Access to information drives human destiny. However, democracy, not so much. As we witnessed in North African nations like Tunisia and Egypt, and now, to a certain extent, Libya, the ability to speak truth to power and to get information from the source, sans top-down censorship, may be enhanced by the tools of the Internet, but peace and freedom don’t follow in lock step. Here are a couple of charts that may give you some ideas about where we stand today and we will be following up regularly with updates from around the world. Let us know how you see this rolling out and share any anecdotal stories you have.
For the West, the miracle of the Internet and its concomitant boom to commerce and Information Technology seems a fait accompli. I don’t think anyone can imagine how our world might work if the Internet changed dramatically. The only reason, in this writer’s humble opinion, that social networking applications are doing so well is because we have become used to the expansion of services enabled by the central access point the Internet has provided. There is nothing technilogically extraordinary about Facebook or LinkedIn or any of the myriad of networking applications now being peddled as manna from the Gods. As far back as the 80’s, companies programmed similar sites for intranet usage but they never got the backing or investment from organizations who tried them. Originally, these networking sites were developed to build cohesive organizatons and the idea was that, if you shared your extra curricular activities with those with whom you worked, the workplace would be more exciting. People might work harder and become attached to their lives at work. Those project were shelved and have yet to find new life with the public choices for networking.
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Twitter on the other hand, and “devices” such as the hashtag, #, were never expected to deliver value to the communities they serve, no less to the entire sphere to which they occupy. We knew and we proclaimed this to be the age of “content as king,” as we said here many times. We never expected ordinary humans to drive growth or to fill the vacuum exposed by such tools as WordPress and the blogosphere. These accidental successes fuel speculation that whatever comes next, may just be the next Facebook, or LinkedIn.
Now the world is catching up and the promise of a next generation of users from places like Egypt and Sudan and Yemen are gaining access and we don’t expect these people to be willing to go backwards any more than we expect the folks here in Silicon Valley to move backwards. The destiny of the people of the Middle East has changed dramatically over the last year. Begining in Tunisia, people have found that this is the time to speak out loudly and often because if you do not, you may never get another chance. Just how does access measure up to Western services, and where should we look for an explosion of freedom next?
Access in most countries of the ME is challenged by lack of competitive offers, a dearth of Arabic language content and hegemony from those still clinging to power. Qatar, Bahrain and UAE have high household broadband penetration, at least among nationals. Saudi Arabia, has low penetration but it is gaining fast. The biggest problem may mirror the same problems we have experienced here in gaining competition. As long as companies that attempt to crush competition and dominate markets are allowed to buy political favors, the wonders that are at our global doorsteps may never realize their elegance and power to bring the world to peace and prosperity.