Law in the Internet Society
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A Reflection on ICT and Broadband Infrastructure Development

-- By MadihaZahrahChoksi - 16 Mar 2018


"Technologies for Choice"

Last semester I read a book that I found perusing the library stacks titled Technologies for Choice by Dorothea Kleine. I enjoyed the book, and decided to write a paper about information communications technology for development (ICT4D? ) in Chile, and Amartya Sen’s capabilities approach to freedom, in which I argued that broadband connectivity and digital inclusion should be approached as means rather than an end in itself. In other words, the integration of ICTs in societies that have little to no exposure to digital communications require an approach that balances infrastructure development and policy making with the goal of expanding human freedoms.

I thought I was done with the topic until I came across the December issue of National Geographic which features an article on “Africa’s Tech Generation.” The cover story illustrates in beguiling photographs, the stories of some young entrepreneurs who are using their local broadband access to distribute profitable digital services in various cities, towns, and villages. The article highlights two apps: an Uber-like platform for safe motorcycle taxis in Rwanda, and another called FarmDrive, which facilitates agricultural record-keeping and verifies the creditworthiness of farmers in Kenya. Although both apps were locally-created, the backbone of their financing and operations come from US venture capital and European programming expertise.

The article reminded me of the Chilean case study, and the role of the Chilean government in forming and regulating the relationship between their constituents and ICTs. As ICT engagement increases across the globe, the decisions surrounding user experience and privacy are top down: will user-engagement with platforms cater to user-interests by offering local content through which they feel empowered to create and share? Or will the interactions be uniform, through a global platform that welcomes new users to their free and limitless platform capabilities; all while deceptively data mining and collecting user behavior as a highly profitable source of revenue? These factors are inextricably dependent on the influence their governments exert within the context of digital development.

Well, what is the Agenda Digital?

The Agenda Digital is an extension of the federal government’s ICT implementation work throughout the 90s. Although the goal of broadening the REUNA (Red Universitaria Nacional) network fell short, the 2004 Agenda Digital adopted what Dorothea Kleine classifies as a “neo-liberal macroeconomic agenda” in an effort to include all Chileans in the ICT-enabled social, economic, and cultural spheres. The Agenda Digital executed an approach to development that prioritized ICT enablement, granting to all members of society universal access to ICTs and broadband infrastructure, supported by the public sector through centralized government investing.

ICT4D? vs. Software Industry Development

Consider for a moment the outcomes of a software industry development approach: unequivocal proliferation of software suites created and maintained by a homogeneous group of industry giants, an economy of platforms that discourage collaboration and open access. The cycle of market domination and disempowerment deters open sourced programs, or even locally created software, webpages and apps from ever infiltrating the space. Facebook Free Basics exemplifies the software development approach, in which development is initialized both around, and as a result of the software industry. Drawing from Massimo Ragnedda’s types of access theory, without local, or free software, local content thus struggles to find its place within the networked public sphere.

One step forward, more than two steps backwards…

The Chilean approach to ICT4D? leveraged national policies and education towards the goal of including diverse stakeholders, such as the public sector, local businesses, as well as marginalized indigenous groups. The ICT industry that emerged from national regulatory policies and frameworks prioritized the accessibility of local access points.

The relationship between informed participation in the global knowledge society and economic growth is recognized as an evaluative incentive for ICT4D? policy integration in Chile, however, when it came down to the most critical decisions surrounding the day to day use of ICTs in telecentros, and within the homes of Chilean people, the same policymakers and stakeholders backed away from the rights expanding and “for development” principles they originally promised. Most notably, the government subsidized personal computer “Mi Primera PC” which came equipped with inadequate versions of proprietary software such as Microsoft Office. Moreover, neither infocentros nor telecentros propagated free software at the local level.

Will we ever get it right?

While taking steps towards local infrastructure and policy development in Chile can be identified as a step towards user control over technologies with which they interact, the end-user experience of Chileans and that of the Rwandans’ and Kenyans’ in the NatGeo? article are both characterized by shortcomings in user autonomy. Neither case study is wholly successful, and analyzing them reveals distinct advancements that nonetheless continue to underserve the rights of users to be in charge of their individual experience with technology. In one group are users whose access to unregulated technical education is driving ingenuity, but who fall short in their ability to secure funding and the skill set for the wide scale implementation of their innovations. In another group are users who are both systematically empowered through access to ICTs but whose ability to enhance their technical capacities is limited by the interests and motivations of their government. The imperfect and inherently discriminatory practices surrounding ICT development, proliferation, and access point to a reality in which there is no ideal development approach to broadband and ICT infrastructure development. Perhaps if governments were to identify and mediate, in a nondiscriminatory manner, the relationship between research and development, policymaking, and the public and private sectors could advancements really be advancements. However, the historical record of ICT development efforts is not on our side on this one.

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r2 - 17 Mar 2018 - 04:32:31 - MadihaZahrahChoksi
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