Internet growth in Australia will be seriously stunted, unless fundamental issues of equity are resolved, according to Internet Industry Association (IIA) director Peter Coroneos.
According to Coroneos, the internet is in danger of not fulfilling the goal of being the great social leveller and empowering those who were traditionally left outside the information loop, thanks in no small part to policy makers.
"This is an election year and already we have seen a backlash against an economic rationalist paradigm coming from those who have felt the economic revolution has passed them by," says Coroneos. "While we are still seeing growth in uptake, we are also seeing disparities. This means that, in the longer term, we might have everyone connected, but will still have a two-tier society based on who has access to the best infrastructure or who can afford the best connection.
"High-speed internet access," he believes, "should be viewed as a universal service, just as a phone or postal service is viewed today."
Citing broadband access and digital television as examples of the uneven distribution of the benefits of the online revolution, Coroneos believes industry needs to accelerate the process by taking up the argument on behalf of those who sit on the other side of the divide.
"The biggest risk we face," he says, "is not taking risks. So we are looking to force courageous decisions from our policy makers, even if what is needed is politically fraught with danger. Leadership demands boldness. We are about to test the limits of positive transformation and force innovative thinking by challenging established assumptions. If we are to retain our global relevance, we have no choice."
A key issue, according to Coroneos, is the fundamental tension between the free and open nature of the net and the ability to develop proprietary value offerings that will make e-commerce sustainable.
"The experimental dot-com phenomenon highlighted the dilemma," says Coroneos. "Online success presupposes a critical mass of networked individuals. If they are not there, not only will problems arise in developing profitable delivery of goods and services, particularly in a relatively small economy like Australia's, but there will be disenfranchisement, which could ultimately form a destabilising political influence."
The big questions that need to be asked are how governments, courts of law and established commercial business models withstand the onslaught of the global and diffuse net and still remain relevant to their constituents and their charters - and how businesses find profit within the chaos.
These - and other issues - will be discussed at the IIA Policy and Business Summit to be held in Sydney on 8 March. US Federal Trade Commissioner Mozelle Thompson, ACCC chairman Allan Fels and communications and IT minister Richard Alston will be among the attendees.
· Louise Weihart is a senior journalist with The Industry Standard