What are ICT and internet policies and why should we care about them?

ICT policy and civil societyWhat is ICT policy?
Citizen involvement in ICT policy

Information 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 or dance. The use of writing changed this enormously, and the invention of the printing press allowed communication on a massive scale, through newspapers and magazines. More recent technological innovations increased further the reach and speed of communication, culminating, for now, with digital technology. These new 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 interrelated. 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.

If 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 require 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 is digital and can be freely copied and transported. For example, legislation about recorded music must take this into account. 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 policies.

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.

Some examples of recent government ICT policy legislation
Millennium Act (USA)
RIP Act 2000 (UK)
EU Copyright and Patenting Directives
The Internet Content Filtering Ordinance (South Korea)
The Council of Ministers Resolution of February 12, 2001, rules for internet use (Saudi Arabia)

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.

Involvement 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 more difficult.

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.