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Equitable Access to the Internet

The internet is an amazing method of communication. Through its utilization individuals, companies, governments and many others have a way to connect with their constituents and followers no matter where they might be in the world. As long as you have an internet connection and a device with an internet browser you can be accessible, or conversely access almost any information that you think you need. Advances in telecommunications and information technology means the cost of this access continues to fall while the speed and bandwidth at which you can share, download and view data and information continues to increase. We are approaching a society where internet connectivity and being “online” is a natural part of our lives, so much so that most of us cannot imagine being without it. The internet is viewed as the ultimate forum for freedom of expression and debate, communication and social networking, as well as a way to democratize the flow of information and bring equality in society through technological innovation. There are numerous examples from poverty alleviation, farming, education, prevention of corruption, and even delivery of health care where the internet has spurred development and prosperity to many. Yet while many of us feel that there can be no end to the growth of the internet, it is not as universal as one might think. True its growth has been astounding and continues at an amazing speed, but this does not yet equate to access for all. This is because a number of factors still limit access while controlling the flow of information. Thus the objective of this article is to review the role of internet connectivity in society and see how far internet access has grown, but also review how far it still has to go.

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The Beginning of the Internet

It is hard to imagine that just 30 years ago there was no internet and no other way to connect with one another in real-time other than through the telephone for voice communication. As with all innovation a technological trend mostly begins with a simple problem that requires a solution and if it is successful, begins to develop into something completely different from what it was envisioned. So was the case with the internet. Initially it started out as a government networking project for military defense purposes during the 1960s and 1970s. The reason for this was that there needed to be a more efficient way to share information and do it more quickly. At the time given that there were no business applications for it, governments were the only ones interested in doing this work. This resulted in a variety of networks of computers which were connected and allowed for basic sharing of information, but these networks were closed and could not access each other. Gradually as the value of computer connectivity and information sharing grew, more and more of these independent networks began to be merged and this saw the precursor of the modern internet network. However while from the technology point of view the internet was being built through this networking growth, there was still a missing component which was that information sharing was not uniform, nor was it easy to use. That had to wait until the 1980s and the inventive thinking of a British computer scientist named Tim Berners-Lee who is credited with developing the Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) for what is now called the World Wide Web (WWW). This became the method through which we as users could access information via the internet. It was essentially an addressing system that allowed a user using an internet browser to access information without having to know where it was located. This was because the location was encoded in the now familiar WWW links which we use and thus we are seamlessly guided to the necessary information instantaneously. This simple innovation allowed the internet to become what it is today because suddenly anyone could use it without having to know computer networking or any complex technology. The internet had been liberated from a technology domain to the user domain.

The development of the Internet Stage 1 – Information Sharing

While the technology underpinning the internet is amazing, that does not account for the popularity and mass utilization of it today. In fact the reason for this is much more simple and straight forward. The primary driver is the need to share and access information easily and quickly. Human beings are a social species and as such a majority of us seek the comfort of groups and associations in which to interact, communicate, access and share information. It is a trait that defines as well as drives us towards innovation. In fact the more we work together, rather than in isolation, the more we tend to achieve and move forward. This is why the internet grew at such an amazing pace because it became a tool that enhanced the ability to socialize and access information. During the early 1990s with each technological innovation that allowed the internet to grow larger with greater network access, and become faster with higher bandwidth, more and more people became connected and this ensured greater information sharing than ever before. We could view information instantaneously when it was updated a world away. We could email and message one another and hold conversations online, invalidating the need for “snail mail” via the postal services.

Higher bandwidth meant greater use of video and voice and so Voice over the Internet (VOIP) calls which included video grew, with vendors such as Skype providing these calls for free. We even began to see the provision of radio, television and entertainment programs being delivered through the utilization of such services as Internet Protocol TV (IPTV). Businesses and private sector companies began to see the application of branding themselves on the internet and displaying their products and services for easy round the clock access to consumers. Financial institutions came online when they saw the value of providing banking services via the internet and even expanded this to stock and investment trading. This led to the natural evolution of online shopping with businesses and the banking sector working together to provide solutions so customers could view and buy products on the internet in a secure environment.

Finally even the public sector and governments started to come on board through the provision of many of their services through the internet such as payment of fines, requesting renewals, registering documents and a host of other “E-Services”. Many progressive governments in fact saw the value of shifting a number of their services online as it enabled them to be more responsive to their citizens needs and make government more efficient. Physical, geographical and bureaucratic barriers that prevented information from being shared were being broken down through technological innovation on a large scale on the internet. Yet all these services and developments focused on how on an individual and an organizational level information could be shared for personal or official benefit. It was still not something that could be viewed as a mass benefit to society as the internet was limited to those with access to the technology and a need to use it, as well as the financial capacity to connect to it.

The vast majority of the world’s population was still not involved because they had no real need for its utilization when their concerns were not social networking or messaging, but rather more basic needs such as trying to break out of poverty, having enough to eat and providing a future for their families. For this to happen the internet had to evolve to the next stage which required it to move beyond the technological barriers that it was surpassing, and start to break down the social barriers that existed and prevented the internet from greater acceptance in the population as whole. This gave rise in the late 1990s and early 2000s to a whole new class of social internet entrepreneurs. They viewed the internet as a technology that could begin to free the lower classes from the scourges of corruption and bureaucracy, while at the same time provide services that were essential to the needs of the common man. With technology ensuring that the financial investments continued to fall, these entrepreneurs set out to bring a whole new class of products to the internet that saw the liberation of information as an asset for the use of all.

The Development of the Internet Stage 2 – Information Liberation

So the stage was set for the social revolution on the internet. To understand this we must realize that there are many strata in society and the lower you are in the social ladder it becomes more and more difficult to access and utilize services many of us consider normal. In fact we must acknowledge here that the world’s population is made up more of low income people that struggle in daily life to make a living and stay out of poverty, than the so called middle class which is more affluent and also tech savvy. Numerous charities, social development organizations and religious institutes have worked to change this, but the use of the internet as a tool in this regard was limited if not existent at all. From this situation came the fundamental question which was that if the internet could help us share information for personal and business use and so improve our lives, why could it not work as an enabler to support the lower end of society? The answer to that question gave rise as mentioned earlier, to the social internet entrepreneurs who began to work with these organizations to harness the internet, and bring innovation to this sector of society so as to make things better for all. The goals were very simple. First find out the main problems and identify the causes for the same. Then develop innovative cost –effective solutions on the internet which were simple to use and required the minimum of technical knowledge. This sector of society had to be convinced of the value of the solutions that were being provided, the fact that it was mostly free of cost, and finally that it would benefit their lives. In many ways this stage of development encompassed the best of what the internet could provide as a solution to the population. To understand this better let us consider some examples where this was especially effective.

In rural communities of poorer countries the main focus for sustenance is farming. This sector faces various problems which include an inability to get good prices for goods produced, and an inability to prevent frequent crop failures due to lack of resources. Each of these issues contributes to a continuing cycle of poverty which is difficult to break out of. Through the use of the internet a number of simple yet innovative solutions have been brought to the community. In the case of pricing most of the farmers’ goods were routed through middle men who often bought the goods from farmers at below market rates, and sold them at huge profits at market prices later. By introducing direct internet connectivity between farming communities and potential markets, farmers were able to get real-time information on market rates of their produce and ensure they sold directly to the buyers. This helped in a number of ways which included farmers getting market value for their produce, allowing them to review prices and thereby decide on what crops were best suited to be grown and sold, and minimizing the loss of money as sales were direct to the buyer. This simple solution has become so effective that this has been rolled out as a government subsidized service for the poor in many countries, built and sponsored by the business community. The other aspect relates to the failure rate of growing crops which centered on lack of water and good growth formulas to ensure crops were grown successfully.

Here the solution was to connect the farming communities first to the National Weather Service to provide regular updates regarding rains and dry spells to allow farmers to plan for such contingencies, such as proper irrigation or early harvesting where possible. The other solution was to provide a link to crop scientists at leading universities who would work with farmers to provide them with information on the latest farming techniques, low cost but high yielding crop seeds, and effective fertilizers to bring about good crop growth. Again in this case a socially developed scheme based on the internet was adopted by the government and partially funded by the business sector. In both cases the solutions were based on internet connectivity and a simple way to access information which addressed a specific social concern. This had a major impact on improving the daily lives of people in the rural communities. Both solutions used low cost telecommunication networks and internet access points which were financially subsidized. Business and social organizations educated the community on its use and empowered them to protect these facilities which they began to see as an opportunity for improving their economic outlook. This is the concept of information liberation where critical social information that is located in isolation in either the government or business sectors, is released to communities to improve a person’s or community’s ability to generate a sustainable way of life. This has been extended to the fields of education delivery, healthcare for provision of medicines and medical diagnosis, micro lending to fund small business, delivery of government subsidies direct to the poor and many other innovative schemes. The ability to access and deliver critical information in real-time empowers people, and with it comes greater demands for more transparency, efficiency and less corruption. This is a self fulfilling cycle which only furthers the requirement for greater and equal access to the internet as a tool for the betterment of society.

The Challenges of Internet Access

So the case is clear why equitable access to the internet today is required as a tool of empowerment in society. Yet what is not so clear that even though the case may be compelling, there are still factors that prevent an equal access facility for all. The first challenge to this surprisingly or not comes from governments. While they can see the value of sharing information for the betterment of their citizens, they still prefer the control that came with the pre-internet era. In essence governments want to retain the right to determine what information is shared and how. A push to equitable internet access would mean an all encompassing “Right to Information” for citizens where any and all services and information would be available for access and enquiry in the public domain. While there may be justification in certain cases for national security reasons to withhold information, the majority of it cannot be classified this way and is mostly controlled to hide the extent of corruption and misdeeds from public eyes. This often provides governments with the justification to limit internet access to control the distribution of information. Yet with the de-centralized nature of the internet this continues to be a losing battle, but will also be an ongoing challenge. Therefore internet lobby groups should continue to push for a right to free access, for only then we can ensure transparency and efficiency in government. The second challenge comes in the area of security. As more devices come online, and more information becomes available, it is inevitable this exposes people and organizations to greater fraud and theft on the internet. Equitable internet access demands that access points be financially feasible, easy to access and not technically difficult to use. The challenge here is to balance this requirement with the need to secure the information being provided from being misused and improperly accessed. There are many internet security forums working on these problems, but as with any innovative technology this an evolving issue that requires ongoing changes to security protocols to better defend against potential attacks. While an important challenge this should not take away from the case for equitable and free access.

The third and final challenge relates to maintaining the financial feasibility of providing wide spread internet access. While technology and telecommunications continue to develop at an astonishing rate this does not guarantee internet access at a low cost. Each government, telecommunication service provider and application provider have a say on the level of costs they impose or subsidize. Governments seek compelling economic and social reasons to license and subsidize these access points. Telecommunication providers are frequently private sector companies run for profit, and so need a compelling business case to provide access. And finally application providers, even those with a social orientation, need to earn a financial return on their applications in order to stay in business and continue to innovate. Therefore the result of this is that costs continue to be imposed that limit universal access. This is why equitable internet access has to be tackled at all three levels to ensure that it becomes a reality. These are but a few of the main challenges and there will be new ones, but the point that unites them all is that for every control imposed, innovators will find a way to circumvent it. The real challenge therefore is to maintain the intensity of focus to ensure the freedom and access of the internet as a tool for personal and social empowerment. This is a unique innovation that needs to be nurtured to its full potential, and this ongoing challenge to achieve it will only benefit society if we keep working towards that goal.

The Future – Internet for All

To summarize this discussion we can now understand that the internet has evolved from a technological innovation to a social equalizer by the sharing and liberation of information. It has become a powerful channel through which to demand and access information, and thus has seen the rapid growth of a movement to ensure free and equitable access to all. This vision of a future where the internet access point is as ubiquitous as electricity and the telephone can be realized, but this can only be the case when the right to free access of all information has been accepted. This is because equitable internet access for all is not just about the technology, but about the empowerment of the people who use it. The more information you have available the more likely you will be able to make informed decisions and hold people, organizations and governments to account. The internet is the single most important innovation of the last century precisely because of this reason. It liberates information and allows it to be shared in the public domain. True it can be misused, but this does not devalue the vast greater good it brings to society. Those that fight against equitable access fight against a growing wave of indignation at the controls that are trying to be imposed. As the proverbial genie in the bottle saying goes, once you take the genie out of the bottle, it is very difficult if not impossible to put it back again. The same goes with internet access and freedom of information today. Innovation and technology is powering the internet’s growth. Free and equitable access to it will graduate the internet to its next level which is a tool for social good and a transparent society. Do not accept limits to access and always demand and work toward free and universal access to the internet for all. This is the future, but it is up to each of us to work to make it a reality.

References

1. Ensuring Equitable Use of Education Technology http://www.ncrel.org/sdrs/areas/issues/methods/technlgy/te400.htm

2. Towards Open and Equitable Access to Research and Knowledge for Development http://www.plosmedicine.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pmed.1001016

3. The Internet Access Trap in Developing Countries https://freedom-to-tinker.com/blog/goldstein/the-internet-access-trap-in-developing-countries/

5. Internet in Developing Countries http://research.ibm.com/people/p/pinhanez/publications/netbrasil.htm

6. The 4 Barriers to Affordable Internet in 46 Emerging and Developing Countries http://www.ictworks.org/2014/02/14/the-5-barriers-to-affordabile-internet-in-46-emerging-and-developing-countries/

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