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Why Bridging The Divide Is Even More Important After September 11


Monday, Feb. 11, 2002

The "digital divide" has been an item on the international agenda for quite a while. Defined as the gap between the information haves and have-nots, the divide separates those who can make effective use of computers and information technology and those who cannot.

Since the September 11 terrorist attacks, the digital divide has been increasingly linked to the war on terrorism in major international forums - including the recent World Economic Forum in New York, the WTO ministerial meeting in Doha, and the APEC ministerial meeting in Shanghai. Whether coincidental or intentional, the link between the two makes a lot of sense.

Terrorism and the Digital Divide

In this information age, countries that lack knowledge and technology have difficulty competing. These countries increasingly will become poor and isolated and in turn will provide ideal breeding grounds for terrorism. Thus, bridging the global digital divide is important not only because it helps the less developed countries, but also because it furthers our war on terrorism.

To date, computer access and information technology are woefully lacking in countries that allegedly sponsor terrorism. In 1999, there were 510.5 computers per 1,000 people in the United States, but only 2.9 per 1,000 people in Sudan, 9.9 in Cuba, 14.4 in Syria, and 52.4 in Iran. While the United States had more than 74 million Internet users during the period, there were merely 5,000 Internet users in Sudan, 7,000 in Libya, 20,000 in Syria, 35,000 in Cuba, and 100,000 in Iran.

Although bridging the global digital divide might not end terrorism, it will make the war on terrorism easier. By promoting modernization of the less developed countries, fostering democracy and the rule of law, and reducing tension within the international economic system, such an effort also will facilitate international cooperation and help build an international coalition to fight this difficult war.

Bridging the Digital Divide to Help the Less Developed Countries

The information revolution has created unprecedented opportunities for the less developed countries. It helps them acquire knowledge, enhance educational systems, improve policy execution, and widen the range of opportunities for their citizens. It also enables them to catch up with the developed countries by leapfrogging stages of technological, industrial, and infrastructural development.

Moreover, it allows the less developed countries to meet more effectively their vital development goals, such as poverty reduction, health, sanitation, and education. It also promotes their recognition in the international community, thus attracting foreign tourists and investors and enabling the country to benefit from global e-commerce. Ironically, although the Taliban banned the Internet in Afghanistan, it recognized the importance of digital communication and maintained a website promoting worldwide recognition of its regime.

Bridging the Digital Divide to Benefit the Developed Countries

The information revolution not only helps the less developed countries, it also benefits the developed countries. Because the Internet exhibits powerful "network effects" - that is, the more computers are connected and the more information technology is deployed, the greater is the value of the Internet connection - an increase in Internet penetration in the less developed countries would increase the benefits of Internet users and service providers in the developed world.

Bridging the global digital divide also would facilitate information flow from the less developed countries to the developed countries. In today's globalized world, information about foreign countries and the international community is increasingly important. The Internet and new communications technologies therefore would allow citizens and businesses in the developed countries to make more informed decisions about matters concerning the international economic system.

They also would provide countries with what Dean Joseph Nye and Professor Robert Keohane called "soft power" - the power to influence other countries by attraction, rather than coercion. The United States' soft power can be derived from the appeal of ideas such as democracy, the rule of law, human rights, and individual freedom. By increasing awareness and acceptance of these ideas among the less developed world, bridging the global digital divide would allow the United States to save costly economic and military resources and valuable political capital.

Bridging the Digital Divide to Foster Democracy and the Rule of Law

The Internet, by design, is decentralized and inherently difficult to control. Thus, in many countries in Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and Latin America, greater freedom is found on the Internet than in the traditional news media. Bridging the global digital divide therefore would encourage information flow that helps subvert authoritarian and repressive governments - thus promoting democracy, human rights, and civil society, as well as transparency, openness, and accountability of governing agencies.

In countries where the mass media are tightly controlled, heavily censored, and cost-prohibitive, the Internet and new communications technologies would create opportunities for electronic expression by individuals and groups who otherwise would not have media access. A good example is the Kosovo radio station Radio B92, which continued to broadcast via the Internet after the Serbian government had shut the station down.

Moreover, with shrinking costs, maximizing speed, and broadening reach, the Internet and new communications technologies would alter the balance between established organizations and outside challengers. They also would facilitate independent and investigative journalism, thus allowing the media to function as the Fourth Estate, providing diversity and a multiplicity of viewpoints, and facilitating informed deliberation by citizens.

Bridging the Digital Divide to Promote Global Harmony

While the Internet creates an appeal for ideas and ways of life in Western democracies, it also causes tension by presenting a vivid picture of the enormous disparities between the developed and less developed world.

Some commentators have attributed these disparities to the unfair international economic system, which, they argue, benefits the developed countries at the expense of the less developed countries. Attempts to bridge the global digital divide not only would alleviate mistrust among the less developed countries, but also would help reduce the tension in the world trading system and the sense of isolation among people living in those countries.

If dissatisfaction among the less developed countries grows and if the digital divide persists, global stability and international security might be at stake. Eventually, the global digital divide might separate the world into two camps, causing the less developed countries to demand a "new international order" that redistributes information resources under global norms. Even worse, some radicals might turn to extremism, violence, and terrorism to voice their dissatisfaction with the existing system.

Can the Less Developed Countries Eat Information Technology?

Some critics question the urgency of bridging the global digital divide and note that what the very poor countries need is clean drinking water, food, schools, and medicine, not computers. For instance, in an interview Bill Gates remarked, "The mothers are going to walk right up to that computer and say, My children are dying, what can you do? They're not going to sit there and like, browse eBay or something."

Of course, as Gates suggested, it would be naive to expect the Internet to suddenly eradicate all the problems in the less developed countries, such as poverty, disease, foreign debt, technological backwardness, and the lack of clean drinking water, food, shelter, schools, electricity, and basic health care. Nonetheless, we should not dismiss the digital divide by noting the existence of other, more traditional divides. In fact, solutions to bridging the digital divide and those other divides should not be seen as mutually exclusive. Rather, they can work together to reinforce each other.

For example, economic development is intertwined with the growth of information technology. While the digital revolution could lead to greater economic development, the converse also could be true. Thus, if countries have wealth, they might be able to acquire information technology, connect their citizens to the Internet, and participate in the information revolution.

A Computer for Every Household?

In the near future, it is unlikely that most households in the less developed world will own a computer at home, even if the global digital divide is significantly reduced. But who says people need a computer at home to participate in the digital economy? A single, centralized computer to which many have access can be equally effective.

As a New York Times journalist described, a single well-placed computer in an isolated village in the southern tip of India can provide essential information to an entire village, such as storm warnings and crop price for farmers. It also can provide medical services, legal land records, and distance learning opportunities.

Today, computers and online access are no longer luxuries. They are basic development tools and a critical means to make the world a better place.

If we are to avoid another catastrophe like the September 11 attacks, we should look beyond short-term military and security solutions. We need to devise a long-term strategy, facilitate a global dialogue, entertain a vision for a shared future, and improve the prospects of the younger generation around the world. Bridging the global digital divide will be an important piece of this puzzle.

Peter K. Yu is Acting Assistant Professor of Law, Executive Director of the Intellectual Property Law Program, and Deputy Director of the Howard M. Squadron Program in Law, Media & Society at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, Yeshiva University. He also is Research Associate of the Programme in Comparative Media Law & Policy at the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies, University of Oxford. In fall 2000, Professor Yu organized a Symposium on "Bridging the Digital Divide: Equality in the Information Age." This Article is adapted from his introduction to the symposium issue, which is forthcoming from the Cardozo Arts & Entertainment Law Journal.

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