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Monday, March 13, 2006

Arab Internet woes

Arab internet woes

Why, with such a young population, is the Arab world still lagging behind when it comes to the digital revolution? Less than four per cent of people in the Arab world are internet users, according to ITU data. The penetration rate is just 3.7% - in a region with an 8.59% penetration in landline subscribers, and 14.51% in mobile subscribers.

"No Arab country fears e-commerce or digital services on the Internet."

Cramping style

But it's not quite true. While many Arab governments are undeniably keen to promote e-government services and increase tech literacy, there is great unease about some of the internet's capabilities: such as the expression of political dissent, or the exposure of issues they are not ready to tackle.

Many classic drivers of internet use, such as pornography, dating sites and online casinos, are banned in the region. No one would argue against this, given the majority of the population opposes indecent and adult content, especially things harmful to children. But it cannot be overlooked that in western countries, this content forms a massive and lucrative percentage of online activity - one reason at least for higher internet use there.

More problematic is the block in various Arab countries of many youth-oriented sites of generally innocent intent, such as social networking. The UAE bans photo-sharing site Flickr, MSN's MySpace, Google's Orkut, and regularly blocks community tools such as Meetup.com and Friends Reunited. It also bans all website auto-translation services, another problem for a population which doesn't enjoy English as its first language.

WiFi woes

Public WiFi is another issue. Still a relatively new concept in Europe and the US, is certainly isn't easy to get online at cafes and public places throughout much of the Middle East. In the UAE, one of the more advanced countries in this regard, cafes that pioneered free WiFi schemes are being encouraged to switch to pay-as-you-go schemes run by the UAE's monopoly ISP.

At over US$2/hour, the price of a couple of coffees, it's an extra disincentive to younger people logging on. Recent moves in the UAE to make internet cafes demand ID and keep logs of users are also only going to increase alienation.

So it's little wonder if younger Arabs possibly regard mobile phones, with currently uncensored SMS, MMS and Bluetooth functionality, that can be used regardless of physical location, as a more attractive and easily accessible medium.

Sticky content needed

In an interview with AFP, the ITU's regional representative, Ibrahim Haddad, blames infrastructure issues, poverty and illiteracy, particularly digital illiteracy.

Syria's Telecommunications minister Amr Salem blames the absence of an Arab portal, meaning that network connections have to go through Europe or the US, increasing costs. He claims that Arab ministers are unanimously in favour of promoting the internet, claiming that:
There has to be a motivation for people to become tech literate and get online. We know that human beings are typically so lazy that they will not take the effort to learn simple, non-critical tasks, such as how to programme a video recorder.

Even among the digitally literate, how many people can actually touch type? It takes no more than a few hours to learn a skill that will exponentially increase the speed of computing tasks for the rest of ones life, but most people just never bother.

So increasing digital literacy, and getting Arabs online, is going to require that holy grail of the internet: massively sticky, Arab-language content and a means to access it that is at once fast, easy and affordable.


Anonymous said...

lack of internet knowledge doesn't seem to be part of the islamic-fascist-terroristic structure.
they seem very capable in spreading their poisons throughout the world.
perhaps the average ignorant muslim need join a jihadist organization to become computer literate.

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