Wiring up the powerless

The concept of "digital democracy" champions the Internet as a means by which all people can be given a voice. Taken literally, the creation of a digital democracy would institutionalize the fundamental human right of free expression.

In doing so, it would help establish participatory democracy and equitable global development.

Faith in the exponential expansion of technology and the West's economic interest in a stable world may make the notion of a digital democracy conceivable, but the idea's timeliness comes from two coincident political realities.

First, the end of the cold war and the increase in internal ethnic conflicts have given rise to a questioning of the value of the nation-state frame. Politicians, academics, and journalists have begun thinking about the world in terms that cross boundaries - terms such as globalization and human rights.

Second, the emergence of human rights as a critical component of Western foreign policy - even if it is often only a rhetorical one - has meant that there has been some shift in focus from the sovereignty of nations to the rights of individuals. Giving voice to the voiceless is not a frivolous understanding of the term human rights. As James Wolfensohn, president of the World Bank, has said: "Freedom of the press is not a luxury. It is not an extra."

For eight months last year, teams from the World Bank interviewed 20,000 poor people in 23 countries. According to Mr. Wolfensohn, those interviewed said what differentiated them from the rich was not just money. The poor most despaired of their lack of voice: "The inability to convey to people in authority what it is that they think. The inability to have a searchlight put on conditions of inequality."

Potentially, a digital democracy could give the currently disenfranchised a say in their own and the world community. But it is nowhere near to making good on that promise. According to Nua, an Internet consulting company, almost half the world's online users live in the US and Canada (136 million) and more people go on the Internet in Sweden (3.5 million) than in Africa (2.5 million).

Even in India, home to the largest middle class of any nation, only one-half of 1 percent of households have Internet access. The wired, like those software engineers President Clinton visited on his trip to India's Cyber Towers - South Asia's Silicon Valley - are citizens of the globe they're astride. The unwired are often isolated from their government services enjoyed by better-conncected citizens.

In virtually every nation, there are two new segments of society: the wired and the unwired, the information rich and the information poor. Simple and affordable access to phone lines are major impediments in a world where 2 billion people, according to Intel, have never made a phone call. On the other side of that equation, the Gartner Group and the Yankee Group both estimate that by 2003 there will be more than 1 billion mobile-phone users. Today, according to Intel, there are only 9 million Internet users in China, but there are 70 million cellphones there. These statistics give some credence to the belief, shared by Intel and others such as Chris Gent, chief executive officer of the European communications giant Vodafone, that most people's first interaction with the Internet will not be through a PC box, but with cheaper, hand-held mobile devices.

Yet global disparities are not solely linked to the availability and cost of telephone services, hardware, software, and Internet service providers. Another restriction on digital democracy is the lack of an incentive for potential users. What most of the people on the planet really need from the Internet is content - in the traditional sense of news and information - in a language they understand. It's one community in sub-Saharan Africa able to learn from the experience of other small communities elsewhere about how to allocate and administer scarce water resources. It's Belgrade's independent radio station B-92, denied access to the air during the war in Kosovo, able to tell its story and to find an even larger audience on the Web.

In this respect, the most valuable roles for the Internet in the global community are to serve as a free press for those who don't have one, and as a tool for multilateral communications for those who lack an essential telecommunications infrastructure. If a muzzled press or the absence of a free press is an abuse of human rights, expanding the reach of the Internet and the community of Internet users is human rights work. Building a digital democracy can be both a human rights goal and a business investment plan. Privileged countries can work to expand those opportunities for the voiceless and the powerless. This spring, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation gave $50 million to Save the Children to support a global campaign to save the estimated 5.4 million newborns who die every year. In addition to launching and expanding health programs, the money will also fund a global information campaign to both increase local understanding of the causes of infant deaths and raise awareness of the social, as well as the political and economic costs of those deaths.

The wired among us can pressure the e-world and now the mobile world to decide that helping to connect the powerless is not only an ethical assumption of global responsibility, but is also, ultimately, a pocketbook issue.

*Susan Moeller is a fellow at the Joan Shorenstein Center for the Press, Politics and Public Policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, and the author of Compassion Fatigue: How the Media Sell Disease, Famine, War and Death (Routledge, 1999).

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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