Ten years ago, some developing countries were still pondering whether Internet access was a net positive. 

Today, high-level negotiators from the world’s major powers would be wise to read recent comments from one of those developing countries, the small island nation of Sri Lanka, to remind themselves of what’s at stake as they negotiate the links between the information society and the United Nations’ development goals in the next few months.

The real-life benefits the Internet has brought to Sri Lanka, located south of India in the Indian Ocean, prove that development and Internet connectivity are inextricably linked, and diplomatic squabbling shouldn’t derail the real progress being made in developing countries where it is most needed.

The backdrop: Numerous nations and other stakeholders submitted 66 comments to the U.N. General Assembly over the past week on the geopolitics of Internet governance and its relationship to sustainable development. 

The comments will feed into an outcome document for the General Assembly’s meeting of high-level government representatives in December. The reps will review the progress made since the 2003-2005 World Summit on the Information Society (the so-called WSIS+10 review) on achievements in pursuit of the UN’s Millennium (now renamed “Sustainable”) Development Goals. The 900-pound gorilla in the meeting, though, will continue to be how much say governments have over Internet governance, and in what forum.

Among the comments from world powers and major international organizations jockeying for position in the governance discussion, the submission by Chitranganie Mubarak of Sri Lanka’s Information and Communication Technology Agency stands out for its rear view mirror reminder of what’s at stake in the process of linking information and communication technology and development.

Mubarak focused on a question that others treated largely as a throw-away: “To what extent has progress been made on the vision of the people-centered, inclusive and development-oriented Information Society in the ten years since the WSIS?”

Her response: 

  • Infrastructure and connecting villages. The country has achieved preliminary goals in broadband development and expects free Wi-Fi nationwide by March 2016, through Google’s Loon Project.
  • Connecting schools and research institutions.  SchoolNet connects secondary schools and colleges nationwide. Within the next two years, the country plans to provide 100 Mbps broadband to 4,000 of the nation’s 9,000 schools.
  • Health centers and hospitals. A comprehensive electronic records system has been implemented at 15 government hospitals, as has a centralized information management system for medical supplies. A web-based application monitors intensive care bed availability.
  • Connective government. A virtual private network connects 500 central and provincial government organizations, providing broadband, VOIP and e-mail. The Lanka Gate portal provides 495 government websites in English and the two national languages, Sinhala and Tamil, and supports online and mobile payments.
  • Facilitating development of local language content. Trilingual government websites have encouraged the development of Sinhala and Tamil content, and Sri Lanka pursued and implemented internationalized top-level domains for the country in local language scripts. This allows Sinhala and Tamil speakers to purchase and use domain names without relying on the Latin alphabet.

This progress in one developing country should invigorate the discussion leading up to the High-Level Meeting in New York in December.