The Debate | Economy

Bridging the Gaps in the Asia-Pacific Information Superhighway

How can we foster a more connected and inclusive Asia-Pacific?

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Bridging the Gaps in the Asia-Pacific Information Superhighway
Credit: CC0 image via Pixabay

In remote rural villages in Bangladesh, women in pink and blue uniforms, known as the Info Ladies, arrive on bicycles bringing a connection to villagers who want to see the faces of their loved ones working overseas.

Among 163 million people in the country, only 24 million are connected to the web. As the world becomes even more interconnected online, there are still many who cannot access the information they need for daily life.

Inclusiveness has been a major concern regarding new technologies. The 2014 Information and Communication Technology (ICT) education survey by UNESCO showed that only 7 percent of all public schools in Cambodia were connected to a reliable power source, making it difficult to integrate radios and televisions into the curricula, not to mention computers.

“Among the ASEAN countries, Cambodia has the lowest literacy rate, which leads to a huge concern, especially when it comes to digital literacy,” said Nou Keosothea, Deputy Secretary-General of the Office of the Council of Ministers, National Committee for Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific. “They need to work closely to include all, not only for the young people, but also for the old people.”

Besides higher rates of internet usage by younger generations compared with older people, pronounced digital gaps are also seen between more-developed and developing countries, urban and rural areas, different income levels, education, and women and men.

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The internet will be universally available only if these digital divides are addressed, said Misako Ito, Regional Adviser for Communication and Information at UNESCO Bangkok, while presenting UNESCO’s Internet Universality Indicator Framework at the Third session of the Asia-Pacific Information Superhighway Steering Committee on August 27.

“A new standard becomes important today for advocating an internet ecosystem that works for everyone, not only for those who are in power, but also for the end-users, communities, civil societies, and academia,” Ms Ito said.

In 2015, UNESCO adopted the concept of Internet Universality, which highlights four key principles underpinning the growth and evolution of the internet, calling for a cyberspace that is based on human rights (R), that is open (O) and accessible to all (A), and nurtured by multi-stakeholder participation (M).

To conduct more concrete assessments at the country level, a research framework of indicators was structured around the ROAM principles, with the addition of Cross-Cutting (X) indicators concerning gender perspectives, the needs of children, sustainable development, trust and security, and legal and ethical issues. The framework, collectively known as the ROAM-X indicator Framework, allows governments and other contributors to map national internet ecosystems and figure out possible enhancements both in policy and practice.

“I can see a clear framework behind the project implementation,” Nou Keosothea said. “In countries like Cambodia who lack capacities to implement the internet strategies, we need a guideline as a tool to comply with.”

As the internet becomes more pervasive, policymakers need to address relevant risks and concerns. For most countries in this region, especially those island countries in the Pacific, internet accessibility is at a beginning stage but growing everywhere, said Kisione Finau, the Director of Information Technology Services (ITS) at the University of the South Pacific in Suva Fiji. “But for internet universality, it’s still a huge task.”

“About 15 countries in the Pacific have submarine fiber, with seven countries expecting the construction of submarine cable probably next year,” said Finau. “For most of them, internet connectivity is the highest priority, and the second is cybersecurity.”

Cybersecurity relates to the integrity of the network as well as the protection of internet users against fraud and other types of cyberattacks. “Cybercrime becomes prominent in these countries, since the internet might be used as a window to do a lot of illegal activities,” Finau said.

Other concerns emerging from the complex internet environment include protection of human rights, cultural diversity and ethical issues, misinformation on social media and child protection.

“Age-appropriate is important. Regarding the access to the internet and the information that is harmful to especially kids, we have to be careful,” said Javad Momeni, Director of the Division for UNESCO and International Scientific Cooperation Department of Sustainable Development in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Islamic Republic of Iran. “Other dimensions, including cultural diversity and ethical issues, also need attention.”

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Following online consultations with more than 2,000 experts and 66 national governments, along with consultative meetings in 32 countries, pilot evaluations were undertaken in Brazil, Senegal and Thailand between July and September 2018.

Based on extensive research and interviews with members of the policy-making, regulatory, industry, academic and civil-society sectors, the pilot report in Thailand exemplified how the ROAM-X indicators framework could help countries to gain a holistic diagnosis of national internet policies, digital environments and structural causes of digital inequalities. To this end, the first multi-stakeholder consultation on the national assessment will be held as part of the Open Tech Summit Thailand 2019 on October 1 and 2.

With expressions of interest from countries in this region during the Third Session of the AP-IS Steering Committee, discussions are ongoing about the potential of the internet to enable the ROAM principles highlighted in the UNESCO concept of Internet Universality such as human rights, empower individuals and communities, and facilitate sustainable development.

Liu Diyi is a master student at the School of Journalism and Communication at Renmin University of China and former intern at UNESCO Bangkok.