It was a great pleasure for me to meet with one of Internet founders during ICAAN board meeting held in Cairo, March 2000. As an Internet professional and a technology fan, talking with Vinton Cerf gave me the feeling of talking to someone holy! Of course, if technology is a new religion Cerf would be one of its holy saints.
Cerf listened to a questioned – or rather complaint – I directed to Dr. Nazif (current prime minister of Egypt and the minister of Telecommunications then) about making VOIP illegal in Egypt. Later in a side talk Cerf told me “Don’t worry they can not stand against the revolution of Internet and it is just a matter of short time then they must give up” Now after more than ten years, did they really give up? In fact the political aspects of using Internet for communication is one of the big worries of authoritarian governments. They want to control and keep a big eye on all communications especially the international ones that Internet can freely offer.
ICAAN Board Meeting
The was an opportunity for developing countries to participate in the formation of the Internet’s future.
“Only those telecom companies that adapt and start using the Internet for communication instead of blocking or prohibiting it will have any chance of profiting in the future.” Michael Minges
It was certainly the biggest Internet event ever held in the region.
In one of the top five-star hotels of Cairo, the opening ceremony of C@INET 2000 & the ICANN Forum was inaugurated on the 7th of March by Ahmed Nazif, the Egyptian Minister of Communication and Information on behalf of Egyptian Prime Minister Atef Ebeid. Nazif discussed the ministerial plan to develop Egyptian communication infrastructure and to introduce more modern and reliable services and technologies.
The conference was organized by the Regional Information Technology & Software Engineering Center (RITSEC) in cooperation with the Internet Society of Egypt. A new dimension was added to the annual Egyptian conference by the hosting of the annual directors meeting of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the international non-profit Internet governing body.
The conference included more than 1,300 organizers, guests and Internet experts from all over the world. Attendees came to share their experiences, and to present and discuss papers and ideas. Many crucial Internet related issues were brought up by over 50 distinguished speakers.
The first session was initiated with a speech from Dr. Tarek Kamel, Chair of Local Organizing Committee, followed by the speech of Mr. Mike Roberts, President & CEO of ICANN. Roberts emphasized that the ICANN forum being hosted in Egypt this year is an indication of the importance of Egypt’s role in the region. He also added that it was a good opportunity for developing countries to participate in the formation of the Internet’s future.
The next speaker was Mr. Don Heath, President & CEO of ISOC (Internet SOCiety). ISOC is a professional membership society with more than 150 organizational and 6,000 individual members in over 100 countries. It provides leadership in addressing issues that confront the future of the Internet, and is the organizational home of the groups responsible for Internet infrastructure standards, including the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) and the Internet Architecture Board (IAB). Mr. Heath explained the views of ISOC on the role of the Internet in economic globalization and the increasing need for cooperation between developed and less developed countries to achieve optimum usage of the Internet
Dr. Hisham El-Sherif, the Chairman of the Internet Society of Egypt, and one of the most distinguished IT experts in the region, spoke about the development of the Internet in Egypt, and announced a new Internet institute affiliated with RITSEC. El-Sherif also announced a new additional capacity for Egypt’s Internet backbone that will speed connection rates.
Among many good Egyptian presentations was one focusing on the Egyptian libraries on the web, presented by Eglal Bahgat, the Deputy Chairman of IDSC. Bahgat provided an overview of the project to network Egyptian libraries from 1992 – 1999. Some of the challenges the developers faced included Arabizing web content and standardizing their data. The project resulted in the automation of more than 240 Egyptian libraries (13% of all libraries in Egypt), in addition to training 1,900 librarians and developing a simple and standardized system that has now been made available to all Arab libraries.
The conference was crowned by the presence and speech of Vinton Cerf who gave a lucid presentation on the history of the Internet and its development over the years. He also illustrated how he sees its future and applications. Cerf has been called one of the “fathers” of Internet. He is a senior Vice President of Internet Architecture and Technology for MCI WorldCom and an ICANN director. Cerf is the co-designer of the TCP/IP protocol, the communications protocol that gave birth to the Internet and which is commonly used today. In December 1997, President Clinton presented the US National Medal of Technology to Cerf and his partner, Robert E. Kahn, for founding and developing the Internet.
Internet vs. Telecom Egypt
The prohibition of the transfer of voice over IP (making international telephone calls via the internet) by Egypt Telecom could have been considered as running counter to the efforts of the Ministry of Communication and Information to promote Internet access and usage in a variety of applications. On the first day of the conference, I asked minister Nazif if there was any intention to lift this ban. The minister promised that new regulations and services concerning this issue would soon be introduced.
This happened on the last day of the conference when Azza Turk, Deputy Chairman of Telecom Egypt, announced a new service of this kind to be offered by Egypt Telecom. The service uses a dedicated software program created by Ericsson that uses prepaid cards charging a rate of LE0.80 (23 cents) per minute for calls to the US. Rates for other countries will vary.
The question is how Telecom Egypt will be able to compete with the many existing web sites that offer a similar service without dedicated software programs and that are free of charge for calls to the USA (such as www.dialpad.com)? Moreover, even if Telecom Egypt chooses to block access to these companies’ web-sites, how can they realistically keep track of and block all the new sites and services commencing service on the Internet every day?
We directed this question to Michael Minges, Head of Telecommunication & Statistics Unit at the International Telecommunication Union in Switzerland, and he responded that many telephone companies all over the world are in similar situations to Telecom Egypt, The Internet poses a challenge to their services and pricing systems, and only those who adapt and start using the Internet for communication instead of blocking or prohibiting it will have any chance of profiting in the future.
E-Commerce was the star topic of the conference. Nearly every discussion referred to this hot topic. Bruno Lanvin, the head of Electronic Commerce at UNCTAD/SITE, illustrated some strategic and practical issues concerning global e-commerce. Lanvin was critical of the distribution of internet hosts worldwide, pointing out that 96 percent of Internet hosts are found in developed countries, with only 16 percent of the world’s population. This results in an average rate of 312 hosts per thousand inhabitants in developed countries, as compared with an average rate of six hosts per thousand in developing countries. Other obstacles he mentioned that face the development of e-commerce in Arab countries were a lack of infrastructure, expertise, language/content, low user base, and ingrained business practices.
Another presentation tackling this issue was “Interoperable e-commerce”, given by David Manion, Managing Director at CommerceNet Consortium USA. Mr. Manion began by defining e-commerce as “commercial relationships facilitated by an interactive electronic medium.” He discussed the importance and potential of e-commerce in the world. In his opinion, Internet use in Egypt was being hindered by a lack of awareness and education, small Market size, poor e-commerce, telecommunications, and financial infrastructure. He also criticized the legal system, and the government’s role, including the current pricing structure. Social and psychological barriers were also present. Manion stressed that many of these factors were present worldwide, including the developed world.
Women on Internet
The role of women on Internet was given much attention in Christine Maxwell’s presentation. The Vice Chairman of ISOC discussed feminist challenges in the cyberspace, stating that there is a real danger of the divide between the information rich and the “info-poor” widening, Women should feel encouraged more than ever before to participate in designing and implementing models of economic development. Such a vision calls for women cybercitizens, rooted in their local cultures, to have a stake in national, global and civil society. She added, “the point is that gender needs to be treated as a critical variable in shaping access to, and the knowledge and organization of, natural resources and networked resources. Women have begun to redefine their identities, and the meaning of gender through expressions of human agency and collective action. This translates into a redefinition of environmental issues resource access and distribution, while fostering an alternative view of sustainability. To be different is the alternative left us if we want to be ourselves. To this end, women must identify those areas in which we can build our difference. Women must not be left behind Women need to be very active agents in ensuring that potential of information technologies are directed towards enhancing human wellbeing. The meanings of tomorrow must be created today by women in partnership with men”