January 26, 2007

Globalization of internet: The next billion users are coming with a challenge

Ethan Zuckerman is a big name when it comes to Information Technology. He started in 1994 when he co-founded Tripod, the personal homepage site (in which I hosted my first personal website in 1999). He has come a long way since and this is how the world recognizes him now:

Fortune Magazine named him as one of the top 10 innovators under the age of 40. The World Economic Forum named him a Global Leader for Tomorrow in 2003 and a Young Global Leader in 2005.

Recently he was interviewed in New Scientist. An excerpt from the interview:
The internet recently passed a milestone: its billionth user ventured online. Yet the idea that we all work and play on a common global internet is merely an illusion. In reality, the web is becoming ever more fragmented, and international borders are increasingly visible online. More and more web pages are appearing in languages other than English. China has more than 130 million internet users and is starting to play by its own rules. Soon to follow are the Middle East, India, Russia and Brazil. Is the technology that we thought was uniting us really dividing us?
I also think that the notion of a common global internet is really an illusion. Because the infrastructures, internet penetration, the level of education, language, culture varies from country to country. The developing countries are following the developed countries and the gap between them is clearly visible.

For an example in Bangladesh, a nation of 140 million people, the internet penetration is less than 1% (about one million). And I have been following the Bangladeshi blogs since 2003, and the countable English language sphere (except symbolic presence in 'my space' and likes) has not grown more than one thousand. This is not satisfactory as some Bangladeshi discussion boards have much more participants. But since the launch of "Bandh Bhanger Awaaj", a blogging platform in Bangla language a year ago we have seen about 3500 bloggers buzzing with activities like amateur literary writings, discussing taboo things, being interactive with witty comments and they are well supported by 50000 readers a day. It has been a community, a meeting place of the diaspora and the locals sharing lot of experiences. Like the German blogosphere some bloggers are vocal about maintaining literary quality of Bangla writings in the blogs. While others are comfortable with using profane languages to vent out their frustrations. There is no methodical moderation and no regulatory intervention (till yet) hindering their freedom of speech. Two bloggers I know boldly claim their experiences of living together (without marriage). This is a big step in our society as others who are living together do not brag about it to avoid social repercussions (not just religious but social taboo). Now Bangladesh is under a state of emergency with limited rights (writing against the govt. is prosecutable) but we can see bloggers using irony and satire or even bold languages to say things about the government. As I wrote about it in the Global Voices, many bloggers filled in as information source during the information blackout earlier this month in the country.

Blogs are not yet well recognized by Bangladeshi media as many of them are not aware of its power. So the bloggers efforts are not well publicized to masses without internet penetration, hindering more persons to involve in blogging. The developed countries have gone through this phase 4-5 years before. Bangladesh is only following.

Internet can give people the chance to communicate without much fear and in the ease of their own language. So for the next few billion internet users be it different in places, but let communities grow having a chance to raise their voices against the tides. People will always find a way to avoid the censorships and limitations.

And I see no alternative than the Global Voices Online Initiative (also co-founded by Ethan) to provide a bridge between the different spheres. Ethan's another interview in World Changing discusses the importance of the initiative.

I think the lookout for the technologically advanced West should be to build tools to help prosper these local communities. Because only through debates, discussions, sharing and openness civilizations and democracies can prosper. Otherwise it will be easier for authoritarian regimes in some countries to prolong their presence.


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