SUNDAY MAGAZINE

The great digital divide

THE SHASHI THAROOR COLUMN

MILES TO GO: New technologies are shrinking the world, but a huge percentage of the world population has been left out.

MILES TO GO: New technologies are shrinking the world, but a huge percentage of the world population has been left out.  

WHEN these words appear I shall just have attended the World Summit on the Information Society in Tunis, a serious attempt to grapple with the challenges of our information-technology-driven times — the digital divide, the governance of the Internet, the hope that the new technologies can drive development. But the information revolution, unlike the French Revolution, is at present one with much libert�, some fraternit� and no �galit�. It is yet to deliver the goods, or even the tools to obtain them, to many of those most in need.

Today, the dividing lines between the rich and the poor, between the North and the South, are the fibre-optic and high speed digital lines. If "digital divide" is an over-used phrase, it represents a reality that cannot be denied. Fifteen per cent of the world's population controls around 80 per cent of the world's telephones and about 90 per cent of access points to the Internet, and they are 13 times more likely to own personal computers than the rest. And the rest are the 85 per cent of the world's population living in low and lower-middle income countries.

We must find ways to ensure that the enormously powerful tools that we now possess, in the form of new information technologies, are used to guarantee, in the words of the U.N. Charter, "better standards of life in larger freedom." Greater access to information and communication technologies, or ICTs, can improve the lives of farmers and assist micro-entrepreneurs. It can prevent AIDS and other communicable diseases, promote women's equality and foster environmental protection. Indeed, all over the developing world, electronic commerce, distance education, telemedicine and e-governance are already improving the quality of life for countless people.

But much more can be done if they are to fully deliver on their promise — and we must give serious thought to what and how. At the first phase of the World Summit on the Information Society in Geneva in 2003, the world promised to achieve a host of targets by 2015 — linking, via technology, villages and communities, universities and primary and secondary schools, scientific and research centres, public libraries, cultural centres, museums, post offices and archives, health centres and hospitals, and local and central government departments. Other targets include improving the availability of information in all languages on the Internet, and ensuring that everyone in the world has access to television and radio.

But access to the Internet is of little value if the information that it contains is — almost exclusively — in a language you don't understand, or if it fails to deal with the life and death questions that affect your society. The governments meeting in Geneva agreed "to encourage the development of content and to put in place technical conditions in order to facilitate the presence and use of all world languages on the Internet".

And there is some good news on all these fronts. We know that the number of Internet users in developing countries has grown considerably in recent years. Just one country accounts for much of the developing world's progress. In 2001, only a small proportion of Chinese citizens had access to the Internet. Today China has some 520 Internet service providers and 600 Internet content providers.

But despite this bias in the figures, there has also been real progress even on the African continent, which has traditionally been very low on the connectivity scale. At the end of 2003, there were around 14 million Internet users in Africa, up from just 4.5 million in 2000, the U.N.'s International Telecommunication Union (the ITU) reports. It is clear that the number of Internet users in Africa is growing as fast as anywhere else in the world. South Africa accounts for one quarter of African Internet users, and North Africa now accounts for 35 per cent of the total. So we are making progress in getting the world on-line.

But there is still a content divide. Who would doubt that media principally reflect the interests of their producers? And whether we look at television, radio or the Internet, what passes for global media is really the media of the developed West. Most of the globe's Internet hosts are based in industrial countries, and most of the content is still produced in, and for, Western countries, in Western languages.

Part of the developing world's answer to this must lie in generating our own information, which requires protecting freedom of expression. At the Geneva leg of the Summit, States described a free press "as an essential foundation of the information society". It is a truism that knowledge is power, and as U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has said, "information is liberating."

Information and freedom go together. In fact, the spread of information technology has already had a direct impact on the degree of accountability and transparency that governments around the world must deliver if they are to survive. And people's determination to be free whatever the cost has been strongly expressed many times, not least by Argentina's writer and politician, Mariano Morena, who vowed "I love more a dangerous freedom than a tranquil servitude."

Building an open, empowering information society is a social, economic and, ultimately, political challenge. If we succeed in meeting it, we will have helped make a better world.

Visit the author at: www.shashitharoor.com