The Net must spread more widely to include the poor

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The Independent Online
The Internet, they say, is inherently democratic because it is not controlled by anyone and is on offer to everyone. The reality, however, is that as the world is reshaped by computers, whole countries, even continents, are being excluded. "Open access" depends on your ability to pay and for the world's poorest, that makes it far from accessible. The technology gap is so wide that half of humanity has never made a telephone call. If information technology is to have a liberation influence, it has to do more than be available - it has to be affordable.

A recent UN survey concluded that more people need to be educated in the next 30 years than have been educated up to this point in history. It is also the case that of 44 African countries, one-third cannot communicate with the WHO Centre in Brazzaville, Congo. The development of the Net and especially the World Wide Web could mean that all the information available to us in the industrialised world could be accessible in the developing world.

At this month's G7 conference in Johannesburg on information technology and the developing world, South Africa's deputy president, Thabo Mbeki, reminded us that there are more telephones in Manhattan than in all of sub-Saharan Africa. New communication opportunities offer enormous potential. For instance, during the ebola virus outbreak, contact between the Zaireans seeking information of cases in the copper belt in Zambia was made possible by the Internet. The level of need can also be illustrated by the difficulties that are often encountered in getting information. An SOS from a doctor in Mozambique, asking advice following a cholera outbreak, did not get a response for eight months.

Multi-media software opens up new possibilities for people everywhere to connect with the information they need. Schools in rural areas of Africa could gain access to the resources of non-governmental and government agencies at a fraction of the cost of updating, publishing and distributing text-books. Schools could be used for adult education and be available as a resource for groups in the wider community - for example, farmers wanting to sell their produce to city firms. In short, the Internet is not a luxury but a requirement.

The gap between information-rich and information-poor could widen still further the economic gulf. The G7 conference, with the full participation of the European Union, has been exploring how everyone can benefit from the possibilities that information, and the power it brings, can offer. The global information society could be one in which, for the first time, we include the developing world in the progress we are making. The super- highway should be open even to those people currently confined to dirt tracks.

The writer is a Labour member of the European Parliament.