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Syria Utilizes “Kill Switch” as Internet Freedom Debate Heats Up

WASHINGTON, June 17, 2011 – In the past year, there has been an extensive push for universal access to Internet, seen as the ultimate democratizing tool enabling two-way communication between governors and the governed. But the reality of a ‘digital divide’ leaves the majority of the world’s population without access to the technological infrastructure to support its use. And those who do have access are sometimes more vulnerable to restriction on political basis, as seen in the recent uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa.

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WASHINGTON, June 17, 2011 – In the past year, there has been an extensive push for universal access to Internet, seen as the ultimate democratizing tool enabling two-way communication between governors and the governed. But the reality of a ‘digital divide’ leaves the majority of the world’s population without access to the technological infrastructure to support its use. And those who do have access are sometimes more vulnerable to restriction on political basis, as seen in the recent uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa.

Such was the case in Syria on June 3, when the government shut down the country’s Internet network. Although fully restored the following day, the country’s 3G, DSL and dial-up were disconnected the same day massive protests and marches were being organized throughout the country to call for the removal of President Bashar al-Assad and for “Children’s Friday,” to honor children who had died during the uprisings.

An Internet “kill switch” was used earlier this year in Egypt and Libya, as well as in Iran in 2009, but this was the first recognized occurence in Syria, which has been in a period of political unrest for the past several months and seen violent crackdowns on protestors that have killed more than 1,000 people.

In an almost ironic turn, the Syrian Internet shutdown occured just hours before United Nations Special Rapporteur, Frank La Rue, issued a report to the Human Rights Council in Geneva on freedom of expression, claiming that Internet access is a basic human right.

In his report, La Rue said he was concerned about the “emerging trend of timed blocking to prevent users from accessing or disseminating information at key political moments,” and that cutting off Internet access is a violation of Article 19 of the UN’s human rights law.

The report and recommendations focus both on a universal right to access content, that is, a political right to communicate freely via the Internet and on the technical infrastructure that enables the communication. Currently, nearly 80 percent of the world’s population is left wanting in this respect.

“Each State should thus develop a concrete and effective policy…to make the Internet widely available, accessible and affordable to all segments of population,” said La Rue in the report.

Throughout the so-called “Arab Spring,” the Internet has played a crucial role as dissenters have used social media and various sites to organize and mobilize communities and to get the word out to the world, as in many cases, foreign journalists have been restricted. Social media sites like Facebook and YouTube were banned in Syria until February, and although eventually made accessible, have been monitored by government authorities, especially during protests.

Despite the open nature of the Internet’s architecture, the ability of governments and regulators to control and monitor citizens’ access is worrisome for proponents of Internet freedom, and has led to technological innovations and investments to combat the threat.

Highlighted in the New York Times, one such project is the New America Foundation’s “Internet in a suitcase,” developed by the research group’s Open Technology Initiative. With $2 million in State Department funds, the “shadow” Internet technology would create portable wireless access which could be used in the event of an Internet shutdown, and would be difficult to monitor.

“The implication is that this disempowers central authorities from infringing on people’s fundamental human right to communicate,” said Sascha Meinrath, director of the Open Technology Initiative said in an interview with the New York Times.

With national and transnational organizations weighing in, the focus on freedom of expression through the Internet seems to be in both the technical capacity for communication, and the arguably ideological capacity which results from political frameworks granting citizen rights. While the push for Internet freedom may not have been inspired by the most recent political unrest in the Middle East, or technological innovations like the “shadow” Internet, the two objectives seem to be going hand in hand.

Africa

Lorraine Kipling: Broadband Affordability Around the World Reflects a Global Digital Divide

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Lorraine Kipling

More than half of the world’s population is online, but many people are still unable to access the resources and opportunities that the internet provides.

Meaningful connectivity has wide-reaching benefits in terms of work, education, and communication. In 2016, the UN declared that the internet was so embedded into modern life, that it constitutes a human right. Good internet access can not only vastly improve quality of life on an individual level, but has a positive impact on global economic and society.

‘Good internet access’ requires access to devices, digital literacy support, and sufficient and affordable strong broadband supply. However, in many countries, the high cost of getting online is a significant barrier for people with low incomes.

According to the Alliance for Affordable Internet, even the commonly used target for an ‘affordable’ internet costing 5  percent or less than the average monthly income would still exclude a significant proportion of the population from accessing the internet. They suggest that a 2 percent target would be more affordable.

Information from NetCredit based on global broadband prices with World Bank data

A recent study by NetCredit collated information on global broadband prices with World Bank data on average salaries in different countries. This series of infographics shows the percentage of the average income people need to pay to get online, as well as how much it costs for a strong and reliable broadband connection of 10Mbps.

The results clearly show that there continues to be a strong digital divide between the rich and poor in many countries.

Just as the income gap varies greatly from country to country, so does the extent of the digital divide. Of the 174 countries the study obtained data on, only 44 had broadband access costing below the 2 percent ceiling of affordability, and 77 had access below 5 percent. In 63 countries the cost of the internet was more than 10 percent of the average income, and in 11 of those countries it costs more than 100 percent what the average person earns to get online.

The study shows that cost of broadband access is well below the ceiling of affordability in countries with relatively high average salaries, such as Saint Martin (0.63 percent of the $3,903.91 average salary), Israel (0.68 percent of $2,912.46), and Monaco (0.68 percent of $5,043.69). Countries with strong economies such as San Marino, Germany, and Luxembourg were also under 1 percent.

In Yemen, meanwhile, where civil war has contributed to one of the poorest and least-developed economies in the world, broadband access is out of the reach of all but a tiny minority of extremely wealthy people. While the average monthly income for a Yemeni person is just $88.33, a broadband internet package costs 2792.50 percent of that ($2,466.67), and a 10Mbps package is vastly more expensive than even that.

Many African nations where internet costs more than the average monthly income

From the data available, there were 10 other countries whose internet packages cost higher than 100 percent of the average monthly income. These countries are all in Africa, where the digital divide is significant across the continent.

In resource-poor countries Burundi and Mauritania, whose economies depend on subsistence farming and livestock and average salaries are as low as $60.50 and $17.68, respectively, the internet costs more than 1000 percent of those amounts.

Even in countries with strong economies and apparently ‘affordable’ internet, the poorest and most vulnerable people in society fall into the digital divide. In the US, where the  internet costs 1.17 percent of the average salary, educators and experts are calling for greater equity in broadband access, arguing for connectivity to be treated as ‘a basic need within education.’

Global connectivity is now more critical than ever, and it is clear that better infrastructure and support is necessary to provide more equitable access to digital resources.

Lorraine Kipling is a freelance writer and editor from Manchester, UK. She writes for NeoMam Studios. This piece is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.

Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to commentary@breakfast.media. The views expressed in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.

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Africa

Africa’s Informal Sector Marred by Small Manufacturing Base and Low Technology Adoption, Brookings Experts Say

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WASHINGTON, October 18, 2019 – Emerging digital technologies are making strides in the global economy, but some experts say that the impact in Africa may take on different forms.

Digital technology can increase productivity in Africa’s informal sector, said World Bank Executive Director Jean-Claude Tchatchouang at a Brookings Institute event Thursday. The informal sector is comprised of jobs in the gig economy, such as rideshares and online platforms.

What’s most important, he said, is that economic growth becomes more inclusive and has a lasting impact on alleviating poverty. Infrastructure, digital payments, online platforms and entrepreneurship are all key areas of improvement for African countries.

Africa’s exceptionally large informal sector is marred by its small manufacturing base and low technology adoption, said Mark Dutz, lead economist at World Bank Africa Region. However, this means lower-skilled workers could less likely be affected by worker-replacing digital technologies.

Moreover, he added, low levels of human capital and high levels of informality provide greater scope for worker-enhancing digital technologies, allowing workers to learn new skills on the job.

Regarding government’s role in this issue, Dutz said, the African Union’s commitment to promote digital technologies provides a window of opportunity to facilitate all types of technological adoption.

Maintaining focus in the non-technological sector is also vital. Africa’s strongest sectors in the manufacturing economy, said World Bank Senior Economic Adviser Mary Hallward-Driemeier, are the ones with the least automation. This is especially relevant towards agriculture.

Part of the lack of automation stems from China’s dominant role in the artificial intelligence industry, she said. Because China is producing so many robots, it’s actively trying to make sure that AI production doesn’t move elsewhere.

The bottom line is that economists and other experts need to focus outside of the traditional narratives of the tech and gig economies, said Tricia Williams, thematic research lead at the MasterCard Foundation. Many African countries are living on an analog system and simultaneously investing resources in digital technologies.

Increasing job opportunities and labor income remains the most sustainable way out of poverty, said Hallward-Driemeier.

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Africa

Broadband News from Around the World: 4G in Lusaka, Australia’s National Broadband Network and Scotland Fiber Link

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WASHINGTON, March 25, 2013 – A recent wrap-up of global broadband news included the following items:

Lusaka, Zambia

Zamtel, a Zambian Telecommunications company, has announced plans to increase mobile broadband Internet service and availability in the nation, according to the Lusaka Times. Zamtel Chief Eexecutive Officer Dr. Mupanga Mwanakatwe spoke of the company’s plans to increase internet availability in both rural and urban areas. Zamtels aims to see increased access to 2G and 3G connections. These second- and third-generation broadband connections are slower than the 4G customarily available in the developed world. Zamtel will also invest $4 million into the broadband infrastructure of Livingstone, in preparation for the United Nations World Tourism Organization’s general assembly to be held in late May. The Livingstone plan will allow for 4G connectivity at the UN event.

Australia’s National Broadband Network

Malcolm Turnbull, communications spokesman for of the opposition political party in Australia, warned that at its current pace of implementation, the government’s National Broadband Network could take 20 years to complete. Turnbull noted that when the government announced their National Broadband Plan, they promised to connect over 12 million homes by 2020. In 2012, the first year of the plan the government only connected 70,000 homes. Turnbull said of his own party’s upcoming broadband plan” will be released sooner rather than later, and there will be plenty of time – many months – before the election for people to consider it and debate it.”

Shetland, Scotland

Following damage to a subsea fiber cable, residents of Shetland, Scotland, were disconnected from broadband internet or cellular service for at least 48 hours. The local company Shetland Telecom noted that the damage to the cable and resulting unavailability is indicative of why more money must be invested into broadband infrastructure. According to the Shetland News, “Shetland Telecom manager Marvin Smith said that the situation demonstrated the value of the £1 million investment in a Shetland fibre optic cable that provides the first leg of the resilient link protecting local users.” Shetland Telecom is hoping to extend its local cable to Vidlin this year. It currently runs from Sandwick in the south to Sella Ness in the north of the isles.

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