By Dr. Chafic Chaya
The unprecedented challenge posed by the Covid-19 pandemic has proven beyond all doubt the indispensable value of the Internet to businesses, governments and citizens. Never before have we been more aware of how important it is to be connected than during this time of crisis, while we all remain in close quarters while still trying to participate in the outside world.
As countries struggle with overburdened healthcare systems and economies that have come to a standstill, we’ve seen a new type of challenge emerge in this modern-day pandemic response: a dramatic increase in demand for Internet connectivity. Video conferencing, online entertainment platforms and mobile applications have witnessed orders-of-magnitude growth in daily use over a very short period of time, testing the limits of a massive, simultaneous online presence around the world.
This sudden online migration spurred governments into taking regulatory action to ensure their citizens could remain connected while locked down at home. In the Middle East, where 30% of the population is not connected to the Internet, the majority of governments responded to the Covid-19 crisis with new initiatives to keep people connected and connect those who didn’t have access during the lockdown.
Several countries in the Arab Gulf region, including the UAE and Oman, immediately relaxed their restrictions on voice over IP services on a temporary basis lifting their bans on Skype for Business and Google Meet. Other have also made the video conferencing platform Zoom available, which is widely used by millions around the world who are now working, learning and teaching remotely, as well as by friends and family who just want to stay in touch.
From their side, some mobile operators and Internet service providers have also increased the amount of mobile data available to their users at no extra charge and have temporarily zero-rated additional services. Other operators have also made additional services free of charge, such as educational content and platforms.
In the wake of these developments, regulators are faced with a key challenge: How can they implement regulation to protect their citizens while allowing innovation and new technologies to flourish? After all, the current regulatory approach failed to support the pace of technological and industry development in the past, as traditional regulations are outdated and often irrelevant to the technological advancements we are witnessing today.
This is why governments would benefit from taking a closer look at the value of a collaborative approach to Internet governance and regulation. As the digital economy expands, regulators, businesses and technological innovation can all benefit from inclusive, multistakeholder participation and dialogue, which draws on the knowledge of all stakeholders in order to inform the best possible solutions. This proven approach is the best and quickest way to deliver inclusive digital products and services for the greatest number of people possible.
Drafting regulation often takes years, whereas start-ups can develop in a matter of months. More inclusiveness means more rapid feedback and input to reform regulation. This approach ensures a flexible regulatory environment that can define responsive regulations for emerging technologies and create operational efficiencies for businesses and greater freedom for innovators.
For example, Internet number resources (IP addresses and Autonomous System Numbers) don’t fall neatly under traditional regulations and demand a new adaptive framework to address their innovative nature (e.g. supporting the switch from IPv4 to IPv6). In this context, the RIPE NCC plays a key role in facilitating discussions and dialogues with various stakeholders including governments and regulators.
One recent example is the contribution we made to the open consultation on the UAE National Policy for Information and Communications Technology (ICT) and Telecommunications, in which we argued that widespread IPv6 adoption is necessary to ensure the stable growth of the Internet – and all of the technologies that rely on it, including emerging technologies like the Internet of Things, smart cities and machine-to-machine communication – now and well into the future.
In order to share its technical expertise, the RIPE NCC engages with technical communities, industry players and governments across our service region of Europe, the Middle East and parts of Central Asia. We host roundtable meetings and organise workshops and training courses in order to support governments, regulators and law enforcement agencies in their understanding of the technical layers of the Internet, to help them build their national capacity and to help drive their digital transformation. We also help develop local technical communities and provide training to ensure that, once regulatory barriers have been removed and supportive regulation is in place, network operators and other industry actors have the tools they need in order to actually deploy IPv6 and further drive Internet development from their end.
Later this year, Kuwait’s Communication and Information Technology Regulatory Authority (CITRA) will host the next RIPE NCC roundtable meeting dedicated to governments in the Middle East region. The discussions will cast the spotlight on regulatory challenges in the Middle East and on managing national Internet number resources in particular, in addition to trends in technology regulation and Internet development taking place around the world.
As emerging technologies drive new businesses and services, these types of dialogues will help governments to rapidly draft and implement responsive regulation that ensures the wide availability of Internet infrastructure and services, delivered without discrimination, which – as we now know more certainly than ever before – is fundamental to resilient and strong societies.