Developing participation in the global information society

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Mr Kweku Appiah


Ghana Group for the Promotion of Information Society


Social Policy Division

National Development Planning Commission (NDPC)
Regardless of a nation’s level of economic development; political, economic and social structure; and language and culture they are all seeking to develop and improve the quality of life of their citizens. At present, the industrialized countries have an overwhelming lead in development over most developing nations. However, modern information and communication technologies offer a significant window of opportunity for developing countries to accelerate their development in all spheres of economic and social activity and to narrow the gap between countries.
The world stands today on the threshold of a Global Information Society. This position has been arrived at through the truly remarkable advances that have been made in recent years in the development of ICT as well as the construction and development of national and global information infrastructure. Through these developments it is now both technically and economically feasible to bring modern information and communications technologies to any part of the entire world. Equally as important, people around the world, including those in developing countries, are increasingly demanding access to the emerging global information network. Hence, communities in Mexico, for example, have installed personal computers and built microwave towers to communicate with the rest of the world, allowing school children to interact with other students all over the world and keeping farmers apprised of both local and world crop prices. Also, India launched a programme to link its biggest cities with a nationwide network that will facilitate the dissemination of government information and provide an infrastructure for commercial applications.
The present Global Information Infrastructure (GII) has evolved from a research and development programme in networking that was initiated and funded by United States government in the 1960s. This programme, which sought to establish a decentralized telecommunications system in which an assortment of variously located computers could communicate with each other even when one or more parts of the system had been seriously damaged, was primarily designed to satisfy the military requirements of the United States. From these origins, the Internet has since developed into a global network of computer networks with many different types of users.
Realizing the full potential of the Global Information Infrastructure (GII)
As described by the Vice President of the United States of America at the first World Telecommunication Development Conference held in Buenos Aries, Argentina in 1994, a major goal of the Global Information Society is to:
… build a global community in which the people of neighboring countries view each other not as potential enemies, but as potential partners, as members of the same family in the vast, increasingly interconnected human family.
The Internet today is a fast-growing, global network that enables people from all over the world to provide and access a variety of content, communicate with one another, purchase goods and services, and even co-ordinate complex, far flung worldwide activities at relatively low cost. The Net is estimated to be growing at a rate of 10-15% per month, with numbers rising from about 56 million Internet users worldwide in 1995 to about 200 million people in 1999. Also, its American origin notwithstanding, more than 50 per cent of current Net users at present are outside the United States and that percentage is rising; by 2000, less than 20 per cent of all Internet users are projected to be in the US.
At present, citizens and residents of industrialized countries enjoy good access to the Internet. For example, Finland and Iceland - first and second among countries with the most Internet hosts per capita - had 62 and 42 Internet hosts per 1,000 population, respectively, in 1997. At the other end of the scale, the information revolution has hardly arrived in Africa - the world’s least developed region - where fewer than 15 countries had full Internet access in 1996. As a result of this situation, most developing countries have yet to assume a serious role in discussions on setting goals and standards for the GII. This should not deter them from seeking ways to ensure that their concerns and interests are included in the design, delivery, regulation and content of the world’s information expansion. Clearly, a partnership between rich and poor countries is necessary in such an endeavour.

The potential benefits of the Internet for developing countries are well-known: namely that it presents exciting new opportunities to reinvigorate and accelerate the rate of economic and social development. However, the changes engendered by the Internet have been generally to the exclusion of the very poor people in developing countries that the Internet can particularly benefit. At present, the proliferation of the technology is restricted by the lack of appropriate infrastructure and the expense of computing technology. Hence, the dilemma for the average farmer in a developing country, say, would be to choose between spending about $3000 on the technology and approximately $20 – 50 per month on subscription fees or investing that money on farming tools, fertilizers or irrigation systems to produce a good harvest and an adequate income. Unfortunately, in nearly all cases in most developing countries, the question simply does not arise because the farmer lacks the necessary financial resources or access to them to enable him (or her) to use the Internet. Under these conditions, the race to effectively deploy the technology to increase productivity and promote social change and development may be over before it starts.

While it cannot be denied that top-level decision makers in some developing countries are not always convinced that investing in ICT should be accorded topmost priority, there is now at least a political will in many developing countries to support and encourage these processes. Much of this new spirit has been encouraged by industrialized donor countries and organisations such as the United States, Denmark, UNDP and the World Bank which have provided much financial and technical support to developing countries to strengthen and develop their national information infrastructure technologies. As a result, new legal frameworks and standards are being set up to promote the development and interconnection of national information infrastructures. In Ghana, for example, the basic policy instruments to encourage private investment and entrepreneurial activities to expand and enhance information technology has been put in place and the country has three licensed Internet Service Providers as well as five network services that provide mainly e-mail services.
Major challenges that confront developing countries in embracing modern ICT include the formulation and implementation of effective and practical strategies to enhance the capabilities of their populations to make the best possible use of information technology. Obviously, any country that wants to take full advantage of the opportunities provided by ICT will have to prepare its population to use the technology effectively. An obvious strategy to achieve this objective is to establish computer literacy courses. This may not be sufficient, however. Consequently, it will be necessary to ensure that these courses are complemented by teaching people - from primary school pupils, secondary school and university students as well as adult learners - skills to find information, critically evaluate it and also how to use it creatively to solve their problems.
A related objective is to ensure the effective application of information technologies to reduce, rather than widen and deepen social inequities or worsen inequality across the technological divide. Mechanisms to achieve this objective include, for example, public telecentres that have been promoted by the ITU as well as information service centres which are promoted by a coalition of private and public sector interests in the United States. These centres provide people with access to development-oriented applications and content as well as ICT-based facilities with associated training. Further, these centres can serve as the community libraries of the future and major instruments to achieve the goal of wide public access to the Internet.
Regardless of the sophistication of the technology or services being offered, a simple strategy to achieve these objectives could include the provision of assurances to potential users that they can allow the GII entry into their homes, workplaces and lives to access and share information safely and without forfeiting any of their rights. Governments, businesses and public-interest groups working together on information policy and content issues, must address these concerns. Equally as important, governments and the private sector must continuously seek to demonstrate in imaginative and practical ways the potential benefits of the GII to citizens, especially the more disadvantaged in society, for example, through tele-medicine or access to information on market prices for their crops. After all, it is only when people are exposed to, and see, tangible results of applications that they can begin to appreciate how the ICT can be used to improve their lives. This appreciation is the key to stimulating demand for the services and content of the GII, which in turn will provide the impetus to remove institutional and regulatory barriers to its full utilisation.
It should be noted that most young people, regardless of whether they live in rich or poor countries, will feel strongly motivated to learn and use ICT, from portable phones to the Internet. As a consequence all governments should place emphasis on educational programmes as a lever to increase the competence of the population at large.
Ethics and the development of the GIS
Decentralisation is an important characteristic of the Internet’s culture and technology. Another important feature is that many Internet users view themselves as part of an “Internet community” that has its own culture, ethics and rules. We are all aware of “netiquette” as well as the existence of Internet jargon that has been developed by Internet users. As this community grows, many challenges concerning access and use as well as issues such as regulation, ethics and content on the Internet will confront policy makers.
There is a general consensus around the world that development of the GII and realisation of the goals of a Global Information Society will require concerted action and co-operation to develop a global information policy framework that will ensure, among other things, that: 1) the privacy of individuals and organisations using the GII is protected; 2) the security and reliability of the networks the information passes over are preserved; 3) the intellectual property rights of those who create the information, education, and entertainment content are protected; and 4) that the content of information (particularly that of an intolerant, racist or pornographic nature) circulating on the Internet and access to it, especially by children, is regulated.
Deliberations and action on all these issues must involve all countries represented by their governments, private sectors, labour, academia and the general public. Wide consultation involving all the major stakeholders should foster the formulation of a constructive regulatory framework that will be attractive to all and safeguard the interests of individual countries or groups of countries. In these deliberations, the stakeholders must seek to avoid or iron out potential discrepancies. For example, an impending EU law that aims to safeguard the privacy rights of European citizens by setting common rules for the export and use of many kinds of personal data has an unintended consequence: a chance of trade conflict with the US. More generally, if exercised, the data protection directive could play havoc with global trade flows by cutting off companies’ international communications networks.
Another concern involves the potential of ICT to have a negative effect on the social behaviour of users. For example, the range of services that can be accessed on the Internet is so comprehensive that it can, as stated by UNESCO, “unduly privilege the ‘man-machine’ relationship” to the detriment, on the one hand, of social intercourse and, on the other, the development of self-reliance. At present, however, many of the risks associated with some of these phenomena are poorly understood and more detailed study and research is needed to enable policy-makers adequately consider the necessary actions, if any, that will be required to address the problems.
There is also considerable concern in many quarters about the maintenance of linguistic and cultural diversity. Given its origins in the United States as well as the dominance of the English language as a medium of international communication, 90% of the databases on the Internet at present are in English. Consequently, non-English speakers do not have effective access to the content available on the Internet. However, there are few technical constraints on the development of databases in other languages that can serve the interests of a variety of local communities. Nonetheless, technology-induced globalisation is seen by many as a threat to local customs, values and beliefs. This is therefore an area in which further research.

Promotion of the growth and development of the Global Information Infrastructure and its use presents several challenges to all countries, perhaps most especially for developing countries. Developing countries will, in particular, have to develop cheap, simple and robust technologies for coping with increasing numbers of users and traffic. In pursuit of this objective, research and development is required on the development of means for promoting equal access to cyberspace. In addition, and as part of the overall strategy to achieve this objective, research will have to be conducted to identify and develop innovations to promote the use of ICT by different population sub-groups as well as to study its effects on society and development. An important topic that must also be researched is how ethical principles related to globalisation can be implemented.

Australian Broadcasting Authority (ABA). The Internet and some International Regulatory Issues relating to Content: A Pilot Comparative Study. Paris: UNESCO, September 1997 (CII-97/WS/8).
Financial Times. Monday, July 10, 1998.
Gore, Al and Ronald H. Brown. The Global Information Infrastructure: Agenda for Cooperation, Washington, D.C.: United States Government, 1995.
The New York Times. Monday, January 20, 1997.
d’Orville Hans. Technology Revolution Study: Communication and Knowledge-based Technologies for Sustainable Human Development. Report to the assistant administrator and Director, Bureau for Policy and Programme Support (BPPS). New York: United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), 30 April 1996
UNESCO, UNESCO and an Information Society for All; A Position Paper, Paris: UNESCO, May 1996 (CII-96/WS/4).
UNESCO, Information and Communication Technologies in Development: A UNESCO Perspective. Paris: UNESCO, December 1996 (CII-96/WS/6).

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