. They embody different levels of rights protection, such as the right to attribution, the right to use only for non-commercial purpose, the right to use only under Creative Commons’ licenses and the right to use verbatim copies without conversion into new content.

The licenses have been subject to translation into different languages and incorporated into different domestic laws. Yet these translations remain the subject of ongoing debate and legal scholarship.

Jordan was the first Arab country to finalize an Arabic translation of the license and incorporate it into Jordanian copyright legislation. “The drafting was difficult. There is some legal terminology that we couldn’t find in copyright law in Jordan or the region," said Ziad Maraqa, legal cases and court decision manager at Jordan’s Talal Abu Ghazaleh Intellectual Property group.

In Egypt, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina will be managing the translation of the Creative Commons license and its eventual introduction into Egyptian copyright law. In Tunisia, however, the process has become bogged down in legal ambiguities.

“We can’t use the Jordanian team’s translation because of differences between Tunisian and Jordanian law," said Rafik Dammak, a Tunisian computer engineer and MA candidate at the University of Tokyo. "Jordanian law is based on the Anglo-Saxon model while Tunisian law is based on the French model.”

At the forum, discussion of the Creative Commons alternative — within the wider context of access to both platforms and content as well as rights preservation — consistently returned to the need for discourse. This discourse is now being fostered by grassroots forces of academics, activists and practitioners working within the realms of research, public awareness and lobbying.

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