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Building information societies

Article Index
Building information societies
Action lines
Digital Volidarity Agenda

Action lines

Role of governments and stakeholders

Adopting a participatory approach

The success stories of the Asia-Pacific region clearly show that the information society thrives and ICT industries prosper when the government adopts a participatory approach that involves civil society and the private sector in designing national strategies and drafting legislation related to ICT. Widespread participation is vital for building awareness about the new technologies among the populace and for releasing pent-up demand where awareness already exists. It also builds trust in the efficacy of ICT among potential providers and users of services while at the same time mobilising them to roll out and use the services. Just as important, participation facilitates the implementation of e-programmes rather than hinders it.

Participation has been achieved by many countries through first raising public awareness about ICT-related issues, followed by the organisation of various national events such as conferences and seminars. These events help to identify key stakeholders who will assist in setting up working groups and online networks as well as identifying champions to spearhead policy, legislative, social and business activities which need to be carried out on different fronts to establish the communal and technical infrastructures and processes required for successful transition to the information society. Think tanks established to draft policies and plan strategies produce the best results when they involve members who effectively represent the government, civil society and the private sector.

Customising local approaches
The divide exists in various societies for different combinations of reasons. These causes may relate to the unique socioeconomic status, geographic location and political climate of an economy. As the causes are unique, so the solutions need to be customised and planned from the perspective of the unique factors resting behind each facet of the divide. There are no universal solutions. An important role of the government, civil society and the private sector is to work together in visioning the information society they wish to nurture together and planning the strategies they need to adopt to realise this vision. The solution may involve the deployment of significantly smaller packages of digital technologies, such as computers and the Internet, than the early debates about the digital divide had recommended. For example, in many rural communities across Asia Pacific, the radio remains for now and the foreseeable future the most accessible ICT for carrying development messages. The customised approach may be to deploy digital technologies to enhance the effectiveness of radio rather than to replace it. The Kothmale project on “radio browsing of the Internet”2 was an interesting experiment to fuse the new and old technologies. The experiment did not evolve into a long-term information and communication initiative largely because members of the community were not provided with the opportunity to manage the radio station themselves in the way a community station is normally run. Customising solutions also means placing people, rather than ICT, at the heart of the information society.
Making sure no one is left behind

Liberalisation of the telecommunications sector has been presented as the most expedient way to strengthen infrastructure and diffuse ICT. While the experience across the region has proven this approach to be largely effective, it is also the role of the government to make sure that no one is left behind in the process. Private sector service providers are driven by profit and will focus their operations in areas that generate attractive returns. Invariably, they will shy away from unprofitable and marginally profitable areas if given the choice. Governments should therefore ensure that universal service requirements are included in liberalisation schemes and, more importantly, that these requirements are met. They should at the same time use a portion of the revenue generated by liberalisation programmes to support the development, prototyping and implementation of new and innovative methods of providing ICT access to disadvantaged communities and individuals. They can also leverage their own procurement of Internet services to foster open access and growth of online markets at the local level in less developed places.

Information and communication infrastructure

Making ICT affordable

The Internet is more popular among the richer countries than the poorer nations because price is an important factor influencing its use. An office worker in Bhutan has to work three hours to pay for an hour-long access to the Internet. In Cambodia, most people earn an average of US$1.5 in a day but must pay US$4 for a minute of an international telephone call.3 Where there are facilities, the high cost of services may be the simple reason why people do not use telephones or the Internet. A large portion of the divide results from disparities in income. Aside from this, it is often the irresistibly low cost of mass media, such as radio and print, that makes people reluctant to adopt the new technologies. Although the prices of computers and other new ICTs have fallen significantly in recent years, they remain beyond the affordable range of many people in the region. The price barrier applies even within the richer Asia-Pacific Users of regular dial-up Internet services tend to resist switching over to broadband services until prices fall within what they perceive as their level of affordability. Regulators found that the most effective way of lowering fees and making services more affordable to a larger group of users is to liberalise the ICT sector and introduce competition into the marketplace. This has worked very well in India, where many additional types of services have been offered at much lower prices following liberalisation of the ICT sector. China also witnessed tremendous growth in Internet subscriptions after the licensing of more ISPs. Public funding is another way of making services universally affordable. Although the current trend of privatisation and liberalisation may make public funding of services seem archaic, it remains one of the most effective and expedient ways of delivering and promoting services that are deemed essential and strategically mandatory. Both developed and developing countries publicly fund schools and libraries, both of which are necessary to the building of the information society. Local governments in cities such as Taipei in Taiwan as well as San Francisco and San Jose in Silicon Valley of California have begun to set up broadband WiFi hotspots to ensure that all their citizens will have access to and be actively engaged in services and processes that support the information society.

Pressures from funding agencies to engage in only “self­sustaining” initiatives should not discourage policy makers from publicly funding critical services especially among communities lacking the immediate capability to pay for these services. Such funding is a proven and viable operating model for public broadcasting services, community mobilisation efforts, continuing education programmes, R&D initiatives and worker retraining programmes. It is an approach used extensively in developed countries and therefore should be retained as an option for developing countries. Many development projects have adopted business models in attempts to “sustain” initiatives such as telecentres. Even when such business models do work in helping to recover operating expenses, they invariably fail in reaching out to the poor, who may need the services of telecentres the most.

Liberalising and “future-proofing” the marketplace

Liberalisation of the telecommunications industry and promotion of a free market in the ICT sector is definitely one of the key strategies policy makers should consider adopting in concert with other initiatives. For a number of countries in the region, this may be the only viable policy they can adopt in developing the sector and upgrading the infrastructure. Policies aimed at accomplishing this level of development should encourage domestic and foreign investment in the infrastructure sector. This often entails providing a package of incentives that normally includes tax breaks, capital security guarantee and copyright legislation

The challenge to regulators in successfully managing the liberalisation process rests partly in determining the optimum number of licences to issue within a particular market and partly in negotiating terms which not only generate revenue for the government but also guarantee that disadvantaged and isolated communities are not excluded from service delivery. Australian decision makers in regional and rural areas went a step further and sought a “future-proof guarantee” that telecommunications services in their areas would not decline relative to those in cities after the full privatisation of Telstra, the government-owned provider. The government responded with a commitment to continue a programme of regular inquiries into any differences in service provision between metropolitan and non-metropolitan areas. All regulators in Asia Pacific should adopt similar efforts to ensure uniform ICT service provision during the liberalisation process.

Allowing the grassroots to take over

Although most governments play the leading role in implementing ICT programmes in the region, this is not the case in Indonesia, where the impetus and investment have come mainly from the people themselves. Remarkably, this people-driven effort has made progress in spite of official policies and regulations that either banned or discouraged some of the innovative technologies developed locally by Indonesian ICT engineers and ISPs.

Indonesians’ innovativeness is exemplified by their quest to overcome the high cost of Internet access due in a large part to telephone rental and other tariffs levied by the telecommunications company. A local ICT expert eventually found a low-cost broadband solution using off-the-shelf WiFi equipment that was adapted locally to build affordable neighbourhood broadband networks. Having found the solution for building alternative high-speed metropolitan area networks, Indonesian users are now considering means of building alternative regional networks in the country, using either a satellite backbone or the fibre/microwave backbone of cellular phone operators.

Another controversial technology that challenges existing regulations and policies is Internet telephony, or VoIP. Indonesia’s VoIP Maverick Network, or VoIP Merdeka in the Indonesian language, was started in response to the government’s plan to increase telephone tariffs in January 2003. The community-based VoIP network, which provides a free service, is one of the most complex countrywide Internet telephony infrastructures ever set up.

Access to information and knowledge

Removing the stranglehold on knowledge

The chief obstacle to the development of the information society is turning out to be the stifling copyright restrictions and intellectual property mechanisms asserted by economies with well-developed ICT industries. This stranglehold on knowledge has overtaken the lack of access to technologies as the main cause of the digital divide.

The recently negotiated Australian–US Free Trade Agreement (AUSFTA) is a worrying example of the growing trend to restrain the sharing of information and knowledge. AUSFTA proposes to extend copyright from 50 years to 70 years after the original author’s death. This is an initiative championed by lobby groups in Hollywood on behalf of corporations that have acquired copyrights and merchandising franchises. If this proposal does not seem worrying enough, Australia has already been advised that 70 years is an interim goal; the USA would prefer 95 years’ copyright after an author’s death.

It is ironic that intellectual property rights should form part of an agreement that has the aim of advancing free trade, as these rights are generally seen as preserving monopoly and inhibiting technological development.

Earlier, in 2000, Australia’s Intellectual Property and Competition Review had recommended that, in the public interest, the term of copyright should not be extended beyond the existing 50 years and that it should never be extended without first weighing all costs and benefits. This recommendation was ignored in the rush to ratify AUSFTA.

Advocates against this growing trend have proposed alternative instruments such as the Creative Commons whereby originators of information, media material and creative works can decide to share their works freely and let others know that their works are available for sharing at a searchable index.4 Other advocates have begun to tackle the problem head-on. An eminent group of 500 individuals, including Nobel laureates, launched their Declaration on the Future of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO)5 calling for the inclusion of a development agenda in the work of the organisation. The declaration points out that “humanity faces a global crisis in the governance of knowledge, technology and culture”. It goes on to assert that the crisis is manifesting in the following ways:

  • Without access to essential medicines, millions suffer and die.
  • Morally repugnant inequality of access to education, knowledge and technology undermines development and social cohesion.
  • Anti-competitive practices in the knowledge economy impose enormous costs on consumers and retard innovation.
  • Authors, artists and inventors face mounting barriers to follow-on innovation.
  • Concentrated ownership and control of knowledge, technology, biological resources and culture harms development, diversity and democratic institutions.
  • Technological measures designed to enforce intellectual property rights in digital environments threaten core exceptions in copyright laws for disabled persons, libraries, educators, authors and consumers, besides undermining privacy and freedom.
  • Key mechanisms to compensate and support creative individuals and communities are unfair to both creative persons and consumers.
  • Private interests misappropriate social and public goods and lock up the public domain.

At about the same time, representatives of Argentina and Brazil presented to the General Assembly of WIPO the Proposal for the Establishment of a Development Agenda for WIPO (which is often referred to as “Item 12”, the order in which it is listed on the agenda of the October 2004 meeting). This proposal was strongly supported by developing countries, as well as a large group of civil society organisations. The representative for Sri Lanka spoke in support of Item 12 on behalf of the Asian group of countries saying the proposal was timely and that a working group should be set up to move the proposal forward. The representative from India also spoke in support of Item 12 pointing to the damage caused by the WTO intellectual property agreement, TRIPS, which had raised public awareness about problems regarding intellectual property.6 The attempt to reform WTO is only just beginning; the success or failure of this attempt will go a long way in deciding if the information society will have the space to flourish, especially in developing countries.

Localising technologies to increase information access

Computer and Internet-based technologies are not equipped to process many Asian languages. At the basic access level, standardised versions of many Asian scripts and fonts are not available to allow Asian users to communicate effectively through these new technologies, or to deploy them in basic tasks such as storing, sorting and managing digitised data prepared in local languages. The situation has improved for major regional language groups, such as Chinese, Japanese and Korean, who now have access to popular computer and online applications with localised desktops, dialogue boxes and keyboards. Most of the other regional languages and scripts do not have such accessibility.Regional efforts are underway to localise the new technologies. The PAN Localization research project, a regional initiative that is now working on solutions for nine Asian languages – Bangla (Bengali), Dari, Dzongkha, Khmer, Lao, Nepali, Pashto, Sinhalese (Sinhala) and Tamil is a major effort on this front. It aims to develop regional expertise in the R&D of local-language technology and to raise current levels of technological support for Asian languages.7 The researchers found that there has been a limited number of studies that examine local-language problems with the aim of devising and recommending effective policy frameworks to solve problems related to the accessibility to and publication of relevant content using ICT. The project team also found an urgent need to standardise content translation mechanisms. Such standardisation will allow cross-border sharing of resources and information despite language barriers. Developing countries still rely largely on paper to disseminate data and information. The team feels that the digitisation of such information and data will be beneficial. It will be advocating for concerted local, national, regional and global efforts to archive these resources.

Opting for multi-channel strategies for sharing information

The euphoria of the dotcom boom focused most development communication efforts on the new ICTs. Interpersonal communication channels, radio, television and print were sidelined as people rushed to get content online. Although computers and the Internet are superior in many ways to the old technologies, they also have major limitations that alienate non-user groups, especially people who are illiterate or who do not have a working knowledge of a major European language.

The preoccupation with digital technologies also emphasized one type of information. The Internet and computers are very efficient at processing and sharing information and knowledge that is produced through formal activities such as scientific research and formal education. Such “privilege knowledge” is considered the most valid in the West because it is thought to be objective, transparent and repeatable.8 Largely absent on the Web is a second type of knowledge, which is derived from practice and now considered to be as important as privilege knowledge. The information society requires both types of knowledge in order to thrive. A more effective strategy for building these two complementary sets of knowledge within the information society is the simultaneous deployment of multiple channels for sharing information and experiences.

Communicators have long ago discovered the flaws of depending on a single channel of communication. Research has shown that people simply do not communicate in that way. People tend to obtain their information for a particular topic from a number of sources and in a variety of ways to ensure the usefulness and credibility of the information gathered. The importance of the different sources and ways may vary at different times and for different situations. Grandparents may be the most authoritative sources on cultural matters most effectively consulted over a number of afternoons sipping tea, while computers are trusted with providing the most accurate statistics obtained by researching online for an hour at the telecentre.

We opted for a flawed communication and information strategy during the dotcom boom by paying far too much attention to digital technologies and not enough to the other media and channels of communication. We need to adopt a balanced approach by mixing channels and media when planning ICT programmes and policies. Members of the information society whom these programmes and policies are meant to support should be consulted closely in determining what this mix ought to be. Such consultation may serve as one of the starting points for the building of the information society.

Capacity building

Building technical expertise in open source approaches

The most viable long-term strategy for all countries in the region, whether rich or poor, may be to adopt open source approaches in the development of both software and hardware. These approaches help to make businesses more cost-efficient while at the same time increasing the security of their data and ICT processes.

Ironically, developing countries, which stand to benefit the most from using open source technologies, are least able to deploy these technologies because of a serious lack of expertise in this area. Open source solutions tend to require more customising than expensive “plug-and-play” products.With the growing trend of joining trade pacts, more and more developing countries are required to crack down on software piracy according to the terms of the trade agreements. However, it is very important that their governments promote open source solutions while cracking down on pirated software. Users must be provided with affordable alternatives instead of being forced to use expensive proprietary products.

Open source software is just as good as and often superior to proprietary products because of the larger number of technical experts contributing to its refinement and upgrading. The existence of cheap pirated versions of proprietary software has discouraged users from adopting open source applications, which require some amount of customising and retraining on the part of users. The pressure to clamp down on software piracy can be positively viewed as an opportunity to motivate users to switch over to more efficient, lower-cost open source software.

An open source promotional campaign should begin with the development of specialists who will provide technical support for the new software. Governments should at the same time fund the development of local versions of popular open source applications such as word processing, spreadsheets, Internet browsers, email and database management for free release. They can also boost the diffusion of open source software by opting to use such software throughout the public sector. As the government is usually the main user of ICT, particularly in developing countries, such a move will very quickly build a critical mass of open source users and mainstream the use of open source software in the country.

Strengthening the capacity of national representatives to engage in international forums

The Asia-Pacific countries had become a major Internetuser group in the world by the end of 2001,9 but they still have very little say on how the Internet is managed. The least developed economies in the region have made only minimal input in multilateral debates on how the Internet should be governed and have largely failed to engage with powerful technical decision-making bodies such as ICANN. This lack of capacity of the region to participate effectively in international forums has resulted in policies and technical arrangements which have exacerbated the digital divide. A good example is the current arrangement whereby all the countries in the region pay for all Internet connections to the USA.10 A fairer arrangement would be for the USA to share these costs, as in existing agreements relating to long-distance telephone calls. The current arrangement with the USA means a user in Silicon Valley, one of the richest communities of Internet users in the world, gets to visit websites hosted in Laos and send email to Laos for free because Laotian users are paying for the bandwidth connecting the two countries.

Regional efforts are needed urgently to strengthen the negotiating and advocacy skills of national representatives engaging with important decision-making forums such as ICANN and WSIS that decide on long-term arrangements relating to technical standards and infrastructure as well as policies and programmes.

Governments also need to recognise that the current emphasis on trade talks has shifted the most important issues relating to the information society into the ambit of multilateral trade treaties, which are far more binding than, say, the declaration of WSIS. They should invest half of their efforts to address the digital divide in negotiating for fairer trading arrangements that will help to narrow the divide. Efforts must be extended beyond WSIS and ICANN to powerful multilateral forums such as WTO and WIPO. Representatives of governments to these bodies need to be sensitised on the unique vulnerabilities of the information society to the harsh implications of “free” trade. They also should be made aware that many elements of the information society should be excluded from trade treaties. For example, just as religious matters are excluded from trade negotiations, so should core elements of the information society such as cultural products and services.

Building confidence and media literacy in the use of ICT

Agreeing to disagree

There is a slight sense of engaging with danger when making comments online in some parts of the region. The incarceration of a number of highly respected personalities for posting on the Web forthright analysis and criticism of public policies and programmes has led to the stifling of information flows and productive debates on matters of national interest. One of the characteristics of a fully developed information society is the ability of people to agree to disagree without fear and to freely debate these disagreements to reach a consensus on how to move forward.

Opening the gates to diverse information sources

Regulators who continue to maintain gate-keeping functions should explore ways to facilitate access to diverse sources of information in order to enable the information society to develop to its full potential. In the case of the Internet, regulators can consider adopting international norms in managing the flow of information. The norm is to restrict control to a minimum number of categories of information, such as child pornography, libellous material, scams, and material that may incite religious and ethnic hatred.

Strengthening public media literacy

Regulators and policy makers are validly concerned with the potential impact of the unrestrained flow of information, commentary and entertainment content on the Web. The most effective strategy for addressing this concern is to conduct media literacy programmes. Ubiquitous international media services, made possible by the new technologies, render attempts to filter the content from these sources futile. Attempts to do so are often counter-productive, as outlawing any of the sources will only help to add to their appeal. Media literacy may be added to the school curriculum as a long-term measure.

Media literacy campaigns should not only aim to promote the understanding of the workings of the media and how their angle of analysis and presentation may distort facts, but also cover other important aspects such as the erosion of cultural values by advertisements and entertainment programmes, the stereotyping of gender roles, the degradation of women, and the excessive portrayal of violence.

Enabling environment

Freeing frequencies for WiFi

WiFi technologies are enabling people to go online in more efficient ways without being tethered to a cable. But in building the information society, WiFi’s most exciting potential is in providing connectivity to the millions of people who do not have any kind of access. WiFi can help communities without access to a network of land lines to get connected quickly, particularly in regions with difficult terrain where the cost of installing telephone cables is prohibitively high.

WiFi is also relevant in communities with land lines owned by telecommunications companies operating on exclusive licences that place the last-mile connection of the Internet in their stranglehold. However, it is often the exclusivity of such licensing which has prevented people from using WiFi technologies. The region is replete with instances of telecommunications companies and regulators restricting public access to the frequencies used by WiFi equipment so that the providers can preserve their monopoly at the cost of hindering the growth of the information society.

Governments in the region should adopt policies and amend regulations to free up the 2.4- and 5.8-GHz frequencies for public WiFi. This will bring the region into line with most European and North American countries, which have already opened up these frequencies for the use of their rapidly maturing information societies.

Licensing community radio

Community radio is another technology that has been given very little opportunity to grow as a support to development initiatives. It has been available for several decades but has not taken off because of widespread regulations in the region banning community-managed radio stations. Research in development communication has shown that community radio stations work better than stations operated by the government or commercial broadcasters because of the active participation of members of the community in deciding the content and format of broadcasts. Community participation helps to ensure that the most relevant messages are broadcast and in formats that people find interesting and engaging. Low-power radio transmitters may now be purchased and installed for nearly the equivalent cost of a PC. These transmitters have a range that covers the area of a large village or several smaller villages. At the listener’s end, radio receivers are the most widely available ICT tool in homes of poor communities in the region. It is a tool that reaches illiterates and literates, young and old, males and females. More importantly, community radio draws on the strengths of the oral traditions of many Asia-Pacific communities. The nuances, emotions and subtleties of information and messages communicated in these traditions can be effectively relayed by radio. Websites are not able to do this. Regulators should consider lifting the requirement for community radio stations to be licensed. Development agencies could at the same time consider resuming support for efforts to launch community broadcasting as well as sustaining stations that are already on the air.

Facilitating e-commerce and selling of services

A significant number of entrepreneurs in several countries in the region have encountered difficulties when processing payments received from abroad via e-commerce and the selling of services. The difficulties stem from strict foreign exchange regulations, which often pose problems even for proceeds from the export of goods and services.

Some officials have been known to quiz service providers on the “actual” sources of funds because there were no bills of lading for services exported. They do not seem to grasp the concept that these exports are “invisible” and do not need bills of lading as required by physical goods.

Many e-commerce merchants are forced to place their online payment facility with service providers outside their countries. Governments need to update relevant fiscal policies and regulations, at the same time as those for the ICT sector, to enable local entrepreneurs in the new industry to operate effectively and not be discouraged into relocating their businesses abroad.

Cultural diversity and identity

Getting illiterate people online

One of the chief obstacles to going online in the less developed parts of Asia Pacific is the bias in the design of most ICT applications and services towards serving only literate users. The bulk of the new technologies are based on the alphanumeric system. Users need to be literate in a language and have sufficient familiarity with the Latin font to be able to input an address or URL in order to navigate cyberspace. Large numbers of people in the developing world do not have these minimum skills to operate ICTs and as a result find themselves excluded from the emerging information society. The UNESCO Institute for Statistics forecasted that 614 million Asians, or 21.8 percent of the region’s population, would be illiterate in 2005.11 Of this total, 398 million would be female and 216 million male.

WSIS Action Line C8, “Cultural diversity and identity, linguistic diversity and local content”, needs to focus efforts on developing appropriate ICTs which are visual and voice based to accommodate the oral traditions of many of the rural communities in the region. Some of the action may be focused on developing low-cost voice- and icon-activated devices to replace the computer and keyboard, and the rest of the action aimed at hooking up the new technologies to the older communication channels and media, which may include the conventional telephone system, radio and television.

ICTs built with multimedia capabilities can avoid running text-based applications that alienate most rural users in developing countries. Touch-screen navigation and the use of icons, visuals and audio can all potentially help illiterate people to get online. A variety of strategies have been piloted in the region for making the Internet available to not only illiterate people but also other unconnected members of communities. For example, the experiment carried out in Pondicherry in the south of India by the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation involves project staff downloading a map from a US Navy website every day. Information such as wave heights and wind directions contained in the map is then read aloud over loudspeakers to members of the fishing community served by the project.12 This simple web-to¬voice experiment is literally saving lives by steering people away from dangerous sea conditions.

The time is opportune for practitioners and industries in the region to develop their own voice- and audio-based technologies to extend the benefits of ICT to everyone here. The solution may be in the form of a simple low-cost village PDA that enables users to navigate the Web using voice and audio facilities and WiFi connections. It may also evolveinto a “supertelephone” offering not only affordable international calls to anywhere in the world but also access to audio-based databases allowing users to retrieve content or record their own contributions to the collection.

Internationalising navigation online

Technical working groups and governments should dedicate urgent efforts to internationalising the domain name system (DNS), which continues to be rendered mostly in the Latin alphabet. Encouraging progress has recently been made in launching the DNS in some of the major Asian languages, including Chinese, Japanese and Korean. The system was originally devised to help network engineers identify and connect computers in an English-speaking environment and no provisions were made for non-Latin characters. These technical specifications have long become inadequate.

We have adhered to the same method of identifying computers in networks for more than 18 years. In this method, we use an address that we can easily read and remember, such as , to get to a machine-readable IP address (rendered as a long string of cryptic numbers, e.g., which we do not have to deal with directly but which is nevertheless essential for connecting us to a correct document or website. Following this naming system, only a limited set of ASCII Latin characters, digits and hyphens can be used in domain names. Addresses in languages which use non-ASCII characters were at first not possible.

However, a research team from the National University of Singapore made one of the earliest efforts to render a multilingual DNS possible. 13 The team worked swiftly in the late 1990s and developed two server software programs in quick succession for testing. The first was applied to the existing IPv4 technical standard adopted in operating the Internet. The second was a proposal for the next standard, IPv6. Both were successfully tested and proven to be viable options for further development.

The team quickly discovered that the technical solutions were probably the easier part of the task. The elements dealing with the governance of different facets of domain names turned out to be highly complex challenges. A good example is the Chinese script and language. There are two ways of writing Chinese: a traditional script and a simplified script. Many places use either one or both the scripts: China , Hong Kong , Taiwan , Macau , Singapore , Malaysia and a large number of other countries which are home to the Chinese diaspora. In addition to this, the Japanese use the Chinese script, which they call Kanji, together with two other scripts– Katakana and Hiragana – to render their language. This complex web of stakeholders poses tricky questions: Who gets to decide which script to use? How do we identify a team to work on the technical solutions? With whom does the team consult? And what specifications do they work to?Many other Asian scripts are associated with similar far-flung and diverse stakeholder groups, who need to participate in resolving various aspects of rendering domain names in their respective scripts. The political will of the countries in the region is essential for resolving the technical – and cultural – issues which will make it possible for Asians to navigate the Internet in their own scripts.

While the technical issues dealing with the internationalisation of the DNS seem to be in competent hands, others dealing with the design of digital fonts for the hundreds of languages which are still absent in cyberspace remain urgent. In some instances, they lack attention. In other instances, duplication of efforts has stalled work to effectively deploy additional languages on the Internet as policy makers, members of the industry and users wrestle with incompatible digital versions of the same script.

This problem is a major obstacle to the operation of email services in the affected languages. This is a huge blow to free expression as email services are more widely available than content on the Web. Email continues to be the central application of the Internet. It is also the most meaningful, and important, to those isolated regions of the world with limited communication services. It has the potential to keep the large numbers of Asian migrant workers in touch with their families and friends at home. It is an indispensable tool to commerce. And it is a powerful two-way communi­cation channel through which problems and aspirations may be exchanged and solutions and encouragement shared.


Minimising gate-keeping mechanisms

The new ICTs, and the Internet in particular, abide by universally accepted principles of free flow of information that often conflict with the antiquated gate-keeping mechanisms built into older information societies. The customising of solutions to the digital divide may usefully dispense with or minimise gate-keeping mechanisms. The Internet and other new ICTs have breached previously impermeable borders, as such these mechanisms are indefensible in the long term and are likely to retard the growth of information societies and undermine national economic interests.

The Third Annual Worldwide Press Freedom Index, 14 released by Reporters Without Borders in October 2004, ranks the Asia-Pacific region as having the most restrictive control over the news media, an important component of the information society. Six countries from the region are listed among the ten countries ranked as the most restrictive worldwide.


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