In Minotaur, the collective voice of Internet enthusiasts is countered by words of scepticism or caution. In this issue, Mike Holderness gives a few worrying examples of how much people outside the western hemisphere are behind us in terms of on-line resources.

I live in a small housing co-operative in East London. We have more access to electronic information than does the entire Indian university system. Between 15 of us, we have 72 kilobits per second of network connectivity, with more coming soon. The link between the Indian academic network ERNET [1] and the rest of the universe is 64kbps; some of the institutions on ERNET make do with 9600bps.

Say it out loud: "Fifteen people in London have more bandwidth than the entire population of India" (I exclude, of course, multinational corporations which can put their $100,000 satellite terminals anywhere they want.)

I could go on at much greater length about information poverty. But I already have, more than once. And let's not get this entirely out of perspective. The electronic information revolution is going to take a while to reach the whole world. Heck, the mashed-up-tree information revolution has only barely reached the majority of the world's population.

Right now, I want to grouse about the things people do to make it all worse. Of course, they're not doing it deliberately. Anti-Paranoic Rule One - if it walks like a conspiracy and talks like a conspiracy, it's probably the Invisible Hand at work.

But one does, still, wonder in the case of the Microsoft Network (MSN). The other day I was trying to look up where fellow freelance journalists' work was being re-used without their permission. I hit the MSN music site, and a virtual brick wall. 'This is a Microsoft Internet Explorer site. Click here to download MSIE3.' Stop. End. I tried to cheat my way round this hidden toll-booth on the information superdirt-track, and so far I've failed.

MSIE3 is 'free' to download from the Net (doing so with a fast domestic modem takes three or four hours). It is also a computer program which requires an absolute minimum of £1000-worth of computer equipment to run.

How much is £1000? Well, in January I had £1500-worth of portable computer stolen in India. Naturally, people wanted to know how much it had cost. I begged some paper, borrowed a pencil, figured out which was the business end, and did some long division by hand. "It cost," I blushed, "the entire annual income of 3.3 schoolteachers. [ed - earlier versions of this article stated 75, not 3.3 - the article author is now retaking GCSE Maths :-] "

I can still see them, crowding the room, correcting my arithmetic.

Meanwhile, a colleague in Yorkshire was, last I heard, browsing the Web on one of those neat Tandy portables which the newspapers used to lend to their correspondents. Runs off A-cell batteries, 300-bit- per-second built-in modem, still working after a decade.

Microsoft is not the only force hindering him, and the entire population of India, from getting to many of the 68 million pages which the Web-indexer Lycos [2] had found by mid-November of last year. Lycos' more powerful competitor is another offender. To you and me, Lycos looks colourful and packed with tedious, slow-to-download adverts - and AltaVista [3] looks cool and businesslike. But if you access them with the text-only Web browser Lynx, Lycos loads quickly and your cursor is one hop away from the search dialogue, whereas AltaVista dumps you in a forest of links to other things you might want to look at later.

And Lynx is the most interactive use of the Web that most people around the world (where what phone lines there are barely support 2400 bit-second connections) can dream of.

It's not hard to make a Web page which has quite a rich layout in a graphical browser and also works in Lynx, to reach the people who are hungry for information. I am quite proud of my Internet for Journalists page [4]. Try it!

But I have yet another gripe. Those 68 million pages represent a decreasing proportion of the information which is actually available. The rest is hidden behind log-ins and database interfaces which deliberately return garbage URLs - as publishers hedge their bets over subscription-based access control. Only when there is a clear framework for pay-per-read, with a 'Public Reading Right' for access through libraries, and fair recompense for us authors, can the Web fulfil its potential as an information source that is global in both senses.

Responses to this article

Reply received Wednesday, 12th February 1997:

Your article reminds me of some work I did for a Commonwealth IT group. From the group I learnt that, although universities in Zimbabwe had access to the Web, they had to pay for their connection time. They were willing to pay for the useful information, but didn't want to use their budget for accessing logos and gratuitous graphics. I also learnt that the telephone company in many developing companies is often owned by a multinational company such as AT&T - so accessing the University home page with its ornate logo and photo and sound clip of the VC results in hard currency moving from the developing country to a multinational!

You may be interested that a goal of the W3C is universal access to resources. W3C have prepared a briefing paper on their work on access for people with disabilities. See http://www.w3.org/pub/WWW/Disabilities/ for further information.

Brian Kelly
UK Web Focus Officer


[1] ERNET Web Site:
< http://www.doe.ernet.in/ >

[2] Lycos Search Engine:
< http://query3.lycos.cs.cmu.edu/ >

[3] AltaVista Search Engine
< http://www.altavista.digital.com/ >

[4] Mike Holderness Journalist pages
< http://www.poptel.org.uk/nuj/mike/lecture.htm >

Author Details

Mike Holderness is a freelance journalist
Email: mch@cix.compulink.co.uk

Date published: 
Sunday, 19 January 1997
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