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Barriers to Information Access

by Ken Varnum

Copyright (c) 1996, Open Media Research Institute

This article originally appeared in the 8 November 1996 edition of Transition (Vol. 2, No. 22)

Although access to the Internet is increasing rapidly, the proportion of people in the world with Internet access is still very low. Even in such highly networked parts of the world as the United States and Scandinavia, only a minority of people have access to the Internet at home or work. The minority is much smaller in the East and is likely to stay small for years to come.

The creation of the basic infrastructure -- communications networks, equipment, native-language content and software, and so forth -- will be a long-term project. The development of economic infrastructures capable of supporting widespread Internet access will likely take even longer. Even if the information age is upon us, a number of significant barriers will have to be cleared before the infant global information network can develop into an adolescent, much less an adult.

The number of projects designed to increase the spread of the Internet notwithstanding, the basic telecommunications infrastructure of most of the world is not developed enough to support universal access to voice telephony, let alone reliable, high-speed data transfer. When making a telephone call within most Central and Eastern European cities, one expects static, pops, and snippets of other conversations to intrude. While such noise can be ignored by humans, it tends to slow the speed of data transfer to a snail's pace. Placing an international call in the ex-Soviet sphere is fraught with difficulties -- if the connection is made at all, it is almost always noisy and prone to random interruptions.

That's assuming one has a phone. In most former communist countries, great efforts are being made to modernize switching centers and install new long-distance lines, including in some places the building of new private networks parallel to the existing ones. Still, ordering a new personal telephone line usually still involves months or years of waiting -- if the order is taken at all. Only 40 percent of Russian households have telephones; in many rural areas, the figure is half that.

At an even more basic level, the cost of the machinery needed to connect to the Internet is out of the reach of much of the region's population. A modem, computer, and monitor are a $1,000 investment, at least. Also, most telephone companies in Europe and the former Soviet Union charge for all telephone calls -- local as well as long distance -- according to duration. That can add up surprisingly quickly if one spends even half an hour a day connected to the Internet.

The variety of languages and alphabets used by humans to communicate is one of the larger stumbling blocks to true global exchange of information. Creating the technical infrastructure for sending data around the planet is relatively easy; with sufficient investment, the networks can and will be built. Making the global content of the Internet available to a global audience, regardless of the language of the document or the person reading it -- the pot of gold at the end of the Internet rainbow -- is much more difficult. Although English has long been the lingua franca of the Internet, its dominance will fade as the majority of the Earth's population -- non-English speakers -- join the Internet.

Even the seemingly simple problem of recording and displaying the characters necessary for the various languages of the world remains a thorny problem. Currently, the standard character set of the Internet is the Roman alphabet without any diacritical marks. When communicating in English, this means that many Europeans cannot write their names properly. But when communicating in their own languages, it means that important information is dropped. Special software exists for most languages, but both the sender and receiver must have it for it to work. For the Cyrillic character set alone, there are three different standards in common use: one used by Macintosh and UNIX computers, one by Microsoft Windows, and another by DOS-based machines.

In the not-too-distant future, the ability of personal computers to communicate using the various characters employed around the world will vastly improve. But it will be a long time before computerized translation works well with all kinds of writing and is available in more than a handful of major languages. Until then, use of the Internet will be highly dependent on the language or languages one is able to read. And unless there is a sufficient body of information available in a language one can read, there will be little reason to join the Internet community.

There are other problems associated with the use of English as a lingua franca. It keeps most of the knowledge of the smaller language groups isolated from the rest of the Internet community, since members of the same language group communicate among themselves in their own language. Thus, for example, Czechs and Hungarians able to read English can find a world of information at their fingertips, and a growing amount of information in their own language, but they will find relatively little on the Internet about each other.

All of these barriers to access make the "Internet revolution," as it is called in the United States, a distant dream for large segments of the population in the East. While there is an audience, it tends to be more highly educated and financially better off than the population as a whole, to an even greater degree than in Western Europe or the United States. The information revolution may well, like many other revolutions, be driven by the intellectual middle class, but it will not be supported by a larger, populist, groundswell until the Internet is cheaper, more reliable, and more accessible.

-- Ken Varnum