I have been privileged to have been asked to write a provocative thought piece for this year’s Stockholm Internet Forum to be held next week (22nd-23rd May in Stockholm). In this, I argue that to date ICTs have actually increased, rather than reduced, inequality in the world. Much more serious effort therefore must be made to ensure that the poorest and the most marginalised of the world’s people should have access to the Internet. This is a moral, rather than an economic, agenda.
In writing the paper, I was asked to suggest what I think are some of the most important policy actions that need to be taken. These are summarised below:
- Although ICTs and the Internet do indeed have the potential to help transform the lives of poor people, technologies have generally always been used primarily by those in power to maintain their positions of power. Hence, we must begin by making a firm commitment to ensuring that we will enable the poorest and most marginalised to have similar connectivity to that through which the world’s richest now benefit.
- Regulation must be made to work efficiently and effectively, so that the market can indeed deliver for as many people as possible. This requires that regulators adopt a fair pricing policy, not seeking to reap too many additional financial benefits for governments, but rather placing primary emphasis on the means through which as many people as possible can access commercially available Internet connectivity.
- In some contexts, Universal Service (or Access) Funds can provide a means whereby states can direct additional resources specifically to the needs of poor and marginalised communities. However, to date, many such funds have failed to deliver on their expectations, and they remain unpopular among companies providing telephony and broadband services who see them primarily as a tax that reduces their potential to deliver services more cheaply than could be provided by the state or civil society.
- Effective multi-stakeholder partnerships between states, the private sector, civil society and international organisations are an essential element in delivering connectivity to the poorest and most marginalised communities. Such partnerships are not easy to implement, but given the complexity of the technologies, the diversity of interests involved, and the need for financial investment, they remain essential.
- The need for collaboration and co-operation between international initiatives designed to support broadband for all. Duplication of effort is wasteful of precious resources, and seeking to reinvent the wheel means that many lesson from previous failures are not sufficiently learned.
- There needs to be a passion amongst the world’s leading researchers to design innovative solutions that are focused particularly on reducing the costs of access to the Internet as well as provision of electricity, rather than reaping the maximum profits from so doing.
- One of the reasons for the high cost of Internet access in many of the poorest countries is that companies have sought to extract high short-term returns on investment. Investing in what were previously seen as public sector utilities is a challenging business, but ultimately governments have the responsibility for ensuring that all of their peoples can have access to and benefit from such utilities, and must therefore play a significant role in their support.
- Without reliable sources of electricity, any use of ICTs is impossible. Innovative solutions to the provision of electricity, particularly in rural areas are thus an essential precursor for Internet access.
- Finally, Internet access that is affordable by the poor, together with the electricity necessary to power it, are not enough by themselves. Digital resources and peer communities that deliver on and support the content and communication needs and aspirations of poor people and marginalised communities must be developed and made as widely accessible as possible.
Clearly, there are many more actions that need to be taken, but I do think that these can make a significant difference, albeit in different measures and balance in different countries. I hope that one of the outcomes of the Forum will be that everyone present can commit to taking real action to enable the world’s poorest and most marginalised to benefit from the potential of the Internet.