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DECEMBER 1 , 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 47 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK

Digital Divide
To bridge it, nations need to invest in basics

ALSO:
Monopolies
They prey even on Hong Kong's free economy

This year's meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Brunei was billed as the "information technology summit." The theme was the same when leaders of the G8 industrial nations met in Okinawa this past summer. All of which makes us wonder if something is truly at work here — or whether I.T. is just the flavor of the year at big-time international conferences. So far, not much has come out of all the talk about the topic. Japan announced it would earmark $15 billion to bridge the "digital divide" between rich and poor countries, though without specifying how the money would be spent. The manifesto issued at the end of last week's APEC meeting proposed a sweeping but vague goal of getting all citizens of the vast region plugged in by 2010.

Too bad the United States was not represented in Brunei by Bill Gates. He is more than just the boss of Microsoft; of late, he has become something like the president of global I.T. More to the point, Gates has had pertinent things to say about the growing digital gap. Speaking at a conference near his home in Seattle last month, Gates said it was ludicrous to think that billions of poor people are going to benefit from the technology revolution without advances in more mundane things such as education, health care and income levels. "I mean, do people have a clear view of what it means to live on $1 a day?" Gates asked. Though the world's richest man may not himself know what such poverty means, few can fault his sincerity or logic.

It fell to Bill Clinton to partly make Gates's case in his address to the APEC conference. At current rates of growth, noted the U.S. president, half the forum's countries will have just 4% of their populations online by 2005 (compared with 72% for the G8 economies). That would be a long way from APEC's stated goal of universal Internet access in Asia.

The forum has often been criticized as being too big and too diverse to be of any real value — other than to provide leaders of the 21 member nations with an annual opportunity to hobnob and take pictures together in the same national dress. In this instance, however, the diversity may have served a useful purpose. The leaders represent a microcosm of the digital divide (and a pretty big one at that, considering that their nations are home to two-thirds of the world's population). The countries range from well-wired Singapore, with half a million computers for 4 million people, to Papua New Guinea, where fewer than 1% of citizens can log on to the Web.

Across the region, the Internet revolution is triggering a revolution of rising expectations. It makes no sense to talk about putting a computer in every classroom, if there are places without classrooms. It is pointless to speak of connecting people to the Web without making more telephones available. That means investing more in education, health programs and old-economy infrastructure. Which brings the argument back to APEC itself and its reason for being: to promote free trade and open markets, boosting global prosperity. Besides advocating greater Internet access, the forum must continue to back "a fair and rules-based trading system" as well as China's entry into the World Trade Organization and a new round of WTO negotiations. The world cannot close the digital gap without focusing on all the issues that divide rich nations from poor ones.

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