The Internet is shedding its exclusivist character.
The internet evangelist Jeffery Barlow says that the Internet is the ultimate democracy. Others agree that it will take on the autocrats of the world. The beauty of the internet, they all tell us, is that nobody owns it. In all the hype about the Internet, this perhaps is the hardest to stomach.
The Internet is no ethereal medium that flows ubiquitously through our universe. Physically it consists of computers, telephone lines, modems, satellites, and cables – all things that somebody owns. It is peopled by providers, users and regulators. The people who command what you see and read are almost entirely from the North, mostly from the USA. This is also true of much of the physical embodiments of the Internet.
The US is trying to pass laws that prevent users from encoding their information in a manner whereby it cannot be decoded by the government. There are bodies that determine who should be allowed to own top-level domains of entire nations. The language etiquette developed for the Internet is an entirely Western construct, and the lingua franca for the Net is, of course, English. The ownership of the information content on the Net is almost exclusively Northern, and even the few websites that are developed by organisations in the South are generally located physically in servers in the USA. The information flow on the Net, is as yet almost entirely North to South.
All this is true. But then the Internet is here to stay, and the technological benefits cannot be ignored. For the moment, the Net is correctly seen as elitist, and the small inroads it has made in the South have almost exclusively been within the domain of the powerful. Rather than designing creative methods of using the Net to the advantage of the poor in both North and South, the tendency has been to dismiss it as a tool that will only benefit the wealthy and therefore not worth pursuing.
Ironically, in countries like Bangladesh, developing agencies have taken the option of using the Internet as a purely profit-making exercise. Three years ago, when there was no Internet in the country, small private organisations took the initiative of setting up simple ´offline´ email networks. The systems had their failings, and offered only basic services, but for many organisations, particularly those in remote locations, they provided essential connectivity.
The Internet is now being seen essentially as a money spinner and today, of the four major ISPs in Bangladesh, three are run by the famous NGO troika: Grameen, BRAC and Proshika. While the enterprise of these NGOs in trying to become profitable is to be lauded, because of the commercial nature of the NGO ISPs, the ethics of using donor money and clout to set up what amounts to unfair competition to other commercial providers is questionable. It is also certain that these purely commercial concerns will never venture into non-profitable activities like the establishment of an Internet exchange, or setting up of a grassroots network all over the country, essential if the less-privileged in Bangladesh are to profit from the Internet.
Changes are afoot, nevertheless. UNDP is actively supporting a plan for the Bangladesh Institute of Specialised Information to set up an ´intranet´ that will link major academic and research institutions. There are also plans to provide computers and connectivity to major public institutions. A number of organisations offering web design and hosting are emerging, and with time, the asymmetric flow of information may well be addressed.
In the rest of the South (excluding the Asian tiger economies to the east) the story is somewhat similar, and typically governments have played a far from dynamic role. An interesting exception is Mongolia, where the government has shepherded the private enterprise of Datacom, which is using microwave radio to telephonically link up most of the major locations in this massive country.
In India, recent moves to break up the government-run VSNL´s monopoly as a service provider and sharp reduction of rates bode well for use of the Internet and email. Already, cybercafes do brisk business in Calcutta, Madras, Delhi and Bombay, and on a late-night visit to one of them in Madras, an eight-year-old turned up with his dad to buy tickets for the film Ishq, straight off the net. At another Internet cafe down the road, called Net@cafe, students were applying for scholarships in the US.
The Internet is highly fashionable, but it should be remembered that most of the use is still for email. The VSATs which link you to the global system are centralised, and with existing tariffs and connectivity problems, it is still impossible for people outside of the major cities to have access to the Net. What is needed therefore, is a hybrid technology that uses the full range of Internet services in the centre, but offers off-line connectivity to users in the periphery.
Today, the number of Net users worldwide is close to the population of Bangladesh, and it is growing exponentially. To be sure, most are still wealthy, white and male. After all, the investments required for developing the infrastructure are enormous, and a modem costs more than a cow. But this will change.
Sanjeev Rajbhandari, ´Mr Internet´ of Nepal, talks of how the ratio of expatriates to locals amongst his users was 80 to 20 when he started a few years ago, but was now almost reversed. Undeniably the Net is for the moment owned, consumed and controlled by a minority, but as long as the Internet does allow a lone voice to be heard, it is up to the South to ensure that while the lilies of the Net (the mega-networks that control the information flow), continue to bloom, the wild flowers of the South, through their tenacity, resilience and their amazing ability to survive on the most slender of resources, continue to find a place under the sun for themselves in what will inevitably become the largest human collective of all.
From rotis to wafers
THE INDIAN TELEGRAPH Act of 1885 decreed that the delivery of all national communications would be under the control of government, and so when the Internet came along, the “service provider” which linked you to the World Wide Web necessarily had to be the government-owned monopoly, Videsh Sanchar Nigam Limited (VSNL). And so while Bangladesh, for example, zoomed ahead with more ISPs in Dhaka than, possibly, mosques, India lagged behind.
India´s Net surfers suffered as the monopoly did what monopolies do. VSNL charged high prices for notoriously slow connections (in mid-December, it finally announced a 30 percent cut in rates) and put up preconditions on users that had other countries laughing. Downloading and connection speeds are likened to local trains in the mofussil, and even when a link is made, the “sessions” are interrupted on an average every 20 minutes due to line breakdowns. One Western news agency reported that in Bangalore, the Indian equivalent of Silicon Valley, a user on an average modem could expect to spend up to half an hour each morning just trying to connect to VSNL.
Well, the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) claims that all that will change. In early November, it announced a radically reformed Internet policy which finally superceded the Indian Telegraph Act. What DoT said it would do was end the monopoly of VSNL and permit unlimited number of private Internet service providers (ISPs). It would allow market forces to dictate connection fees, said DoT, and that India aimed to provide a “level playing field for all the ISPs”.
Over a hundred companies are said to be waiting for this signal, so that they can fulfill the unsatiated demand of browsers in hundreds of Indian cities. The ´online community´ in India is now expected to expand exponentially. Today, India with nearly a billion citizens, has no more than 80,000 connected individuals. With its new policy, the government hopes that there will be up to two million personal computers connected to the Net by the year 2000.
No one should have any objection to that, if indeed it will happen.