Access to the internet is no longer a luxury
The recent decision by the United States Federal Communications Commission to classify the Internet as a utility has simply codified what many have known for some time: that the Internet has become the new mode of ubiquitous global communication. International development policy around connectivity is following suit. Instead of development initiatives that frame internet access as a luxury, connectivity is now considered essential. Access to the internet in the developing world also means access to health care, education, economic development, and democratic progress on issues like gender equality.
In a NetHope webinar last month, Jonathan Metzger of NetHope and Nilmini Rubin, Senior Advisor to the U.S. House of Representatives’ Foreign Relations Committee, sat down to discuss the most recent initiative to mandate that development dollars be tied to connectivity. The Digital Global Access Policy Act, or the “GAP Act,” recognizes that the 60 percent of the world’s population that remains offline is largely concentrated in developing countries and composed of people who are low-income, female, illiterate, and rural.
Mr. Metzger described an experience in Liberia to illustrate how missed opportunities by the World Bank and others have meant a lack of connectivity when it was most needed. During the Ebola outbreak in Liberia limited internet connectivity was a serious issue. A mere one percent overall increase in a road construction budget years earlier could have saved lives and millions in investment dollars down the line.
Ms. Rubin illustrated the need for policies that require collaborative approaches to internet connectivity. She recounted an experience in Tanzania in 2011 where U.S. taxpayers, through the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), spent $470 million to build 270 miles of new roadways. Her best efforts to convince the MCC to install internet cable under the road were rebuffed: “I was told that it was not MMC policy to lay internet cable.” Rubin returned to Washington DC determined to improve U.S. development policy.
Enter the GAP Act
The U.S. Government is already spending development aid on roads, and the GAP Act would insure that internet connectivity would be included. Rubin has been strategic in her work on the GAP Act. The bill is bipartisan, and emphasizes democracy-building principles such as gender and economic equality. The GAP Act should also appeal to a spendthrift Congress because it would be a net zero cost for taxpayers. Under the Gap Act the U.S. would be required to partner with the local private sector of the country receiving aid. Those potential partnerships would cover an estimated 95 percent of the cost. With this focus in mind, Rubin said: “The GAP Act would institutionalize existing U.S. State Department initiatives by aligning with the Global Connect Initiative, and its build-once approach.”
The Digital Global Access Policy Act is a bi-partisan bill and enjoys a broad range of support across the NGO, and technology sectors.
The GAP Act: Shifting policy toward tech
Anywhere that the US taxpayer is investing in development, the GAP Act attempts to address issues around the use of technology in development work, and the expansion of internet connectivity. The bill encourages U.S. agencies such as Peace Corps and USAID to pursue technological solutions to more efficiently deploy development programs and humanitarian aid.
The authors of the GAP Act have included a safeguard recommendation that provides oversight, and a genuine shift in the U.S. foreign policy establishment. The bill requires the Administration create an Assistant Secretary position at the U.S. State Department that would focus solely on internet policy issues such as cybersecurity, internet freedom, internet access, and internet governance. “These issues are not partisan. We are building on something that the Obama Administration came up with. It’s important to get to the right answer, rather than a partisan answer on this,” said Rubin.
Rubin concluded with a call to action that included suggested ways for people to get involved and support passage of the GAP Act:
- Send an email or letter of support to email@example.com, which will be added to the Supporters sheet.
- Send an email or letter to your Representative encouraging them to co-sponsor H.R. 5537, the Digital GAP Act and vote yes when it comes to the House Floor this fall.
- Write a blog or op-ed expressing why you or your organization supports the H.R. 5537.