ICT only part of the answer to poverty

90% of the world's population still does not have access to the internet, say critics

The use of ICT to bridge the poverty gap is controversial. The debate on it at the recent ICANN conference in Wellington is echoed in a series of books, one fully available online.

The publication comes out of the Asia-Pacific Development Information Programme, a United Nations incentive that “aims to promote the development and application of new Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) for poverty alleviation and sustainable human development in the Asia-Pacific region.”

This view of ICT, as a significant part of the answer to poverty, is criticised by some as being unduly optimistic. They point out that as many as 90% of the world’s population, and nearly 99% of Africa’s population, still does not have access to the internet, and many have no access to ICT of any form, including the telephone and radio.

The Global Knowledge Partnership’s book, Access, Empowerment and Governance, Creating a World of Equal Opportunities with ICT, attempts to persuade critics that its aspirations are realistic.

“ICTs are not a panacea for all development challenges,” write the authors, Ingrid Hagen and Radhika Lal, in the first chapter.

“The hype is over and we are fully aware of this now.”

Nevertheless, they, and their fellow authors see great hope for the reach of internet communications in expanding markets and even improving real-life governance and government practice.

“When corruption flourishes, citizens become increasingly disillusioned and disengaged,” say Hagen and Lal. “ICTs have become a means to bring governance to the wider public and to increase public pressure for transparently functioning institutions.”

This potential conflict between the internet and real-world governance is where a good deal of the debate is currently centred. However, the debate runs the risk of missing the point through an obsession with the mechanics of internet naming and numbering and who is to control this.

“Excessive focus, first on internet governance generally and then, almost exclusively on the names and numbers, has made the whole WSIS [World Summit on the Information Society] effort a waste of goodwill effort, genuine work and genuine hope to make the information society inclusive and its development beneficial to all” writes Alejandro Pisanty in the UN’s Reforming Internet Governance: Perspectives from the Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG).

The WGIG was convened in parallel with WSIS, to arrive at a definition of internet governance and an appropriate structure for reconciling the technical structure of the internet, and the way it is operated, with the broader public policy interests of governments.

Reforming Internet Governance offers several perspectives on the interaction between technologists and politicians, and on the task of achieving an appropriate balance among the interests of the various stakeholders.

According to Frank March, a New Zealand member of the WGIG secretariat, the group had to reconcile the interests of similar sectors and find a way of giving all an appropriate voice. In this, it may have provided a miniature model of the way future governance of the internet might work.

“A number of commentators have described the WGIG process as indeed providing a model for openness and transparency, and the involvement of all stakeholders,” March writes.

A chapter of the report is devoted to international internet connection costs and the tension between would-be regulators and those who trust market forces. ISPs in countries remote from internet backbones tend, under a free-market system, to pay a disproportionately high cost for their international circuits.

The WSIS process has suggested a number of approaches to reducing this inequity, from targeted aid funding, to the development of higher-capacity regional backbones.

In a brief chapter in the report, Kangsik Cheon considers one of the areas where recognition of multiple cultures impinges directly on internet technology: in the construction and recognition of international domain names. Cheon is a senior executive with Korean company Netpia.com, which promotes candidate standards in this area.

Trevor Clarke considers questions of intellectual property, e-commerce and competition policy in the international environment, in the report. These are a unique set of issues in that, while exacerbated by the internet, they have huge relevance outside it.

In some areas, such as the legal status of electronic transactions and intellectual property forums such as WIPO, these questions are already being confronted on the international stage, he writes.

“Despite its very successful past, the internet is much too important to global peace and prosperity to be left alone,” says Clarke. “The need for a global forum for internet governance is evident,” and this will have to take on-board the interests of society in general and the commercial corporations. “Despite recent unilateral tendencies, the US has to be trusted to take its global leadership role seriously,” he writes.

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