shirky.com Clay Shirky's Writings About the Internet
Economics and Culture, Media and Community, Open Source
Internet Use and National Identity
7/15/1999
 
The United Nations released its annual Human Development Report this week, including 
a section concerning the distribution of Internet use among the nations of the world. 
It painted a picture of massively unequal distribution, showing among other things 
that the United States has a hundred times more Internet users per capita than the Arab 
States, and that Europe has 70 times more users per capita than sub-Saharan Africa. 
Surveying the adoption rates detailed in this report, anyone who has any contact with 
the Internet can only be left with one thought -- "Well, duh." There is some advantage 
to quantifying what is common knowledge, but the UN has muddied the issues here rather 
than clarifying them.
 
Is there really anybody who could be surprised that the country that invented the 
internet has more users per capita than Qatar? Is there really anyone who can work 
themselves up over the lack of MyYahoo accounts in nations that also lack clean water? 
The truth of the matter is that internet growth is not gradual, it is a phase change -- 
when a country crosses some threshold of readiness, demand amongst its citizens explodes. 
Beneath that threshold, trying to introduce the internet by force is like pushing string 
-- its is absurd to put internet access on the same plane as access to condoms and 
antibiotics.

Once a country reaches that threshold, though, there is one critical resource that 
drives internet adoption, and the UN desperately wants that resource to be money. Among 
the UN's proposals is a "bit tax" (one penny per 100 emails) to build out 
telecommunications infrastructure in the developing world. While improving infrastructure 
is an admirable goal, it fudges the real issue: among countries who are ready for 
rapid internet adoption, the most important resource isn't per capita income but per 
capita freedom. Massive internet adoption of the sort the UN envisions will require an 
equally massive increase in political freedom, and the UN is in no position to say that 
part out loud.

The HDR report is hamstrung by the UN's twin goals of advancing human rights and 
respecting national sovereignty. Where the internet is concerned, these goals are 
incompatible. The United Arab Emirates has a much better telecom infrastructure than 
Argentina, but a lower per capita use of the internet. Saudi Arabia has a higher per 
capita income than Spain but lower internet penetration. What Argentina has more of 
than the UAE is neither infrastructure, nor money, but the right of the citizens to get 
information from a wide variety of sources, and their willingness to exercise that 
right. Among nations of relatively equal development, it will be the freer nations and 
not the richer ones that adopt the internet fastest.

The report addresses this issue by suggesting a toothless campaign to "...persuade 
national governments not to restrict access to the internet because of its tremendous 
potential for human development," avoiding mentioning that the "potential for human 
development" is a death sentence for many of the world's leaders. If the UN was serious 
about driving internet adoption, the section on the internet would have started with 
the following declaration: "Attention all dictators: internet access is the last stop 
for your regime. You can try to pull into the station gradually, as China and Kuwait 
are trying to do, or you can wait to see what happens when you plow into the wall at 
full speed, like North Korea and Kenya, but the one thing you can't do is keep going 
full steam ahead. Enjoy your ride." 


Write clay@shirky.com with questions or comments.

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shirky.com Clay Shirky's Writings About the Internet
Economics and Culture, Media and Community, Open Source