The first phase of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) held in Geneva in December 2003 made a commitment to ‘build a people-centred, inclusive and development-oriented information society, where everyone can create, access, utilise and share information and knowledge’. For making this a reality, a transparent and non-discriminatory ICT policy is necessary.
During the last 20 years, Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) have provided a wealth of new technological opportunities, with the rapid deployment of both the Internet and cellular telephony leading the way. These technologies have invaded every country that is willing to accept them. The most important differentiating factor now is policy. Policy makes the fundamental difference regarding how countries are able to take advantage of the technological opportunities available to them and exploit them for good. Countries that have progressive policies are seeing these technologies spread quickly. Conversely, countries that have not been able to formulate an integrated ICT policy yet have been plagued by slow growth of technology and the consequent lessening of support for economic and social development.
ICTs are now also an important enabling tools to support the process of development. The full potential of ICT can be realised, and it can be used to maximise the social, economic and environmental benefits of the society only if the ICT policies are effective. The policies should contain a particular approach as to how ICT for development will be achieved and ensure the collaboration of stakeholders in government, the private sector, civil society and international organisations. ICT policies and regulations are also needed to foster an environment, conducive to build an ICT infrastructure as well as leveraging ICTs for knowledge creation and dissemination.
Actors in ICT policy
The government plays the most important role in the formulation of ICT policy, and thus, it only decides how countries are able to take advantage of the technical opportunities available to them and exploit them for good. In the Republic of Korea, for example, the government took the lead in promoting development of the Internet. In Egypt, the dynamic Ministry of Communications and Information Technology played a strong role in catalysing telecommunications development in the country.
Most of the high income countries have one integrated ICT master plan, where telecommunications and IT policies form part of one development plan. The old sectoral framework for policy-making based on broadcasting, telecommunications and information technology has now been shifted to a new layered framework where all the tools of ICT work cohesively, focusing on social and economic development. A central body may be needed to coordinate and oversee all policy issues driving competitiveness centrally to ensure policy coherence across different policy domains and to make sure that efforts in some fields are not held up by bottlenecks in other areas.
For this reason, several countries have established high-level task forces entrusted with monitoring and overseeing the implementation of integrated policies for ICTs, such as the ICT taskforce in Australia and the National Information Technology Council in Malaysia. These task forces are often build on principles of public-private partnership and collaboration between government and the private sector, to ensure that policymaking can respond quickly to firms’ needs and concerns.
Although policies are formally put in place by governments, different stakeholders and in particular, the private sector make inputs into the policy process and affect its outcomes. In the context of globalised markets, large and rich corporations are often more powerful than developing countries’ governments, allowing them to shape the policy-making process. When Mexico was considering adopting free software in its education system, Microsoft offered fund and free licences to the government, which eventually dropped GNU/Linux and embraced Windows completely.
International organisations also influence the policies of the countries. The five organisations that dominate mainstream dialogue on global ICT policy issues are:
- The International Telecommunications Union because of its mandate for telecommunications within the United Nations system;
- The World Intellectual Property Organisation because it is responsible for setting the rules that govern ownership of content on the Internet;
- The World Trade Organisation because it sets the rules for international trade;
- The World Bank because of the financial and technical resources it brings to bear on development;
- The World Economic Forum because of its ability to convene the world’s rich and powerful.
Elements and aspirations associated
The formulation and implementation of national ICT strategies that deal effectively with the preceding challenges must be particularly sensitive to two elements:
- The need for mechanisms to monitor and assess ICT readiness, usage and impact;
- The need to link ICT policies to other development policies such as education, trade and health, to allow broad-based diffusion of ICT.
Uneven diffusion of technology and inequality in access to technologies are the major stumble blocks of development. A major challenge for policy-makers at the national and international level, therefore, lies in addressing the issue of the digital divide between rich and poor countries, rural and urban areas, men and women, skilled and unskilled citizens, and large and small enterprises. The policy should also help people and organisations to adapt to new circumstances and technology.
Thus, an ideal ICT policy should try to meet the following aspirations:
- Providing individuals and organisations with a minimum level of ICT knowledge and the ability to keep it up to date;
- Providing information and communication facilities, services and management at a reasonable or reduced cost;
- Improving the quality of services and products;
- Encouraging use of technology and innovations in technology use;
- Promoting information sharing, transparency and accountability;
- Identifying priority areas for ICT development;
- Developing new legislations and policies according to the need of the development.
Policies affecting the society
An ICT policy framework that corresponds to international best practices and standards provide the springboard for ICT applications to be used in many sectors to stimulate economic growth and improve the quality of life. The policies that affect the following sectors of society are:
- Students: Policies that address the curriculum reforms and budgetary issues associated with the deployment and maintenance of computer systems in educational institutes will influence the education of the students.
- Underserved community: Policies that address interconnection between land and cellular phone lines, and free market competition often result in an expansion of cellular phone service at affordable prices. Those traditionally underserved (rural areas, the poor, women, or the elderly) have increased access to telephone service for personal, health, political, or business needs when cellular service is cheaper and accessible in rural and hard-to-reach areas. Policies that address the allocation of the radio spectrum to include community radio stations can mean an increased number and range of locally run, locally owned radio, a prime method of communication with rural, largely illiterate communities.
- Civil society: Policies that allow Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to multiply on the market can result in a decrease in the cost of Internet access, making e-mail accounts affordable to local NGOs and other community groups. This increases the efficiency and networking ability of these groups helping their work to reach their target populations.
- Industries: Clear regulations concerning copyright, intellectual property rights and cyber crime help local ICT industries compete with the international companies.
The problems that are associated with the adequate implementation of ICT policies specially in developing countries are as follows:
- The government identifies IT as tool for development but most of the policies lead to sectoral development of IT in software rather than focusing on social induced development;
- Many countries do not have definitive National ICT Development Master Plan;
- There is lack of availability and also unbalanced distribution of information and telecommunication infrastructures in most of the countries;
- Various studies have reported that people’s awareness and knowledge of the benefits of ICT is considerably low and needs to be enhanced;
- A major reason of difficulty for the developing countries is their inability to keep pace with the continuous and rapid speed of ICT innovation and development.
Need of the hour
ICT policies need to recognise the above caveats and offer ways to overcome the constraints. Governments, regional organisations, and international organisations responsible for the formulation and adoption of ICT policies are urged to develop and adhere to adequately resourced action plans that designate responsible actors, timelines, and priorities as appropriate for the particular circumstances. Political will is also an important stimulator of policy decision and it is stimulated by stakeholder groups voicing their needs. These stakeholders include not only the government, but also the business sector and civil society groups. An active participation of civil society and the private sector ensure a strong partnership to sustain a policy process. If we want to promote social justice, then ICT policy will be a key factor in this battle, and we cannot afford to remain outside the ICT policy-making process.