Internet access is a prerequisite for digital participation, but it is not the whole story. Experts agree that social and economic factors must also be addressed.
Without Internet access, there is no digital participation. Although the eight countries face different challenges and opportunities, #speakup barometer experts agree that correcting regional differences in Internet access and speed must be a priority: “Every citizen should have the option to get fast Internet,” says Mohamad Najem, co-founder of Smex, a digital NGO in Beirut, Lebanon. Experts also agree that the solutions should be firmly rooted in their local contexts. In Kenya, Margaret Nyambura advocates for “a clear mapping to find the remotest of the remote. There need to be more places in those areas where Internet can be offered, such as in a rural hospital.” Efforts must also be made to combat Internet shutdowns and the suspension of mobile services. “Government interventions and shutdowns are real in Pakistan. Telecom companies cannot operate in certain areas,” argues Sophia Hasnain, founder and CEO of Linked Things. “That hinders free access to Internet." In Myanmar, which experienced “a digital leapfrog,” according to Ei Myat Noe Khin of the Phandeeyar ICT hub, initiatives such as public Wi-Fi hotspots and digital service centers could help deliver government and business services and digital literacy education to remote populations. Similarly, clear policies and long-term strategic planning by the Lebanese government are essential for bringing about improvements to the electrical grid and digital infrastructure across the country. Ukraine, in contrast, is preparing to ramp up to 5G, and thus needs better state regulations to encourage mobile providers to expand into rural areas.
But Internet access is not just about infrastructure and Internet cafés. As Josephine Miliza, a network engineer with Kenya’s Tunapanda Institute, points out, “Internet penetration might be high in Kenya. But penetration is different from adoption.” Access is also about digital literacy and making sure that everyone can freely and safely navigate online spaces. Shahzad Ahmed, director of Bytes for All, Pakistan, believes that both private companies and the government need to educate people on how “to avoid becoming victims to active misinformation campaigns.” For Regina Honu, CEO of Soronko Academy in Ghana, it is vital to ensure “that all women, wherever they are, also have the opportunity to access data or go online." In Uganda, a multi-stakeholder dialogue on Internet governance has become vital to identifying and solving specific problems, such as online child safety. And in Colombia, there’s a need for online services to become more user friendly and transparent, so that people with weak financial resources are able to use the Internet. Experts across the various countries surveyed also recommend an emphasis on ICT skills as a necessary basis for participating in the digital economy.
Even if there is no digital participation without Internet access, the two are nonetheless not synonymous. While Shazad Ahmed does not see the practice of Internet shutdowns ending in Pakistan in the near future, our experts in other countries are optimistic that overcoming economic and social barriers, as well as improving media and Internet literacy, is on the horizon.
The #speakup barometer is a DW Akademie project that examines the connection between digital participation, freedom of expression and access to information. Learn more at www.dw.com/barometer