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NZ business, education left behind by global ‘digital divide’

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YouTube excerpt from The Virtual Revolution BBC documentary featured on the final day of Nethui. Source: BBC

Pacific Media Centre, Yvonne Brill

3 July, 2011

Backgrounding Nethui 2011
The Pacific Media Centre’s Niusblog and social media editor Yvonne Brill covered the three-day inaugural Nethui 2011 conference in Auckland last week. Here she profiles some of the issues raised. Brill is on an Office of Pasifika Advancement scholarship with the PMC.

ANALYSIS: New Zealand internet use is still marred by a “digital divide” that restricts local businesses and education from competing effectively on a global scale and individuals from fully participating in an increasingly online society, say  private and public sector analysts.

“There is a digital divide between New Zealand and the rest of the world," said leading technology entrepreneur Rod Drury.

 “It is getting worse slowly. New Zealand is being left behind - it is time to do something."

Speaking at the three-day NetHui conference in Auckland last week, industry heavyweights, academics, politicians, journalists, economists, entrepreneurs and not-for-profit organisations sketched out New Zealand’s future in cyberspace.

The term “digital divide” refers to the gap between those who do and those who do not have the opportunity or resources to access the internet, and associated communications technologies such as computers.

The digital divide can be seen on a local level where socio-economic status or geographic location, such as those living in rural areas, may inhibit internet access.

It is also displayed on a global level where the digital divide refers to differences in access and information flow between countries.

Far-reaching consequences
The consequences of the digital divide are far-reaching, and include what is known as the “knowledge divide”.

The knowledge divide occurs when a lack of access to the internet results in individuals being disadvantaged in terms of the amount of information they have access to - especially information that is critical to their being able to participate fully as citizens within a society.

The internet is often touted as the ultimate tool for social and political change.

Indeed the ability for recent uprisings in the Middle East to be organised and co-ordinated so effectively has been attributed to access to social networking tools such as Twitter.

However, it still remains clear that access to the internet is not universal.

Professor Lawrence Lessig ... optimistic about New Zealand. P{hoto: searchenginewatch.comKeynote speaker for the final day of NetHui, Professor Lawrence Lessig, a leading academic in digital copyright and online affairs from Harvard University, acknowledged the importance of access to the internet as a minimum requirement for change in modern society.

“Access is a dimension of equality…that is critically important”, he said.

“Once you get over a minimum, it gives people a taste, and it is that taste that encourages change, reform and revolution”.

Barriers to access
During a forum discussion facilitated by Computers in Homes representatives Di Das and Alistair Fraser, participants discussed barriers to access that affect many New Zealanders.

Computers in Homes is an educational intervention programme, working to provide disadvantaged families with school aged children computers and internet access within the home.

Das described social and economic issues that affected both isolated rural communities and low income urban families, including the fact that within the communities she works with, around 50 percent do not have landlines, and some do not have electricity.

According to her, “connectivity via infrastructure and the on-going cost is a huge exclusion factor”.

In another forum discussion facilitated by Kevin Prince of the Royal Foundation of Blind, participants discussed barriers to using the internet that included cultural issues and physical disabilities.

The concept of ‘inclusive design’ for websites was championed by forum participant and visual designer Dr Gloria Gomez, who said that visual designers are trained to design for the average person.

Unless those who commissioned the designers were committed to designing inclusively, then it was challenging to produce inclusive work across the board, she said.

Lack of will
Inclusive design refers to the practice of ensuring all environments - both physical and online - are accessible and usable by all people within a community, including those with disabilities.

“There is a lot of literature about how to do it, sadly the money, or the will to do it, is not”, she said.

“I will invite those in power to make changes. To make it for all is not hard, it is not difficult.”

Her views were echoed by Prince, who said: “The information to make something good and inclusive is out there already, it just needs to get done.”

Prince added about facilitating design for special needs: “It’s always easier and way cheaper to do it the first time, than to bolt it on later.”

Another forum participant, a self-trained web designer, summed up the session, saying: “New Zealand can learn a lot from other countries… I don’t think it is enough to have just designers trained [in inclusive designing], the general public needs to be trained that accessibility is important to everyone”.

Online learning
Leading technology entrepreneur Rod Drury addressed the issue of the digital divide on a global level, focusing on New Zealand’s lack of access to superfast broadband.

He cited overseas changes in the way school children learned using online tools and the way business was done online as examples of New Zealand being behind other developed countries.

“Some of the basic infrastructure that is needed for this is not there,” he said.

“It is getting worse slowly. New Zealand is being left behind - it is time to do something.”

Drury mentioned the Pacific Fibre project, of which he is founder and director, as going some way to address this issue.

He described the goal of Pacific Fibre, an international fibre cable project that would connect Australia and New Zealand to the US, as being to “put more capacity out there”.

Drury said: “Pacific Fibre is about content, not infrastructure.”

Ultimately the purpose of the cable was to provide New Zealanders with fast, inexpensive and unlimited broadband access.

He said that culture in the US was evolving rapidly to include extensive internet use as a part of everyday life.

NZ research
The latest research from the World Internet Project presented at the conference by AUT University academics Jennie Billot and Philippa Smith suggested that in New Zealand, 83 percent of those with internet access at home have a broadband connection, and that almost 70 percent of New Zealand internet users consider the internet to be important to everyday life.

Richard Naylor, a pioneer in New Zealand internet provision, was honoured at the NetHui by InternetNZ as having made an “outstanding individual contribution to internet in New Zealand”.

During his acceptance speech, he challenged the audience to “take away the inhibitors”.

Naylor’s work with the Wellington City Council during the 1980s is recognised as being a world first in terms of governmental information being made available on the internet, as well as ensuring Wellington had the world’s first local government website.

“Don’t find problems, find solutions,” he said.

“What are the inhibitors? What happens if you take them away?”

The Virtual Revolution
Vikram Kumar, chief executive of InternetNZ and convenor of the NetHui, told participants of his own recent experience of finding solutions to problems relating to the digital divide.

While organising the conference, Kumar found he was unable to secure screening rights to the  BBC documentary The Virtual Revolution because of geographic and time limits imposed by copyright restrictions.

Citizens in the UK are able to access the content online via the BBC’s iPlayer, but the content is unavailable to viewers elsewhere in the world.

While the BBC does have Australasian content distributors, Kumar was told it was the BBC’s policy to only license educational content for three years after its initial broadcast.
He was unable to purchase the rights to privately broadcast the documentary at the conference.

“You’ve got people whose business models don’t allow us in New Zealand to get content. They’re not willing to take our money. So it’s not that you’re not willing to pay for it, it’s simply not available,” he said.

 Kumar’s solution was to approach non-commercial digital television channel TVNZ 7, whose channel manager agreed to alter TVNZ 7’s programming schedule in order to broadcast the documentary on the final day of conference.

This enabled Kumar to screen the documentary via TVNZ 7, but he says the experience is an example of why copyright needs to be altered in the internet age.

“Even though we were willing to pay, no one was willing to take our money. I went online and found that [the documentary] is all over YouTube, lots of torrents which I could easily download, and clearly that’s illegal.

“But the fact is that that’s the nature of where we’re at with copyright today,” he said.

Digital citizenship
During an address focused on digital citizenship, Labour MP David Cunliff acknowledged access and inclusion were still unresolved policy issues that needed to be addressed.

 “One in three households is not connected to the internet, we have a digital divide”, he said. “We have a lot of work to do”.

But Professor Lessig was optimistic about New Zealand’s future. He acknowledged that the country needed “fast cheap access to succeed”.

That policy - like the data cap system - was restricting that, but he described New Zealand as a “high functioning democracy” with the ability to make swift changes.

“As hard as it is for you guys to recognise there's something really special here. Relative to everywhere else, there's a high-functioning democracy,” he said.

“Although you argue and bicker about which party should be in control you really need to recognise an extraordinary fact about your country - this is a democracy that works”, he said.

Lessig added this did not mean New Zealand was a utopia and mistakes were still made, but that in a democracy that works mistakes could be fixed more easily.

Praise for 'working democracy' from information freedom pioneer

About the authors

PMC profile photograph

Pacific Media Centre

PMC newsdesk

The Pacific Media Centre - TE AMOKURA - at AUT University has a strategic focus on Māori, Pasifika and ethnic diversity media and community development.

PMC profile photograph

Yvonne Brill

OPA postgraduate studentship

Yvonne Brill is a postgraduate student studying towards her Masters of Communication Studies at AUT University.


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