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Information Rich - Information Poor, Bridging the digital divide (UK)

Thursday, October 14, 1999 Published at 13:37 GMT 14:37 UK

The Internet has ushered in the greatest period of wealth creation
in history. It's rocked the way we deliver and receive information
and the way we do business.

And so, for many, it is easy to accept euphoric claims - like those
of Vice President Al Gore - that the Internet is also bringing about
a brave new world replete with an "electronic agora" and "online

It's not. More than 80% of people in the world have never even heard
a dial tone, let alone surfed the Web. And the gap between the
information haves and have-nots is widening.

In a speech this week at Telecom 99 in Geneva, Switzerland, UN
Secretary General Kofi Anan warned of the danger of excluding the
world's poor from the information revolution.

"People lack many things: jobs, shelter, food, health care and
drinkable water. Today, being cut off from basic telecommunications
services is a hardship almost as acute as these other deprivations,
and may indeed reduce the chances of finding remedies to them," he

In this special report, BBC News Online probes the growing gap
between the information rich and information poor: How big is it? Why
is it so hard to close? And how are individuals and communities
around the globe trying to bridge the digital divide?

Losing ground bit by bit

By BBC News Online's Jane Black

The hype for everything online obscures the reality about how
technology is changing life at the end of the 20th century.

From Manhattan and Madrid, the Internet has fundamentally changed
work, recreation - even love. But in Malawi and Mozambique, life
remains very much the same.

More than 80% of people in the world have never heard a dial tone,
let alone sent an email or downloaded information from the World Wide

"Think how powerful the Internet is. Then remind yourself that fewer
than 2% of people are actually connected," said Larry Irving, former
US assistant secretary of commerce. The power of the Web increases
exponentially with every person who goes online. Imagine what we're

Facts first

First the figures.

The statistics on the basic building block of connectedness - that
is, phone lives - are stark.

According to the latest UN Human Development Report, industrialised
countries, with only 15% of the world's population, are home to 88%
of all Internet users. Less than 1% of people in South Asia are
online even though it is home to one-fifth of the world's population.

The situation is even worse in Africa. With 739 million people,
there are only 14 million phone lines. That's fewer than in Manhattan
or Tokyo. Eighty percent of those lines are in only six countries.
There are only 1 million Internet users on the entire continent
compared with 10.5 million in the UK.

Even if telecommunications systems were in place, most of the
world's poor would still be excluded from the information revolution
because of illiteracy and a lack of basic computer skills.

In Benin, for example, more than 60% of the population is
illiterate. The other 40% are similarly out of luck. Four-fifths of
Websites are in English, a language understood by only one in 10
people on the planet.


The lack of resources in poor communities can't explain the
technology gap alone.

In the developing world, there is still resistance to the idea that
technology is a quick-fix.

Take the African Virtual University. The World Bank-sponsored
programme has broadcast over 2000 hours of instruction to over 9000
students in all regions of sub-Saharan Africa. The initiative has
allowed AVU students to take courses given by professors from
world-renowned educational institutions in Africa, North America,
and Europe.

That does not impress Ethiopian Meghistab Haile: "With that money
just imagine how many lecturers you could have. If the World Bank is
really wanting to help African universities then the first step would
be to encourage and support the Africans to return back. In the end
it is only the Africans who could solve their problems."

Others complain that high-tech education - available only to a
select elite - is not worth it when so many places on the continent
are still without electricity and running water.

"Our priorities are hygiene, sanitation, safe drinking water," said
Supatra Koirala who works at a private nursing home in Kathmandu.
"How is having access to the Internet going to change that?"

How to close the gap

As the famous Alcoholics Anonymous saying goes: Admitting you have a
problem is the first step to recovery. International organisations,
governments and private institutions are just starting to do this.

When I was first talking about the Internet in the developing world
in 1992, I was called a 'technofascist' and a 'cybercolonist'," said
Larry Irving. "Now I don't get those comments, just questions about
how can we get this - and fast."

Magda Escobar, Executive Director of Plugged In, a non-profit
working to bring technology resources to poor communities in
California, agrees.

The convergence of a lot of different interests has put this on the
agenda," she said. "The general public is interested in having
access to the tech revolution, businesses want to expand their
markets, schools are interested in trying to change the way kids are
taught. Everyone's awareness is coming together at the same time.

Experts like Mr Irving estimate that the Internet will be virtually
global in five to seven years. But for that to happen infrastructure
must be put in place, which means a lot of money - and fast.

The Net may be the wave of the future but age-old problems still

Case studies

Networking locally

The Internet is not yet a reality for Burkina Faso

By BBC News Online's Kate Milner

If the Internet is supposed to be a tool to open up communication
for all and enrich all our lives, what better test than a project
involving illiterate farmers in Burkina Faso?

Father Maurice Oudet is doing just that. A priest who has lived in
Burkina Faso for 30 years, he is using the Internet to gather
information and publish a magazine for farmers in some of the
country's 71 local dialects.

Father Oudet knows well what it is like to be out of touch. When he
first arrived in Burkina Faso, he was based in a remote parish with
no telephone. The closest post office was 20km (12 miles) away.

Today Father Oudet is a little more connected. In Koudougou, a town
about 100km (62 miles) from the capital Ouagadougou where he now
lives, he has a telephone and Internet access.

But he still doesn't buy the Internet hype. The Internet cannot
change the lives of the poorest people because it doesn't put food in

Land-locked Burkina Faso is one of the poorest countries in the
world. It has few natural resources and a poor soil. Life expectancy
at birth is around 45 years. Although around 90% of people live on
the land, many families still struggle to eat.

The average farmer's income is around a 60p a day and they may live
far from towns and telephone lines. This is one of the chronic
problems of bringing the Internet to the developing world. The
information gap may be getting wider but the world's poorest still
don't see it as a priority.

But Father Oudet believes it can help in other ways. Besides a
chronic shortage of food, Burkina Faso also has a largely illiterate
population. Only 19.2% of people speak and read French, the official
language. The farmers who can read and write are learning their own

Father Oudet's magazine, published every three months, uses many of
the diverse languages of Burkina Faso to help them learn.
Agricultural workers can contribute to the magazine, by sending in
their views and experiences and passing on farming advice.

The magazine is produced using desktop publishing facilities in
Koudougou, but the editorial content is gathered from volunteers
from each region and language. Outside resources have also proved
useful. Websites as far away as Canada provide feature material.

The magazine is not yet published online - but the possibility is an
appealing one. The online magazine would create a community of
farmers, using technology to exchange ideas and information, a world
where everyone, rich and poor, can access information with the click
of a mouse.

There are some encouraging signs. Burkina Faso is one of 13 African
countries where local telecom operators have set up a special
'area-code' for Internet access. That means that a call to the
Internet only costs as much as a local call even if the Internet
Service Provider is far away in a major city.

But there is some way to go before the average Burkinabe is truly
represented on the Internet.

The cost of communication

By BBC News Online's Kate Milner

Communication has never been easy in Mongolia.

The country is nearly three times the size of France but has a
population density of 1.5/sq mile, one of the lowest in the world.
The Internet seems the natural answer but the problem is less one of
infrastructure than the cost of getting online.

The price to connect is certainly out of reach for most ordinary
people. One ISP charges approximately £30 ($50) per month and that
does not include the cost of the phone call. The average GDP per
capita is £1,359 ($2,250).

That's complicated by the gap between rich and poor. More than one
third of the population lives in poverty. Outside the capital
Ulaanbaatar, many areas still do not have telephone access.

The Asia-Pacific Development Information Programme (APDIP), a United
Nations-funded organisation based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, is
trying to help.

APDIP has launched Citizen Information Service Centers, where
citizens in remote Aimags including areas of the Gobi desert, can now
connect to the central government, apply for grants on-line, receive
news, and obtain basic training in computing.

The first step was a summit designed to explore opportunities
through IT. APDIP also set up a cyber café in the UNDP building in
Ulaanbaatar, to show people what technology has to offer.

"We want to involve ordinary people," he said. "If they cannot see
the vision then we cannot make it work," said Atsushi Yamanaka who
works for the UNDP.

"Young people are the ones who have to create this. People are very
eager to tap into new technology, but they're not sure of how to
best use it.

The programme's long-term aim is to encourage businesses and
colleges to take up information technology and to build a culture of
open information. It has set targets for the next two to three years
and is building an action plan up to 2010.

But Mr Yamanaka said there were still problems in Mongolia following
the end of socialism and the country's first democratic elections in
July 1990.

"Under socialism there was a train every few days, so people got
letters every two days," he said. "Citizens who had everything, all
of a sudden they didn't have anything. Now it can take two months for
letters to get through.

"The people are suffering a lack of information and a lack of basic

But even as new technology takes hold, those in power in Mongolia
still have doubts. Changing people's mindset is the hardest part.

"There needs to be a very top-level support." Said Mr Yamanaka.
"Email is not seen as an official document. It's not like a paper
agreement that you can sign and seal.

"The government is keen to use email but they ask, 'What is its
status, how official is it?'"

Making ends meet in Morocco

By BBC News Online's Jane Black

"Men eat and sleep," says Fadma Bouadou of Taliounie, Morocco.
"Women work."

That may never change but Fadma has found a way to beat the system.
She still does the work but thanks to the Internet she can now sell
her wares in the global marketplace, earning enough money to take
care of herself and two daughters.

Fadma is part of a group of local weavers who sell their rugs
through a site called Virtual Souk. The project, which employs 775
artisans in Morocco, Tunisia and Lebanon, works through
non-governmental organisations to get rid of the middleman and
deliver 65-80% of money earned to the artisans themselves.

Around 75 to 80% of the artisans partners of the Virtual Souk are

"Taliounie was our first project and we chose it because it is
remote and isolated village. We wanted to demystify the technology,"
said Azedine Ouerghi of the World Bank Institute who is managing the
project. "If we could do it in Taliounie, we could do it anywhere."

The project has thrown a lifeline to the women of Taliounie as each
woman involved in the project will testify.

Fadma Aoubaida, a mother of seven, earned 532 dirhams (£33) which
she spent to repair her roof and start building an indoor latrine,
one of the few in her village. Ijja Aittalblhsen spent her last
payment to buy cement and windows to renovate her home.

When asked what she wanted to do with future profits, Ijja first
said she would buy gold jewelry - a traditional way for women to

Then she got more imaginative. First she suggested buying a truck to
transport rugs produced in the village to the town where they are
marketed. She now believes that getting all the women bicycles would
be more fun because they could have a race on the way home.

But the market for indigenous crafts on the Internet is still
uncertain. If brand-name Net start-ups - with huge amounts of
venture capital behind them - have yet to make money on the Internet,
what chance is there for isolated artisans in the developing world?

"We thought we could build a cool Website and people would come
there and buy things," says Daniel Salcedo, founder of PeopLink, an
Internet marketplace for indigenous crafts. But having people find
you is hard. Having them trust you is even harder."

That is where Virtual Souk is trying to help. All transactions are
processed through a clearinghouse in Paris. Artisans are not paid
until clients receive the product. Mr Ouerghi of the World Bank says
he hopes to expand the project, creating sub-sites for artisans in
the Middle East, Asia and Latin America.

Either way it's fine for women like Fadma Bouadou. Even in it's
early stages, the Internet has opened up her up to the world and
helped to make ends meet.

Plugging in to the revolution

By BBC News Online's Jane Black

Think of Silicon Valley and you think of the information revolution.
Technology has created hundreds of young millionaires in the Valley
and brought an epic boom to the rest of the United States.

But such riches have not reached everyone. In East Palo Alto, the
area bordering the tech-rich Stanford University campus and the
corporate HQs of multi-billion dollar companies such as Yahoo and
Oracle, more than 17% of the population lives in poverty. Only 14%
have a four-year college degree and less than one out of five
families has a computer in the home.

Even in America the digital divide is wide. But as technology
increasingly becomes a part of everyday life, and the political
debate, a new awareness is emerging that the benefits of technology
will not filter down by themselves.

"It's taken a while for mainstream culture to understand how it
would make their lives easier - and what their lives would be like
without it," said Magda Escobar, the Executive Director of Plugged
In, a community project that aims to bridge the digital divide. "It
is also a very sexy issue. And it's politically advantageous for
everyone - liberal or conservative - to focus on it."

Plugged In is leading by example in East Palo Alto. The non-profit
organisation offers residents state-of-the-art computers and courses
to build their literacy and computer skills, work on their CVs or
make money as Web designers.

Plugged In Enterprises, a teen-run Web page design business, is one
of the centre's most dynamic and talked about programmes. Each year
36 teenagers learn cutting-edge business skills and earn money
working on projects for real clients including Hewlett-Packard and
Sun Microsystems.

PIE, as it is known, is run by John Mireles, a 17-year-old from
nearby San Jose. Formerly a graffiti artist, John's own projects
include transferring his own highly-charged images into digital form
and pushing the medium to its limits. His goal: to earn a good living
that leaves him plenty of time for his own art.

Plugged In also runs a programme called Community Kids which hosts
55 children each day after school and involves them in hands-on arts
and crafts and computer projects. The Plugged In Community Technology
Centre, a mixture of a café, copy shop and library, is a resource
for teenagers and adults to work on their CVs or get career advice.

But there is still much work to be done. The latest report from the
US Commerce Department, Falling Through The Net, reports that the
digital divide widened between 1998 and 1999.

Black and hispanic households are approximately one-third as likely
to have home Internet access as households of Asian/Pacific Islander
descent, and roughly two-fifths as likely as white households,
according to the report.

The disparity does not only follow racial lines. Even at the lowest
income levels, those in urban areas are more than twice as likely to
have Internet access than those in rural areas.

"We need to keep up the pressure to keep up with the technology,"
says Ms Escobar. "There's a risk that people will just dump equipment
into poor areas. This is a long process."


Development Report
UN Development Programme Info 21
World Bank InfoDev
African Development Forum
The first mile: Wiring the South and rural areas
Plugged In
NTIA report: Falling Through the Net
CIA World Factbook: Burkina Faso
African Virtual University
Virutal Souk
Information and Communication Technology, Mongolia
Asia-Pacific Development Information Programme
The United Nations in Mongolia
Soros Foundation: Mongolia


Also in this issue:

- Information Rich - Information Poor, Bridging the digital divide (UK)
    The Internet has ushered in the greatest period of wealth creation
    in history. It's rocked the way we deliver and receive information
    and the way we do business.
- Melissa Mutates Again; Fix Found (US)
    Symantec, McAfee both offer inoculation against new, malicious
    strains of the Melissa mail-sending virus.
- Congressional spam bill due today (US)
    update The U.S. House of Representatives today will begin
    consideration of a bill that would create a nationwide list of
    people who do not want to receive junk email, known in Internet
    parlance as "spam."
- Encyclopaedia Britannica Goes Online For Free (US)
    CHICAGO (Reuters) - The entire Encyclopaedia Britannica, a 32-volume
    set that sells for $1,250 in book form, has been placed on the
    Internet free of charge, the publishers of the 231-year-old
    reference work announced Tuesday.
- Plugged In: Like It Or Not, The 'Net Is Everywhere (US)
    PALO ALTO, Calif. (Reuters) - Scott Arenson, a Seattle-based
    marketing consultant has watched the World Wide Web mushroom from a
    clunky, text-based interface in late 1993 to an unstoppable global
    force that promises to worm its way into every nook and cranny of our
- XML gives firms a database edge (US)
    COMPANIES whose databases do not share information either internally
    or with other businesses would face a "serious competitive
    disadvantage" in the coming decade, according to a data management
- Experts warn of Internet's weight on economy (Asia)
    The wildfire growth of the Internet could have unintended and
    disruptive economic consequences, particularly for financial assets,
    experts said Tuesday.
- Tech firms urged to unite against computer vandals (US)
    ARLINGTON, VA. -- The people who make it their business to protect
    secure computer systems from illicit penetration by outsiders agreed
    Monday they have something important to learn from the villains:
    pooling information.
- Not so amazing Amazon (US)
    Stock market turmoil is shaking the shelves at The
    online retailer's stock is down nearly 30% from its 1999 high, stung
    by rising interest rates and a grumpy Federal Reserve.
- Statistics Canada: 90 Percent of Canadian Schools Are Online
    The majority of Canadian schools are connected to the Internet for
    educational purposes, according to a new survey on computer
    technology in the classrooms. The survey showed that despite major
    strides taken in introducing computers to schools and connecting them
    to the Internet, education systems face significant challenges as
    they move towards taking fuller advantage of the new information age.
- New Lists and Journals
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