The Internet: Just for the rich, male elites?

5 Oct

Exclusivity in access to the Internet has led many to brand it as yet another  technology that is available only to the wealthy and powerful elite in  developing countries. The true picture is more complex however and despite lack of access the Internet is having a real impact.

One consistent criticism centres on the domination of Internet use by men. Access to information means access to power and most societies continue to exclude women from both. Estimates suggest that the global Internet gender ratio has remained static for a number of years, with around 63 per cent male users and 37 per cent female users. Less optimistic is the Association for Progressive Communications’ claim that “male domination of computer networks” is as high as 95 per cent.

For many activists, the concept of “cyberspace” is critical to understanding the importance of the new technology for women. “The issue of space has always been central for women and is highly sensitive, particularly in Africa”, argues Marie-Helene Mottin-Sylla of the Synergy, Gender and Development Programme of the NGO, ENDA Tiers Monde, in Senegal. “The freedom to have access to spaces other than the bedroom and the kitchen, and to fully and safely be able to act in other public spaces is key to women’s full participation in the world’s future. Unless African women can participate fully in cyberspace, they will face a new form of exclusion from society.”

What the Internet means for women is reflected in other traditionally marginalised groups. Much of the South’s Internet use, particularly in the earlier years (1993-1995) has been attributable to low-cost NGO networks. The earliest users and disseminators of Internet use and technology were academic and research organisations and organisations belonging to the Association of Progressive Communications (APC), such as GreenNet (London) and the Institute for Global Communications (San Francisco). These have actively supported or established networks in Asia, Africa and Latin America for years, and often provided countries with their only link to the Internet. Partly because of these initiatives, the Internet may have a greater social impact in developing countries than anywhere else.

These networks successfully targeted key actors in the development process – international NGOs and local civil society groups. APC currently claims “a consortium of 25 international member networks [providing] vital links of communication to over 50,000 NGOs, activists, educators, policy-makers and community leaders in 133 countries.”

The early march stolen by community organisations and academics meant that some of the best informed organisations in developing countries were those campaigning for greater democracy, social equality and protection of the environment.

However, this is now changing as the Internet becomes more commercialised. The Internet sector in industrialised and developing countries alike is now highly competitive, profitable and likely to flourish with or without the help of the NGO or donor communities. Egypt, for example, now has more than 15 commercial Internet service providers, all of which have started since 1995. More than 100 Internet service providers have been established in sub-Saharan Africa in the past two years.

This is an excerpt from a report by Duncan Pruett with James Deane and Omar Sattaur for the Panos Institute London (http://www.oneworld.org/panos)

This article was published in New Renaissance magazine Vol. 8, No. 2

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