A Network of Opportunities: Why We Must Get the World Online, Safely
Ben Wright, Writer on Science and Technology
8 December, 2018
In 1969, Charley Kline of the University of California in Los Angeles sent the first two letters of the word “Login” over the ARPANET connection he and other researchers had built to Stanford University. ARPANET was the first digital transmission network established using the communication protocols employed by the modern internet. The system crashed on the letter “g”, but the internet had been born and a new era in technology was ushered in. At the end of 1995 16 million people, or 0.4% of the world population, were connected to the internet. By the turn of the millennium, 5 years later, those numbers had grown to 361 million people, 5.8%. In 2005, the internet reached a billion global users, and by 2016 there were over 3.3 billion on the web, connecting 46% of the world’s population.
That is an astounding rate of growth for a service that requires immense infrastructure, especially to reach out to secluded rural communities. Due to this rate of growth and prohibitive cost, however, developing countries have been left in the proverbial dust. Governments, for the most part, do not install the cables and transmission lines required for an internet connection to reach individual users. Instead, the service providers must cover these costs in order to facilitate connections. In many developing countries, the lack of existing infrastructure and the lack of potential customers with the financial means to pay for an internet connection drives service providers away. It is simply not be a profitable venture to provide greater access.
Unable to connect, the people not reached by the internet, who are not wealthy to begin with, are put at a huge disadvantage. The internet has a number of important benefits that these individuals fail to receive. Economically, for example, the internet provides opportunities to reach a large market with products and services, and it is one of the fastest growing sources of income. From 2006 to 2011 the internet accounted for 21% of GDP growth in mature economies globally and had a greater weight in GDP than agricultural or utilities sectors. Since then those numbers have only grown, and today 4 in 10 purchases are made via the internet.
There are also a number of socio-political advantages to being online. On an individual scale, it provides a method of personally connecting with people all over the globe, promoting a diversity of relationships and ideas. On a larger scale, the internet has become an invaluable resource for education, and those without it may be left behind in the classroom. As well, access to the internet provides a gateway to political information for users who might otherwise not be able to properly educate themselves in order to engage in politics.
In a world where the internet provides so many advantages, it is imperative that countries work toward getting everyone online. It is already mostly those in developing nations who lack internet access. While the internet had reached 90% of Canadians by 2016, for example, just 18% of citizens in the similarly populated country of Mozambique had access. If this divide remains, it will only serve to exacerbate the difference in opportunities for economic success and the wealth gap between the two regions.
In rapidly connecting people to the internet, however, it is important to be cautious to avoid certain dangers such as cybercrime. Nations with quickly expanding communications networks often cannot keep up with that expansion to protect new internet users and catch cybercriminals. As well, users new to the internet are more vulnerable than others because they are not fully educated on the dangers of the digital world and how to protect themselves. The combination of these factors makes developing nations a cybercriminal’s dream.
In the wrong hands, as well, the keys to the internet can be dangerous. For years leading up to the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar, for example, members of that nation’s military used Facebook, which is most citizens’ primary news source, to spread anti-Rohingya propaganda and deceitful “news” stories. This digital campaign has been pointed to by human rights groups as a driving factor in rapes, murders, and ultimately the mass displacement of the Rohingya people. In a similar vein in the United States, Russian sources hacking and spreading fictitious stories lead to heightened political tensions, and impacted the 2016 Presidential election.
It is clear then, that global access to the internet must be significantly expanded, but that this expansion must be met with an equal measure of caution. Moving forward, governments in nations with low internet access must prioritize digital infrastructure. For example, a policy to subsidize internet service providers who agree to expand their networks would encourage extension to regions that would otherwise not be economically viable to connect.
At the same time, governments must work with nations with established network security to enable them to quickly form measures of their own to combat cybercrime. They must also implement or expand laws against online censorship and misinformation, to protect their citizens from external or internal influences of division and deception. This could include policies governing web content providers such as Facebook to ensure that they bear the burden of ensuring their advertising and news content is factual. With a combination of these policies, the world can move deeper into the digital age, while eliminating the growing divide between those connected to the internet and those who are not.