First World, not World Wide, Web

With one-in-nine Netizens living in developed countries a truly worldwide Web may be decades away.

While a new report from the United Nations says the world's poor are suffering partly because they have little access to technology, the hurdles to extending Internet access beyond the developed world will take decades to overcome, experts said.

"The problem isn't even computers, it's building roads in remote areas and then installing phone lines," said Alan Marcus, a professor of history at Iowa State University and an expert in the history of technology. "It will take generations for this to change," he said.

The 1999 Human Development Report reveals that 88 percent of the world's Internet users are in wealthy, developed nations. "The well-connected have an overpowering advantage over the unconnected poor, whose voices and concerns are being left out of the global conversation," the report states.

Experts said that while the UN's concern for global inequities is laudable, there are no easy answers to the problems the report identifies. "If I was a dictator, I certainly wouldn't want my citizens to have Internet access," Marcus said. "There are political hurdles as well as infrastructure problems that are keeping undeveloped countries from getting onto the Internet," he said.

One recommendation in the report -- that a 'bit tax' on Internet communications might be used to finance the high-tech infrastructure in the developing world -- drew harsh criticism. "It would be the natural thing for the government bureaucracy to end all government bureaucracies, the United Nations, to suggest more regulation as a way of extending the Internet into the undeveloped world," said Jeff Eisenach, president of the Progress and Freedom Foundation.

Any such plan would be impossible to put into practice, Eisenach said. But he added that bringing technology into the undeveloped world will be crucial for its growth. "I think bandwidth is very important to going up to the next rung of the economy, regardless of where you are now," he said.

The short history of the Internet's spread holds clues to how it can continue to spread throughout the world, said Solveig Singleton, director of information policy at The Cato Institute. "The spin on these reports often is that the glass is half empty, but from my standpoint, it's amazing that anybody has this technology," Singleton said. "We need to look at how it's happened so far, and find ways to reproduce the progress we've made."

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