Waiting on the World Wide Web to Change: Reflections on Power in the Digital Age

The development of the Internet has been characterized as the defining moment of our generation— but for whom? Despite its name, the web is far from worldwide. Half of the world’s population is ‘offline’ [1]. As of 2014, there were an estimated 4.4 billion people in the world without Internet access, and up to 2.8 billion of which could not access the Internet as a direct result of insufficient network coverage [2]. In a world where Internet access is all too often taken for granted, it seems necessary to ask: Why is the Internet still not globally accessible?

Image Courtesy of Tony Webster © 2010, some rights reserved.
Image Courtesy of Tony Webster © 2010, some rights reserved.

Access to information computer technologies and the Internet have long been associated with an improving quality of life. Whether these claims are merely capitalist rhetoric or reality, it is hard to deny the impact of the Internet in the twenty-first century for many individuals and communities. Indeed, the Internet has demonstrated its potential to mobilize economic growth, educational development, healthcare reform, and unprecedented communication on local and global levels. In 2011, the United Nations declared Internet access a basic human right [3]. Despite this momentum, however, the Internet remains out of reach for billions of people. What factors may be inhibiting widespread Internet accessibility? What, if anything, has been done to promote Internet access on a global level? And how, if at all, should plans for global Internet connectivity be developed?

There are several significant ‘barriers to entry’ relating to Internet access that may be impeding usage and development. According to a recent report published by McKinsey & Company, the primary factors include: user capability, awareness, affordability, and infrastructure [2]. To put these potential obstacles into perspective, it is essential to consider that Internet access is not merely contingent on ‘network connectivity’ but also dependent on digital and language literacy, reliable sources of electricity, the costs of Internet service or data plans as well as the costs of computers and mobile devices themselves. In terms of its infrastructural needs, the Internet requires broadband connectivity via wireless, mobile, satellite, or fiber optic networks. There may also be obstructive government policies in place such as censorship, surveillance, and Internet filtering, which may largely deter development as well as public demand for the Internet and its related services [2]. What is clear is that the factors inhibiting Internet usage and development have context-specific foundations and may be compounded by several competing factors, thereby affecting different individuals, communities, and regions in varying degrees [2]. With the scope and variety of these obstacles in mind, the question of universal Internet access becomes increasingly intimidating.

How might these challenges be overcome in the contemporary world? Recognizing the vast commercial potential related to global connectivity, many private companies have launched projects to ‘emancipate’ the World Wide Web. In 2013, Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, embarked on a “crusade to put every single human being online” [4]. Most recently, a private enterprise named ‘OneWeb’ has joined the ranks of companies like Facebook, Google, and SpaceX in the battle for global Internet. Financed by Virgin Galactic and Richard Branson, OneWeb has announced its plans to launch over 600 satellites into space, designed to ‘beam down’ Internet access to Earth [5]. OneWeb’s founder, Greg Wyler, puts estimates for the total costs of his project between $1.5 and $2 billion USD [5]. Similar ventures, like Google’s ‘Project Loon’, are promoting the use of solar-powered balloons that could transmit Internet access directly to mobile devices and would cost approximately $10,000 USD per balloon [5].

Despite the technological readiness and the diverse range of solutions presented, however, there remains a long legacy of disappointment surrounding the project for global Internet. There are fundamental incompatibilities between the financial objectives of private companies and the far-reaching demands of global Internet access. While projects like those of OneWeb and Google are inspiring in terms of their commitment to revolutionary technologies and unprecedented levels of connectivity, their plans involve tremendous costs and relatively high margins of error. The question implicit yet unspoken within projects for global Internet remains whether Internet access can be ‘free’. Even if private companies implement the infrastructures necessary for far-reaching Internet connectivity, there will be considerable costs related to development and maintenance as well as fees related to access. The project for global Internet, however, is primarily devoted to those who are currently beyond its reach and who cannot afford to subsidize its services. In order to provide Internet access to ‘all’, there is a need for substantial investment without expectations of financial profitability. Global Internet access must be developed as a matter of common humanity and equality rather than a source of capital gain if the project is ever to succeed.

In spite of the relative optimism and aspirations attributed to global Internet connectivity, another more ethical question is often forgotten: Should the Internet be made accessible worldwide? Some, like Time magazine’s Lev Grossman argue that the project for globally accessible Internet is “development without representation” [6]. As Grossman puts it, “It’s not as though anybody asked two-thirds of humanity whether they wanted to be put online” [4]. This commentary brings several interesting questions to the fore: What if individuals do not want to engage with the Internet? Has the Western-centric mission for global Internet access been thrust upon the ‘offline world’ in hopes of a neo-Enlightenment? In spite of this cyber-cynicism, the Internet remains a powerful resource based upon its capacity to do and to be anything. Beyond national, cultural, and religious divisions, the Internet has the potential to be mobilised for any cause. For better or for worse, cyberspace is a direct reflection of user-generated content and demands. With these concerns in mind, the global availability of the Internet and its related services should be promoted on the basis of opportunity rather than compulsion. Every individual, if they so choose, should have an equal opportunity to access the Internet.

The advent of the Internet can be traced back to the mid-twentieth century. As we approach 2016, however, the Internet remains accessible to only half of the world’s population. Despite the wealth of technologies and billions of people beyond reach of existing networks, there remains a legacy of failed initiatives and disproportionate development. The expansion of the Internet should neither be treated as a financial endeavor nor a crusader’s burden to ‘enlighten’ the world. The Internet flourishes as a result of its networks and interconnectedness. The development of a globally accessible Internet must therefore be recognized as a common goal and should be pursued in a contributive and collaborative way. Until then, the paradox of the ‘World Wide Web’ lives on.

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