The Internet is transforming global politics by holding vested interests and those in power to account, Britain's former prime minister, Gordon Brown, has told a meeting at the University of Geneva with worldwide web pioneer Tim Berners-Lee.
"With it you get the seeds of change not only in Egypt and Tunisia but in other parts of the world," said Brown, a member of the board of the World Wide Web Foundation, an organisation created by Berners-Lee to promote positive social and economic change through the web.
"What we have seen in recent months is the power of the Internet, whether it be in Egypt or Tunisia, whether it be in Japan after the tsunami and the earthquake, whether it be in Burma with the blogging of the monks, whether it be in Zimbabwe after the election," Brown told journalists before the 6 April 2011 meeting in a packed lecture hall at the Geneva university.
"Our ability to connect and communicate with each other and our ability to form friendships and connections across the Internet is an essential element in the creation of a global society," he said.
Mr Brown acknowledged complex reasons for the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, but said he did not believe that they would have happened in the same way without the web.
"When it comes to the web and the Internet I am not assuming that if you put this instrument in people's hands everything else follows," said Brown. "The reason why in Egypt and Tunisia things happen is that people were reflecting the discontent of the vast majority."
In Egypt, he said, the April 6 Youth Movement, an Egyptian Facebook group started in 2008 to express solidarity with striking workers, led to the development of a movement outside the traditional political structures, making use of new media and technologies.
"The web has changed the way in which protesters or dissidents can express their views," Brown said in discussion with Berners-Lee, who developed the web two decades ago while at CERN, the Geneva-based European Particle Physics Laboratory.
"You can hold vested interests, you can hold people in power, far more accountable," said the former prime minister.
"Foreign policy cannot be the same again," said Brown. "It's not so easy to talk about secret diplomacy now."
The World Wide Web Foundation's stated aims include working to keep the web free and open for all, and empowering people to create web services that bring about positive social and economic change.
Berners-Lee noted that about 20 per cent of the world has access to the web, but, he asked, "What about the other 80 per cent?"
He urged that the "right to connectivity" should be specified as a human right, noting how Finland enshrined broadband access as a legal right for citizens.
At the same time, said Berners-Lee, "It's really important that we don't make it so that you can't exist as a member of society without access to the Internet."
Berners-Lee also called for a "huge effort" to make the web multi-lingual, and to preserve local cultures and traditions. He asked: "Do we want the right to participate in the information society meaning necessarily learning English?"
© Stephen Brown is a Geneva-based journalist and writer who also contributes to Ekklesia, and is the former managing editor of ENInews.