What are ICT and internet policies and why should we care
What is ICT policy?
Citizen involvement in ICT policy
and communication are integral to human society. In many
cultures today, information
retrieval and presentation – the
recording of wisdom and history – is still
done with the use of speech, drama, painting, song
use of writing changed this enormously, and the invention
the printing press allowed communication on a massive
scale, through newspapers and magazines. More recent
innovations increased further the reach and speed
of communication, culminating, for now, with digital
ICTs can be grouped into three categories:
• Information technology uses computers, which have become
indispensable in modern societies to process data and
save time and effort
• Telecommunications technologies include telephones (with
fax) and the broadcasting of radio and television,
often through satellites
• Networking technologies, of which the best known is the internet,
but which has extended to mobile phone technology,
Voice Over IP telephony (VOIP), satellite communications, and
other forms of communication that are still in their infancy.
These new technologies have become central to contemporary
societies. Whether you are talking on the phone, sending
an email, going to the bank, using a library, listening
to sports coverage on the radio, watching the news on TV,
working in an office or in the field, going to the doctor,
driving a car or catching a plane, you are using ICTs.
The new ICTs do not operate in isolation from one another.
The advantages and reach of the internet make it a focal
point for the use of new technologies. Its decentralised,
widely-distributed, packet-based mode of transporting
information makes it an efficient, cheap and flexible
means of communication, which facilitates interrelationship
with other technologies. So, for example, international
telephone calls are increasingly made through the internet’s
network of networks, and television and radio are broadcast
via the internet. Today’s Local Area Networks must
be connected to the internet and secure copies of data
(backups) are now made through the internet rather than
onto a local drive. Software, music and video can be
rented through the internet, sometimes without even requiring
a copy on the local computer. The internet is accessible
through mobile phone networks, which use it to present
content to the user, and digital movies will be soon
distributed through the internet to cinemas. The list
is long and getting longer by the day.
Not only are new technologies converging in this way,
the areas where they are applied are also becoming
Telecommunications are firmly based on computer technology,
and are fundamentally dependent on the internet. For
example, the software that makes computers so useful
is now often
created by a team of programmers who may live and work
in different countries, but can collaborate and communicate
via the internet. Telephone companies are increasingly
using VOIP to reduce their international communications
costs. Consumer commodities too are becoming dependent
on the internet. This is especially true of electronic
devices and appliances, such as audio and DVD recorders
and players, or refrigerators.
This convergence happens not only at
a technological level, where everything is in bits (binary
digital form) and the
internet is the main way of moving this information from
place to place, but also at the level of industry. These
days, a large internet service provider will probably also
be linked to a telecommunications infrastructure company,
and have subsidiaries that produce software or own an internet
search engine. The important media multinationals are buying
heavily into internet technology as they see it as the
physical and conceptual infrastructure for media in the
future. This has led to a situation where telecommunication
giants are also multimedia giants with huge investments
in internet technologies. The same company that broadcasts
your favourite TV programme may also be the one that allows
you to access the internet, or pro-vides your ISP with
its connection to the rest of the internet. The movie you
watch at your local cinema may well be produced by a media
multinational that owns your local newspaper and also a
telephone company that runs a main internet portal.
technology and industry are coming together around the
internet, governments that decide policy
and regulate industry
must recognise this fact and adapt their policy-making
accordingly. For example, there is no point in regulating
traditional broadcasting in the usual way if it is being
replaced by internet broadcasting which follows a different
set of rules. The traditional regulation of broadcasting,
involving restricted bandwidths, and huge investment
costs, cannot be applied to new forms of broadcasting which
relatively little capital outlay, are instantly global
and available to everyone, have open standards that facilitate
access in multiple ways, and are decentralised so that
coordinated control is very difficult. The notion of
intellectual property and copyright changes when all information
digital and can be freely copied and transported. For
example, legislation about recorded music must take this
Other questions arise: How should workers’ rights
to privacy in the workplace be regarded in the context
of email and the World Wide Web? What will it mean to
regulate telephone call costs when the ability to call
via the internet
at a much reduced rate becomes generalised?
What is ICT policy?
The Oxford English Dictionary defines policy as “A
course of action, adopted and pursued by a government,
party, ruler, statesman, etc.; any course of action adopted
as advantageous or expedient.” While this definition
suggests that policy is the realm of those in power – governments
or official institutions – a wider sense could include
the vision, goals, principles and plans that guide the
activities of many different actors.
ICT policy generally covers three main areas: telecommunications
(especially telephone communications), broadcasting (radio
and TV) and the internet. It may be national, regional
or international. Each level may have its own decision-making
bodies, sometimes making different and even contradictory
Although policies are formally put in
place by governments, different stakeholders and in particular
the private sector
make inputs into the policy process and affect its out-comes.
Thus, for example, in the International Telecommunications
Union, an intergovernmental body for governments to coordinate
rules and regulations in the field of telecommunications,
the influence of multinationals has grown enormously. Privatisation
of state-owned companies has meant that governments can
rarely control telecommunications directly. The privatised
telecom companies, often partly controlled by foreign shareholders,
look after their own interests. In the context of globalised
markets, large and rich corporations are often more powerful
than developing countries’ governments, allowing
them to shape the policy-making process.
Two sets of issues in ICT policy are critical to civil
society at the moment: access and civil liberties. Access
has to do with making it possible for everyone to use the
internet and other media. In countries where only a minority
have telephones, ensuring affordable access to the internet
is a huge challenge. Much of the response would lie in
social solutions such as community or public access centres.
In richer countries, basic access to internet is available
almost to all, and faster broadband connections are fairly
widespread. Access to traditional media is now a key concern,
as new technologies make community video, radio and television
more feasible than before.
The other set of issues, civil liberties, includes human
rights such as freedom of expression, the right to privacy,
the right to communicate, intellectual property rights,
etc. These rights as applied to broadcast media have been
threatened in many countries, and now the internet, which
began as a space of freedom, is also threatened by government
legislation and emerging restrictions. Some of the most
blatant attacks on freedom of expression come from developing
countries such as China and Vietnam, but even in countries
which have a long tradition of freedom of expression, such
as the USA, there are new attempts to restrict internet
users’ privacy and to limit their right to choose.
At the same time, restrictions that are intended to limit
media monopolies are being weakened and pushed aside.
in ICT policy
Why should we, as citizens, become involved in ICT policymaking?
The obvious answer is that, as shown above, ICTs are so
central to contemporary society that they affect us continually
in many ways. So, for example, if a government decides
to promote free software, we are more likely to enjoy the
benefits of free software (better security, lower cost,
easy adaptation to local conditions and needs, etc). This
is because it will be more extended throughout society,
the monopoly of Microsoft software and its file formats
will be broken, and our lives will improve. If a government
decides to introduce a new form of censorship on the internet,
or fails to protect citizens’ rights to privacy,
then we will suffer too. If the telephone companies keep
prices artificially high for broadband, or refuse to introduce
a cheap flat rate for modem access, then we may have to
pay too much to access the internet, the same as everyone
else. If telecommunications companies are not encouraged
or obliged by regulation to roll out services in rural
areas, people there will have to rely on more expensive
mobile phone services. If governments do not make it legal
for wireless internet services to operate, development
and community workers in ‘unconnected’ parts
of the world will not be able to benefit from the power
of online communication and information access. The internet
makes it possible for local voices to be heard throughout
the world but, if policy and regulation limit their access,
they will also limit their reach.
These self-interested reasons are not the main ones. Other
reasons have to do with the nature of global society. If
we want to promote social justice, then ICT policy will
be a key factor in this battle, and we cannot afford to
remain outside the ICT policy-making process.
A globalised world and networking
Globalisation is a historical reality, not just a catch
phrase. The world we live in has changed enormously in
the last 15 to 20 years. While a global economy has existed
for centuries, in the form of colonialism and world trade,
a new form of unregulated expansion has taken shape in
the last decade. The basis of the new economy has been
free trade, unrestricted investment, deregulation, balanced
budgets, low inflation and privatisation of state-owned
enterprises and infrastructures. At the same time, restrictions
on financial markets were lifted. A large number of mergers
and company takeovers mean that many industries have
become dominated by a few multinationals, while smaller,
local companies have gone under or been forced to depend
on the larger ones.
ICTs have been a fundamental part of this process. Without
instantaneous, global, electronic telecommunications, the
world financial market could not exist, nor could companies
coordinate their production strategies on a global level.
Today’s competition between companies depends on
such global communications, as does the production of new
ideas and research, whether at universities, private institutes
or company laboratories. Although it is not true to say
that ICTs have caused these radical changes, they have
been a prerequisite and are now fundamental to the functioning
of the global economy.
The conclusion is clear: we have to use the networks in
a new way, for the benefit of human beings and not for
the efficient functioning of the international money market
and multinational companies. If global, networked systems
are the new basis of power, and if ICTs are the technical
foundation of globalisation, they became a terrain of struggle.
The main challenge is to adapt them to become the technical
foundation of the struggle against the negative impacts
of globalisation and for social justice. Those who remain
inside the networked society, with access to the systems
that make it function so effectively, will be able to fight
to change it. Those who are excluded will find it so much
So what should we do with the new technologies?
What does this mean in practice? It means using ICTs to
do several things. First, to spread alternative information
in a new way, to millions of people instantly and without
the confines of traditional limitations such as distance.
Second, to create new forms of organisation and coordination,
new structures and new modes of operation. Third, to
foster new forms of solidarity among the powerless, new
ways of sharing experience and of learning from one another.
And finally, to incorporate more and more people into
these alternative global networks.
People are already doing it. The Web allows anybody to
publish news and information, and the effects of this can
be seen everywhere, not just on the millions of websites
that anyone can access. No longer can the powerful tell
lies and get away with it so easily. For example, when
a politician justifies a war with lies, alternative versions
immediately appear on thousands of electronic mailing lists,
websites, blogs, and internet radio and TV. Websites like
the Indymedias provide alternative sources of information,
which are instantaneous, open to the participation of anyone
who has interesting news, and where information, opinion
and debate coexist. Information can now be made available
instantly all over the Web. This forces the traditional
media, such as the mainstream press and TV, to respond,
changing the style of information gathering but showing,
as they compete for momentary exclusives and news-breaking
stories, that their news and information are still controlled
by the editors, the directors, and frequently the owners.
Counter information on the internet is usually unpaid,
and allows other viewpoints to be heard.
|A unionist comments on the use of email
“Before, when information arrived by fax to the local union office, I
never knew what was going on. If I made the effort to go into the office, the
fax might be on the notice board, but half the time it had fallen off and been
put into the bin, or someone had taken it home, etc. Then we started using email
in the office and the first thing I used to do when I arrived was look in the
computer to see the new emails. Now that we are all on the Net, I have a copy
of everything that reaches the local office. I can comment on it through the
list and we can discuss things before the meetings, which makes them quicker
and less boring. Now I get too much information, quite the opposite from before."
Source: Personal communication
But it is not only the information flows that are changing.
The way we work together is also changing. New tools allow
new ways of organising, often without the vertical hierarchies,
rigidly formal structures and entrenched office bearers
that previously allowed those who controlled the information
flows to control the structures. A mailing list makes it
just as easy to send a message to hundreds or even thousands
of people as to one person. When activities are organised
through a list, everyone can have all the information,
not just chosen bits. Thus a coalition of activists can
be not just a few representatives who go to a meeting once
a week, but hundreds of people who can voice their ideas.
A campaign for mass demonstrations, or to protest a political
trial, can quickly involve thousands of people in a matter
of weeks, when previously it would have taken months or
years. This makes grassroots-organising easier, allows
more people to be involved, but also may mean that the
political structures that are developed in this manner
are not so stable as they used to be. A network may develop
for a particular campaign, involve a dozen, hundreds or
thousands of people, and then dissolve or change into another
form when the campaign finishes.
One challenge faced by those working for social justice
in the era of globalisation is how to operate on a global
scale, to link people and communities in different countries
around causes that affect us all. Apart from email and
mailing lists, web forums, news groups, intranets, online
group work spaces, webs, blogs, videoconferences, instant
messenger services, and a host of new tools mean that the
possibilities for international, national or local collaboration
are infinitely greater with the new technologies. In the
same way that injustice has become globally organised,
the struggle against it must be global, not only local.
This means that people from rich countries can learn from
those from poorer countries, and vice versa. Of course,
ICTs are no substitute for real, face-to-face interaction,
but when this is not possible they can pro-vide alternatives.
And they often make closer human communication easier by
bringing people together.
But to use the new ICTs in these ways, you need to be able
to access them, and most of humanity cannot do so at the
moment. Access to ICTs for all is thus a key demand for
concerned citizens, an essential aspect of ICT policy,
and an issue for us all.
The new technologies offer enormous possibilities for increasing
human freedom and social justice. The origin of the internet,
designed as a way of collaborating without any central
control, makes it an excellent tool for this, and because
the internet has developed in an unregulated way on the
basis of collaboration, it is not controlled. Not yet.
But this situation is unlikely to last. In fact, it is
under threat from governments and multinational companies,
through legislation, regulation, monopoly control, legal
pressures, and intellectual property restrictions. The
new ICTs will not be new for very long, and they might
not continue to be as free as they are now. The possibilities
they offer can be taken away from us, unless we actively
participate in the inevitable regulatory process that any
new technology experiences.
Act now, before it is too late
Now is the time to act, when all is not yet decided. If
we wait until the restrictions on ICTs are consolidated,
it will be much more difficult to reverse policies than
to create better ones in the first place. Policy varies
from country to country, especially from rich to poor,
and the priorities are different. In poorer countries,
where ICTs are less developed, the key issues are access
to ICTs for the majority of the population and outright
restrictions such as internet filters and lack of freedom
of expression. In the developed countries, many of these
issues have already been decided, such as telephone access,
or have a long tradition, such as the lack of censorship.
But new issues are arising as restrictions are imposed:
privacy, censorship, intellectual property restrictions,
broadband, 3G cell phones, wireless connectivity, infrastructure
monopolies, media concentration, etc. The result of these
new struggles to impose the power of governments and
multinationals will inevitably be extended to the rest
of the world, so people in less developed countries should
actively engage with these issues, because their future
will be decided for them.
So why should we be interested in ICT policy? Because the
way ICTs develop will have an enormous impact on the possibilities
of working for social justice and sustainable development.
If we do not take an active part in ICT policy-making,
we will have no say in how our societies develop and how
the future unfolds.
Source: ICT Policy: A Beginner's Handbook
APC 2003 freely available for download from this site.
See our resources section.