November 14, 2007
By Connie Book, Associate Professor and Associate Dean of Communications, Elon University
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – One of our missions while in Rio de Janeiro at the 2007 Internet Governance Forum is to conduct a survey of conference attendees’ opinions about the future of internet policy. The project is part of the University’s partnership with Pew Internet and American Life Project, Imagining the Internet. The Imagining the Internet project began with a simple idea to catalog predictions being made in the early days of the internet as to how it would change our world. Today the project is web-based and catalogs thousands of predictions from internet visionaries to the average person. Director of the project, Janna Anderson, works hard to keep the site active, interesting and creative. The survey collected on the ground in Rio was her brainchild and kept us busy the last few days.
Rather than imagining the Internet, imagine this scenario: four researchers, trying to convince conference attendees from 100 plus countries, speaking oodles of languages, to participate in an online study for 10-15 minutes in exchange for a T-shirt. If you have that picture in your head, you can imagine some of the fun we encountered over the last few days.
First, there was Abelardo Vieira Calvalcante Filho. That’s his full name and I jokingly called him “Abe” when he introduced himself to me. A former Brazilian navy man, he now works for the Brazilian government as a technical assistant in the department of information and communication. He was friendly, an easy guy to get engaged in the study. I walked him over to the computer and he selected to do the study in Spanish. Elon Spanish Center director, Sylvia Munoz, had helped translate the study into Spanish and Honduran student David Lagos had proofed it for us. We also had the survey in French thanks to Elon MBA student, Vincent Denis and faculty member Remi Lanzoni as a proof. Although we would soon realize that three languages barely scratched the surface of possibilities.
“Abe” worked away and I went off to engage more folks to take the study. Suddenly from over by the computers I heard someone calling, “Houston…we have a problem.” Abe was stuck on how to move the survey forward. I chuckled and asked where he had heard the phrase. “American TV of course,” he said.
Then there were the two women from the Internet Society of China. They selected to take the study in English, but I could tell they were nervous about their ability. Almost an hour a later, they came back to the table having completed the online questions. I asked how it had gone, “That was hard, much concentration,” one of the women said as she rubbed her temple. “Very hard,” said the other women with the same exhausted look. When you think about what the two women had just accomplished, a highly technical assessment of their position on the internet and its future policies in a foreign language, the task is really quite formidable.
One man I ushered over to the computer to take the study humbly apologized, “I’m sorry, I speak five languages, but I can only write two.” I reassured him that he far surpassed me – I speak only one language and, I told him, I often have some difficulty writing that one.
Surprising to us all was the world’s deference to the English language. The world’s deference to America. We live in a great democracy in the United States. Hearing the stories this week of countries that struggle with the basics of electricity and water, reminded me of my good fortune. Even in Brazil, where life is very good, the middle class is surrounded by shanty towns of poverty and violence that challenges the quality of life here.
Likewise, people from the African countries involved in IGF participated in our study and added detailed comments on the survey. You could see the serious attention they were paying to issues raised at this conference – the stakes are higher for them. They are working hard on issues of digital inclusion and connectivity in their homelands. African stakeholders participate in the conference in a way that reminds us all of the privilege we have of reliable broadband in the United States.
The postmaster of Tunisia took our study, and with him was one of Tunisia’s broadband providers. “How much does high speed internet service cost per month in Tunisia?” I asked. “About $19.99, but in our country it takes just 7-10 days to have it installed…much better than in America.” He said it with such pride that I didn’t have the heart to break it to him that we don’t have that kind of waiting period on broadband service.
Ricardo Romeo (no lie on that name) made his way over to the table too. He was traveling with a group of Indian men from New Delhi, acting as their interpreter and guide while they traveled to Brazil. He said he couldn’t take the study, but he wanted to be sure to invite all of the Elon students on the trip to an evening on the town Wednesday night before they left Brazil. The young women politely declined.
Lots of characters, internet actors as they say here, that took time out of the conference busyness to include their voice in our collection of ideas about the future of internet policy. Now that we have collected the data, our task will be to analyze it and issue a report. Fifty-two respondents left their business cards in 29 languages, representing 43 countries. All want a copy of the final report, which unfortunately will be available in only one language—English.