Fang, Ph.D.

Communication researcher

In the Media

I appear frequently in international media outlets, discussing issues related to media, journalism, digital technology, as well as Chinese politics and society.

An Internet For All and By All

November 21, 2013Kecheng Fang0 Comments


When I was invited to participate in the 2nd annual Stockholm Internet Forum (SIF) which was held in Sweden in May 2013, I was expecting debates on government regulation and criticisms of China’s “Great Firewall” since the forum highlighted “freedom and openness on the Internet” in its mission statement. After the two-day sessions, however, I realized that my mind was too “China-centric” and that Internet freedom means much more than against censorship.

One major topic of the SIF, which consists of about 400 participants from more than 90 countries, is the low Internet penetration and high cost in many low-income countries. As a Chinese netizen who pays $15 per month for the Internet, I was quite astonished to learn that it costs a doctor’s half-month salary to spend 30 minutes in a cyber Cafe in Cuba and only 3% of Cubans have access to internet. A participant from Mozambique said that he pays 3000 MT ($100) for monthly Internet fee, which is more than the minimum monthly salary ($95) in the country.

According to Mike Jensen, who is a South African independent ICT consultant and has assisted in the establishment of Internet-based communication systems in more than 40 African countries, although all of Africa’s 54 countries and territories have Internet connectivity, usage is still low and communication charges are often 10-100 times more expensive than developed countries.

These figures showed the need to think about Internet freedom from a global perspective. For the poorest and most marginalized, the right to access is a more fundamental problem. Just as a participant from the Democratic Republic of the Congo claimed, “the lack access to Internet is quite a censorship.”

Mercedes or water

Former FCC Chairman Michael Powell is notorious for offering the concept of “Mercedes Divide” when answering a question about digital divide at his maiden press conference. His argument that “there is a real risk… if the standard is you can’t have it, you can’t produce it unless you produce it for all” made sense since it takes time for new commodities and services to reach different parts of the country and the world. However, he made a critical mistake by comparing the right to access Internet with the right to own a luxury car. One could live a good life without a Mercedes or even without any car, but having no Internet access means losing numerous opportunities and even many basic services in a more and more connected world. For a community, a city and a country, lower Internet connectivity means much bigger chance of being left behind in global competitions.

Therefore, a more appropriate analogy of the right to access Internet would be the right to access water. In fact, Sweden’s Minister for International Development Cooperation Gunilla Carlson already made the conclusion at the SIF that “Where there is water, there is life. And where there is the Internet, there is hope. Let’s make sure everybody has plenty of both.” From my point of view, such analogy could find support in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

There was another crucial mistake in Michael Powell’s answer to the digital divide question. He said:

“But I don’t embrace the idea that digital divide is the same thing as, for example, a universal service concept. Because I think that this technology is going to be one of the most wonderful things that this society has produced to help poor and those less advantaged because I think it has a built-in low cost structure.”

Contrary to Powell’s description of “a built-in low cost structure”, the cost of building and maintaining ICT infrastructure is quite high, especially for those rural and remote areas. In addition, local capacity for developing, managing and maintaining ICT capabilities also requires a huge amount of resources.

Although Mitra and Rana provided evidence that even underprivileged children could achieve a certain level of computer literacy without any planned instructional intervention, they also found that adult, both men and women did not make any attempt to learn or use the kiosk, even after the authors persuaded them to use it. Apparently, the achievement of what Gurstein called “effective use” couldn’t automatically result from the creation of infrastructures.

Government or market

If Internet is as useful and precious as water, and expanding access to Internet is vital for economic and social development, then who is responsible for providing the service?

In some African countries, ICT services heavily relied on market. According to Fuchs and Horak, seven African countries (South Africa, Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire, Mauritius, Morocco, Senegal and Tunisia) signed the WTO Telecommunications Agreement in 1997, which requires countries to liberalize their telecommunications markets and to open these markets for foreign investors. They discussed the cases of South Africa and Ghana in detail and reached the conclusion that although opening the ICT-market can mean more possibilities for access to telephone lines and Internet connections, it does not automatically resolve the digital divide because the central influence is whether or not people have the financial capability of purchasing access and the skills and time that are needed for using computers and the Internet.

The fact that the digital divide cannot be reduced by market liberalization is easy to understand because the private sector is simply seeking profit but providing service to the poorest and most marginalized is not a profitable business. The infrastructure investment is not small and most companies don’t want to wait for a long time before they start to make profit, especially when investing in poor areas and areas with high level of risk. If they do invest in these areas, they usually seek to extract high short-term returns and push up the price to an unaffordable level to most ordinary people, resulting in a wider gap between rich and poor in those least developed countries.

As Unwin maintained, 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. Based on this argument, he suggested that regulation must be made to work efficiently and effectively so that the market can indeed deliver for as many people as possible.

Regulation, however, is not the panacea either. If the government cannot be held accountable, regulation may worsen the situation. Mike Jensen pointed out that the low penetration of Internet in Africa is mainly due to the high prices charged by operators taking advantage of the restrictions on market entry that are still in place in most countries. In other words, market cannot solve the problem of digital divide, but no market or very limited competition will only lead to a wider divide.

Therefore, only the positive cooperation between a capable government and regulated private sectors can contribute to the equality of Internet access and usage. The worst situation is the collusion between a corrupted government and irresponsible companies. I don’t agree with Fuchs’s view that the lack of economic and technological resources in Africa is not the fault of corrupt African governments and not an effect of bad governance but the effect of colonial and post-colonial exploitation, exclusion, and dependency of the Third World. It’s true that African countries suffered from colonization for decades and are still highly influenced by Western countries and transnational capitals, but they are now independent countries with elected governments. African governments have the right to decide their own future, and they must shoulder the responsibility to provide sufficient and equal resources to their citizens.

For all and by all

Actually, more and more exciting changes are happening in Africa, not in the governments, but in the civil society. I met many people from African NGOs and social enterprises at the SIF. They are actively promoting Internet freedom and openness in African societies.

Kenya-born organization Ushahidi is one of the emerging non-profit tech companies that specialize in developing free and open source software. It was initially developed to map reports of violence in Kenya after the post-election fallout at the beginning of 2008. Ushadhidi has built tools for democratizing information, increasing transparency and lowering the barriers for individuals to share their stories. Another small company named FrontlineSMS also provides great open source products that aim at reducing the cost of sending SMS.

BongoHive Technology and Innovation Hub, a Zambia-based organization provides a place for the local tech community to meet, swap experience, and attend training, networking and hackathon events. Its co-founder and director Lukonga Lindunda said at SIF that ”We have been talking with UNICEF and other international agencies for many years about building local capacity. The iHub in Kenya is a great example in pooling together local expertise. Looking at these success stores we cannot just complain that governments not are giving us opportunities, we also have to create the opportunities ourselves.”

After listening to these inspiring stories happening in African civil society, I coincidentally stepped into a venue where another African issue was under discussion. Sadly, it was a tragic issue—a few Sudanese people were introducing the consequences of U.S. sanctions on Sudan. Although these sanctions are aimed at punishing the Sudanese government, the Sudanese people suffered a lot. They cannot access any U.S.-based website or any product of U.S. companies, which means they cannot access Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, etc. and cannot use major Operating Systems, Microsoft Office, Adobe suite….

What’s happening in Africa is disappointing on the one hand but exciting on the other hand. ICT has provided a great opportunity for the least developed countries to achieve rapid economic and social development. According to Overå, it has been estimated that the positive impact of mobile telephony on economic growth may be twice as large compared to developed countries. However, in order to make the Internet truly benefit all countries and all the people, government, market and civil society have to collaborate. An Internet for all is only possible when it’s an Internet by all. The SIF, which is hosted by Sweden’s Ministry For Foreign Affairs, .SE (The Internet Infrastructure Foundation) and Swedish Development Agency (SIDA) every year, shows a good example of bringing together decision-makers, activists, and representatives from civil society, the business sector and the technology community to take part in the discussion.