THE INTERNET AND THE ACCESS QUESTION
By KLAUS DE ALBUQUERQUE
For Caribbean Week
In its early beginnings, the Internet was enthusiastically heralded as the most significant force in global democratization and individual empowerment. After all, with a few keystrokes (now point and clicks), one could contact persons around the world or have access to all kinds of information. Ideas and information would flow to the remotest corners, in a virtually unregulated system, and would serve to undermine even the most repressive of regimes.
As we approach the fin de siecle, we know enough now to make a much more sober assessment of the Internet's (the Net's) promise.
Far from being a force for democratization, John Naisbitt and such like minded gurus notwithstanding, the Internet access is paralleling class systems of stratification, and threatens to splinter the globe in the 21st-century, into haves and have nots based on access to information/communications technology. A few statistics are in order.
Over half the world's population has never made a telephone call (for example, there are more telephones in the New York/New Jersey metropolitan area than in all of Africa). If the world's population was shrunk to 100 people, 70 would be non-white, half the wealth would be in the hands of only 6 people, 80 would live in substandard housing, 70 would be unable to read, and no one would own a computer (this off the Internet).
A recent (September 25) Inter Press Service (IPS) news story on "Net fever" in Haiti, noted that access to the Net was in line with the country's socio-economic structure. In July 1996, a local Haitian company, Alpha Communications Network (ACN), became the country's sole Internet provider with 8 start up telephone lines.
Despite a hefty installation charge (US$130) and a more moderate rate structure (US$16.30 per month for the first 20 hours), ACN has not been able to keep up with demand. It already has over 500 customers, and anticipates many more when Haiti Telecommunications (Teleco) allocates it the 100 lines ACN originally requested. Like many other telephone companies in the Caribbean, Teleco has been undergoing modernisation but has been unable to keep up with demand. IPS reports that over 100,000 people in Haiti are still waiting for telephones, and many have been on the waiting list for years. But even if these people eventually get telephone service, very few of them will hook up to the Internet. In a country where the average wage is US$3 a day and the per capita gross national product US$220 (1994), few people can afford the US$2000-3000 outlay for a personal computer. As IPS notes, access to cyberspace in Haiti is restricted to a "well-heeled,...elite minority living in a state-of-the-art, 21st-century world, far removed from the impoverished majority".
Access to the Net is much easier in most other Caribbean countries, but as in Haiti, Net users are distinguished by their higher socio-economic status. Also, given the low level of computer literacy in the region (very few schools have computers and few University students have PCs), growth in users has been arithmetic rather than geometric. With more Government agencies, regional organizations, private businesses, NGO's, Universities, getting on-line, access should improve, but the price of personal computers and of Internet service are major impediments. In many islands, Cable and Wireless has a monopoly on Internet service, and without competition there is little pressure to lower rates and improve service.
U.S. President Bill Clinton recently announced a US$100 million programme to provide access to most public school students by 2000.
While this is a move in the right direction, it comes on the heels of U.S. Congressional attempts to impose controls on the information that can be accessed through the Net. Singapore has by far the most ambitious programme to hook up all of its citizens to cyberspace, but the Government intends to restrict what information can be accessed in its ongoing policy of policing morals. Clearly the promise of the Net has been eroded by the reality that, Governments will not allow the unfettered flow of knowledge and ideas, and, for the vast majority of the world's population, cyberspace exists as an alien entity of a privileged few.
Klaus de Albuquerque is Professor of Sociology and Antropology at the College of Charleston, SC Office: (803) 953-8183 ; Home: (803) 723-7770 FAX: (803) 953-5824 66
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