Commentary: Vilnius talks Internet politics

  • 2010-09-15
  • By Jonathan Zuck

Entrepreneurs and small business leaders are usually too busy running their companies to participate in big bureaucratic conferences, but at the Internet Governance Forum in Vilnius this week, government, industry and civil society will address issues of critical importance to small and medium sized businesses (SMEs).
Until Sept. 17, Vilnius will host the 5th annual Internet Governance Forum (IGF). Internet stakeholders from around the world will address issues ranging from intellectual property protection and privacy, to cloud computing and cyber security issues that SME leaders navigate every day.

Take intellectual property (IP). Typically viewed as the playground for Microsoft and IBM, the truth is that IP protection is, if anything, even more important to SMEs. If entrepreneurs and innovators can’t protect their intellectual property, they can’t profit from it, and if they can’t profit from it, they can’t survive in a highly competitive global marketplace.
And the survival of SMEs is critical, because we know that they are the real drivers of global innovation. On an employee-for-employee basis, more innovation and better patents come out of SMEs, driving innovation in both developing and developed nations.

What might come as a surprise is the degree to which Internet governance generally, and the Internet Governance Forum in particular, touches on intellectual property.
First, the Internet has become a central distribution mechanism for intellectual goods (from software to music and movies) and consequently for pirated goods. Resolving IP conflicts has become a significant issue. Trademark disputes are mediated by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) for actual domain names, but local courts rule on IP violations online in a way which is not necessarily in-sync with international law. So there is an ongoing question regarding to what extent Internet governance can and should be a mechanism for intellectual property rights enforcement.

Another area of heated debate is the role of IP in standards. There are certainly those who support that Internet standards should not be encumbered by patents. Others argue that finding a compromise allows for the best technology to be used in standards and for everyone to have ‘a seat at the table.’ Small businesses feel this specifically because they generally have far fewer patents than say, IBM, which gets 3,000 per year. The implication is that if one of their patents is essentially expropriated (or rendered irrelevant) through a standards process, it is likely to have a much larger impact on the smaller enterprise’s return on investment.

Another key issue at stake in Vilnius will be that of the policy structure surrounding cloud computing.
Cloud computing represents a vital growth area for Europe’s innovative SMEs, because it gives them the ability to grow rapidly and compete with more established players. However, to continue investing in cloud computing innovation, SMEs need the right incentives, including the ability to protect those innovations across borders, and an open market that allows them to license those innovations to governments and enterprises.

Finally, there is the question of the continued existence of the Forum itself. For the past five years, the IGF has provided a unique and valuable forum for Internet users to debate and discuss the key issues surrounding Internet governance. Now IGF leaders must decide how and whether that forum will continue.
As it currently stands, IGF not only allows but encourages participation by SMEs, who are given an equal seat at the table with big business, governments and civil society groups. Some in the IGF community want to turn it into yet another bureaucratic treaty-making organization, a move that would disenfranchise SMEs, while giving governments even more power to stifle entrepreneurship and innovation.

Because the IGF is open to all, all of us are stakeholders in the IGF process. Therefore, it is up to us, and to all stakeholders, to defend a policy framework that supports innovation and entrepreneurship. Critical to that effort is ensuring that the IGF itself continues in its current open format.

Jonathan Zuck is the president of the Association for Competitive Technology (ACT)