Communication, Information and Informatics Sector
World Communication and Information Report 1999-2000

Questions and Answers 

Why a World Communication and Information Report?

A large number of publications appear regularly on the new communication and information technologies. They are mainly concerned with technological developments per se and with their economic impact. The purpose of the World Communication and Information Report is different. First, it is an attempt to bring together the most relevant statistics on the development of information and communication technologies, on a worldwide basis. The reader can find data not only on the tremendous developments in the western world, (see in particular Part III Information and communication technologies throughout the world and the Statistical Annex) but also on the very different developments in each region of the world. Second, in conformity with UNESCO’s mandate, the Report pays particular attention to the impact of those developments on education, culture and the media, for instance, the potential of Internet in education, the problems of copyright and the development of multimedia materials for education, information and culture. Thirdly, some of the major issues related to those developments are also dealt with; for instance, issues of freedom of the media, censorship on the Internet, and the need for policy formulation at the national level are examined. Addressed to policy-makers, professionals, and the public at large, the Report is the only worldwide state of the art in its field.

Is the gap between information-rich and information-poor widening?

Yes. Definitely. The Report provides clear evidence in this respect, which is developed in various parts of the book. The issue can be summarized under three headings: technological, economical and cultural. The technological issue is dealt with in Chapter 12, A worldwide view, Chapter 13 Sub-Saharan Africa, and Chapter 15 Asia and the Pacific. These chapters show that whenever the basic telecommunication infrastructure is not sufficiently developed, it is unlikely that highly sophisticated services such as Internet can reach large segments of the population, for instance in rural areas. In other words, while it is clear that Internet is growing fast in all regions of the world, in many places, it will reach a very small minority in urban areas. The economic issue is developed in Chapter 1 Human development, which describes the economic significance of the development of the new information and communication technologies and the main actors. Basically, these are huge private conglomerates based in developed countries. The rest of the world plays mainly the role of a passive consumer, except for a few traditional technologies such consumer TV and Radio equipment (See Tables A2 to A6 in the Statistical Annex). The cultural issue is concerned with how people can use new information and communication technologies. One can distinguish two different types of literacy that are required: basic literacy: the ability to read and write, and ‘technological’ literacy: the ability to use information technologies in a useful way. Basic data on literacy are provided in the Statistical annex while technological literacy and the problem of access are discussed in Chapters 12 A worldwide view, 13 Sub-Saharan Africa and 15 Asia and the Pacific. The high level of illiteracy in many parts of the world and the inability to use information technologies in any meaningful way will prevent vast numbers of the world population from participating in the information revolution.

Should governments be involved in the development of information and communication technologies?

Yes. Government’s actions are discussed in many different places in the Report and three areas should be distinguished. Government’s action for infrastructure development, decisions on deregulation and privatisation and finally action related to content. Several countries of the western world took important initiatives in the mid-nineties, as described in Chapter 8 Governing information and communication technologies and in Chapter 18 Western Europe and North America, aiming at setting wide objectives for the development of Information highways. This was followed by many similar decisions in emerging and developing countries, which are described in Part III Information and communication technologies throughout the world, and more particularly in Chapter 13 Sub-Saharan Africa, Chapter 15 Asia and the Pacific and Chapter 17 Latin America and the Caribbean. The second area, deregulation and privatisation, is not examined per se in the Report, but the consequences of decisions taken in this area, more particularly in developing countries, are discussed in Chapters 13 Sub-Saharan Africa, 15 Asia and the Pacific and 17 Latin America and the Caribbean as well. Two general trends can be observed: privatisation leads to the lowering of prices in telecommunications; because of the competitive environment, the private sector invests where profit is more likely, that is, in urban areas where population concentration makes it easier to obtain rapid returns on investments. As far as content is concerned, the main issue is legal, and two distinct areas are covered. The first is related to illegal and harmful material which is available on the Internet: the problem is how to protect those who can be adversely affected by such content at the international level since most national legislations have clear provisions in this respect. The second issue relates to copyright and related rights in relation to new technologies. These areas are being studied on the international scene in order to take into account the needs of all the parties involved. Legal issues are developed mainly in Chapter 8 Governing information and communication technologies, but are also mentioned in Chapter 1 Human development.

How are traditional media such as the printed press, radio and television challenged by new information and communication technologies?

The impact of new information and communication technologies on traditional media has been much varied. Three aspects are emphasized in the Report: technological, economical and social. From a technological point of view, the use of computers and telecommunications is now common in all traditional media, including in many developing countries. More importantly, as discussed in Chapter 6 Impact on the media, the practice of journalism has taken new forms because of the new context set by technologies, namely a 24 hours cycle and the concept of breaking news. Table 6.1 provides a percentage of newspapers available in electronic forms in selected countries (Chapter 6 Impact on the media). From an economical point of view, the challenges are different for the public and for the private sector, as described in Chapters 5 Public service broadcasting and 6 Impact on the media. In the public sector, the new role of public service broadcasting requires large investments in order to be able to compete with the private sector, and governments are not always ready to accept such investments. In the private sector, the same news or cultural products are used several times under different media, leading often to information which lacks verification and originality. More importantly, the independence of journalists can be threatened by the corporate interest of large conglomerates (see Chapter 4 Freedom of the media). From a social point of view, Chapter 12 A worldwide view shows that new information technologies have not drastically changed the behavior of consumers in relation to traditional media (newspapers, radio, TV), of which the overall use seems constant over a 20 year period. The Internet explosion and other new technological developments such as the portable telephone and multimedia are taking place mainly in the developed world. They affect only a small minority in developing countries.

How many languages will be used on the web?

This matter is discussed mainly in Chapter 3 Cultural production and cultural pluralism, but other important elements are provided elsewhere (Chapter 2, Box 3.1, Part III, Statistical Annex). It is clear that at present, the English language holds a strong dominant position: in table 3.1, we can see that in 1997, 81 % of web pages were in English while the percentage of English speaking users was 57 % (data of 1998). However, the presence of other languages is growing fast on the net. For instance, as described in Chapter 13 Sub-Saharan Africa, the Agence Internationale de la Francophonie has contributed in a significant way to the use of the French language on the Internet in Africa. Chapter 2 New directions in education, which describes educational use of the Internet in all regions of the world, shows that electronic material are being developed in many different languages. The worry therefore seems to be no longer the dominance of English, but that of a small group of widely used languages such as English, French, Spanish, Arabic, Russian, Chinese, to the detriment of languages used by smaller groups, more particularly because, as explained in box 3.1, the development of electronic instruments for those languages raises many specific difficulties. However, one topic that does not appear in the Report, and may be discussed in further editions, is that one can have a completely different view of the situation if one compares it to the invention of printing. This technology was first used to make books in Latin for that very small portion of the population which was educated. But very rapidly, printing, as it became an effective and cheap device, made it possible to publish all sorts of material in the vernacular languages being used in Europe at the time. Later on, the availability of printing technology also contributed to the recording of minority languages, the preparation of dictionaries and grammars which helped not only to maintain those languages, but sometimes to revive them. In other words, technology is probably neutral in respect of language use, and the factors which will be determinant are probably of another nature, for instance sociological or political.