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The Knowledge Roadblock

By Wendy Rickard
editor@isoc.org

There is much to hope for and fear about emerging technologies, specifically as they apply to emerging nations. As Janet Perry and George Sadowsky, guest coeditors of this issue, point out in their introduction on page 7, communications technology is turning the world into a much smaller place. It is also changing the landscape. Through Internet connectivity, information becomes more accessible, which significantly alters the way we deliver education, conduct business, and communicate with our friends, family, and colleagues.

Here in the United States, many of us have access to more information than we could possibly use in several lifetimes. Others may never see the inside of a library, let alone the results of an Alta Vista search. To many, the fear of an imminent technology-have-and-have-not scenario looms larger than ever before. Even as the world grows smaller, its inhabitants are growing farther apart. As such, a pebble dropped in the pond of international copyright law certainly will ripple among those communities still wrestling with the most basic forms of connectivity, let alone the finer points of managing and using content. What opportunities exist for less-developed user bases to influence-or even help define-this new global phenomenon?

In early October, a letter was drafted by the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine and addressed to the U.S. Department of Commerce (DoC) concerning pending changes to international and domestic intellectual property law that are being supported by the DoC. Those changes reflect the 30 August 1996 Draft Treaty on Intellectual Property in Respect to Databases, which was prepared under the World Intellectual Property Organization. As I read the letter alongside the material being presented in this issue of OnTheInternet, it seemed glaringly obvious that the race toward solutions to Internet-related issues may very well create a knowledge roadblock that will have a significant impact on emerging nations.

According to the letter, "the proposed law fails to provide for any public-good exceptions, such as the fair use exemption traditionally enjoyed by the research and education communities for their limited use of copyrighted works." A close look at the deployment of internetworking technologies in poorer countries reveals a profound link to education. And any casual user of the Internet knows that content delivery will rely heavily on the use of sophisticated databases.

Given that the Internet is all about access to knowledge and information, it would be painfully ironic if cost-related use restrictions meant that poorer countries were left with gleaming yet empty pipes. The Internet emerged in the Western world out of a need for information sharing and not because a bunch of people decided it would be nice if we all had computers connected to networks. Without the ability to freely collect information, especially for research and education, how will poorer nations be able to use the Internet to build a strong economic base?

The complexities of intellectual property law and all it implies at a time of explosive technological development is mind-boggling. In a world where invention is inescapably tied to existing code, ownership is becoming more and more difficult to define. In the spirit of entrepreneurialism, it's imperative that ingenuity be rewarded. By the same token, when ingenuity leads to monopoly, we end up with a concentration of wealth and power and limits on free competition.

For every new era in our world's history, there is a danger that our ambition will outrun our best intentions. Developing nations need the help of the developed world to become technologically functioning and self-reliant. However, the technology is but one important tool in the knowledge age. It is not, in itself, the knowledge that will become the commodity of the next century. A fisherman needs a fishing pole in order to eat. That fisherman can't, however, eat the pole when the fish become too expensive to catch.

As George Sadowsky points out throughout his article on page 23, the Internet Society has played an important role in bringing internetworking technologies and training to developing nations. Now, as the developed world leads the way toward a new, knowledge-based era, we find ourselves trying to apply both the ideas and the ideals that worked in an industrial age economy to a completely new paradigm. Fifty or 75 years ago, the way those of us in the Western world thought about intellectual copyright had little or no impact on business and education in central Africa. In a knowledge age economy, even the slightest shift in how knowledge or information is owned, bought, and sold can directly affect the economic opportunities for less-developed countries. And this is happening at a time when even small and medium-size companies are being lured by the so-called promise of emerging markets.

The American baseball legend, malapropist, and philosopher Yogi Berra once said, "You got to be careful if you don't know where you're going because you might not get there." The future isn't simply a high-tech fantasy made up of whiz-bang gadgets and smart cards. It's about being given yet another chance to get it right. The elements that in the past closed the doors on economic progress for many nations-such as climate, politics, and lack of education-can be ameliorated by information and communications technologies. But we need to think beyond the routers and hubs and ensure that the knowledge is not blocked from the highway.

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