Whose Internet is it?

A few weeks ago I posted an internet traffic map on this blog, which depicted in a visually striking way who connects to whom through the web. After looking at the map, a member of our team suggested that we quit our jobs and wait until internet access was more evenly spread. It is estimated that 1.1 billion people have Internet access world-wide, but access is very uneven: the so-called digital divide separates industrial nations and the countries of the South, as well as people within regions and countries.

The whole of Sub-Saharan Africa has fewer internet connections than Manhattan, and while 54% of households are online in Hong Kong, less than 0,25% are in Nepal. But even in a country such as the United States, Black Americans and Hispanics have far lower rates of connectivity than the white population. In addition there are a number of other barriers: inflated prices, old and very slow electricity lines and frequent power shortages, illiteracy and inadequate knowledge about the potential of the World Wide Web.

Time and time again we hear from people responsible for projects in Uganda or Cameroon, how difficult it is to efficiently work online when daily power cuts interrupt your session or web pages take minutes to load. At the same time there are enormous efforts underway to bridge the digital divide: communal access points in town halls, shopping malls, churches and kiosks are being established, schools are being equipped with computers, and in many countries – from Ghana to Vietnam and Trinidad – internet cafes are booming.

New technological solutions, such as developed by Meraki, a Silican Valley company, enable ordinary internet users to set up networks and share costs so that more people can connect. Thus we are confronted with the interesting situation were people living in mud houses use communal internet access points to check the weather forecast in order to optimize their planting season. Moreover, with the worldwide explosion of mobile phones a completely new and very promising market for telephone-based internet connections is opening up.

It seems realistic to say that over the course of the next decade many serious connectivity problems will be solved and more and more people will have the possibility to communicate via the internet. At the same time we have to be realistic: at the moment betterplace will only be able to reach fairly well educated and enterprising people, who can articulate themselves and voice their needs in English or German. Yet in this we don’t differ from more conventional development agencies, whose work is also most efficient when working together with those local individuals who they can relate to and communicate with most effortlessly – i.e. those with a certain educational level and economic and social capital.

For many poor people, the internet is already playing a very important role: they use it to stay in close contact with family members living and working abroad, who often assist them in financial crises. Websites, blogs and chatrooms are used to freely exchange opinions, and even in totalitarian states, oppositional voices can be heard. Thus, for many citizens from Tanzania to China and Brazil, the internet harbours the potential for important change and development in their countries. In this environment, an internet platform which matches interests between people worldwide is of major importance.

Many initiatives all over the world have developed cost-effective solutions to problems common to many countries in the South, from medical treatment of river blindness to back-friendly water tanks, which can make a big difference in people’s lives. Over the platform, these innovations can reach a far larger audience of potential users. Single initiatives, searching for solutions to the same problems, can get in touch with each other – not only from North to South, but even more so within the South.

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