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Access to Information

1. Digital Divide

¡á What is Digital Divide

People say that the life has become more convenient as the use of information technology grows. As the use of computers has become common, various contents are available on the net and it becomes possible to conduct commercial activities electronically, the Internet has become a part of everyday routine life.
However, it only applies to people who are fortunate enough to have an education to learn how to use the computer and the Internet, and can afford to buy contents. For television, anyone can benefit from broadcasting services by performing a few simple activities such as turning on the TV and pressing the remote controller. On the other hand, unlike the newspapers and TV, you need to be competent in using computers and pay a relatively high fee in order to use the Internet. Furthermore, you need to pay a fixed fee every time you want to make a connection to the Internet, type the website address you want to visit in English and able to find the information you want. In addition, some types of contents such as movies and educational resources require you to pay another price for using them.
Consequently, in order to get benefits from the Information society, you require to have more knowledge and money, which leads to the ¡®Digital Divide¡¯. The Digital Divide can be best described by the disparity in access and use of information caused by inability to access computers and the Internet due to economic reasons, educational background, disability, age and regions.

Access to and the ability to effectively use information and communications technologies (ICTs) to obtain accurate, sufficient and timely information and services are becoming increasingly important to fully participate in Information Society. Hence, the problem regarding ¡®Digital Divide¡¯ is not a simple division between information ¡°haves and have-nots¡±. As a matter of fact, there were no eras or societies where everyone could get the same access or usage of information. Information gap, in terms of ownership of information and the degree of usage, or the knowledge gaps always exist. However, as the importance of information increases in most activities in society including production, the Digital Divide has become known as a key factor that creates an inequality in our society.  
Digital Divide caused by social inequality would lead to unfairness in obtaining opportunity, then leads to a vicious circle by expansion of social inequality.

¡á Legislative and political power limiting the access to information

Even before the industrial society developed, limiting the access to knowledge and information was an important control strategy of controlling parties. In fact, the use of printing technology that is called as one of the significant historical inventions was prevent from use or allowed only to privileged groups because it was believed to help spreading harmful or politically prevented attitudes. The difference is that this practice was conducted by a humane mean such as King¡¯s command under the mask of God¡¯s order while it is justified by a non-humane mean such as laws in modern society.

The recent conducts of Government such as preventing access for a certain websites for the purpose of sustaining its political system as well as not releasing information maintained by the government to public can be seen as limiting the people¡¯s right to access to information. Not releasing information obtained while conducting government activities to people who are the sovereign of the country without any justifying reasons or corporations withholding information that may have a significant impact on workers or consumers by claiming that it is an ¡®operational confidentiality¡¯ are the intervention of people¡¯s right to know and unreasonable access restriction on information.

Although restricting access to information by legislative means or political power have reduced or removed as a result of the continuous efforts of people and workers, the restriction has been strengthened currently by ¡®invisible hands¡¯ instead of descriptive restriction. They are restrictions to access posed by economical logic and market logic.         

¡á Economic causes of Information inequality

By virtue of the fast growing ICTs, people can enjoy high quality and various services that could not even be expected in the past. However, at the same time, the cost of enjoyment is also increasing. Therefore, people who cannot afford to pay for these advanced ICTs on their salaries cannot help but being excluded from the benefits of new technologies.

Moreover, current privatization of ICT industries and the introduction of competitive system have deepened the information inequality. Entrants to the competitive market focus their investments on areas where they can minimize their costs while maximize the profit such as long distance call services or urban area services. Consequently, other areas gets overlooked or under-invested and this leads to decrease in service quality or increase in price. In fact, a number of statistical findings demonstrate that the difference between high-income households and those of low regarding the rate of network usages has been increasing. This proves that the current introduction of competitive system and privatizations in ICTs market are not capable of reducing the information inequality.

As discussed above, there is a high possibility that low-income households can become changes by being excluded by ICTs services due to economic reasons.

¡á Social and cultural causes of Information inequality

Some people argue that the information inequality problems is not a matter of being wealthy or not. It means that even if you are wealthy enough to get access to the ICTs, if you do not have the ¡®information competence¡¯ then you cannot help but being behind in the information society. In the other side of this argument, there is an ideology arguing that if you have the ¡®information competence¡¯, you can stay in the better status in the information society. As a matter of fact, a number of social and cultural factors affect the information inequality. Factors such as individuals¡¯ educational level and gender difference take a major part. However, these factors are not exclusive. These social and cultural factors have close relationships with economic factors discussed before.
a. Education

First of all, there are the digital divide issues in relation to educational levels. People with low educational background generally earn less income, thus get restrictions regarding the access to information. However, the problem cannot be resolved by a mere increase in income level. This is due to the fact that many people tend to hesitate in accessing information because the contents are difficult to understand or it is too cumbersome to get the access to the information. Furthermore, where public educational organisations such as schools do not properly offer educations in relation to computers, educations necessary for ICTs are conducted through private educational organisations. Therefore, people who do not have time or money to get the educations would lose the opportunity for learning and training and get left in the bottom level of the information inequality system

In addition to this, language barriers become a restricting factor to the access to information. This is due to the fact that the Internet is the real ¡®global¡¯ network only to those who are competent in foreign languages.
b. Gender

Next, there is a digital divide issue regarding the gender difference. A number of information sociologists have argued that women¡¯s participation and power would be increased as post-industrial society and the world trend gets changed from the period of physical labor with masculine characteristic to the period of intellectual labor with feminine characteristic. However, a number of statistical findings demonstrate that women have the less degree of access to ICTs services compare to men.  

According to the research findings of woman's organization, first of all, women are in a relatively difficult situation for accessing the computers or networks compared to men. Most men work for jobs that allow affordable and convenient access to computers and networks while many women stay at home for housework, which results in the decrease in women¡¯s degree of access to such services.  Second, a socially accepted view has prevented women from enjoying opportunity to get familiar with computers and networks. The socially accepted view that emphasizes on teaching boys technology and teaching girls something more ¡®feminine¡¯ has been profoundly settled in parents view. Third, due to the inequality in education, the information and networks are male-centrally designed and composed and women find it unfamiliar. In the cyberspace where there is a crowd of male users, women even often get sexually harassed like in the ¡®real space.¡¯ If a user is considered a female, male users often make sexually embarrassing jokes or hostile comments that leads to deepen the tendency of women¡¯s avoiding online activities.

Another important cause of this problem is that generally women are in inferior status to that of men. In fact, in America, even if the 94% of the total population has the access to the telephone service, it is relatively low for single mothers compared to that of males and it is only 50% when considering the poor. The more important issue to consider is that this low access rate would result in hardening the existing gender discriminating social system. Single females who do not have telephone access have low contact rates with close relatives and feel uncomfortable with traveling a long distance for work if they have children. As a result, they could get isolated from families and job opportunities and thus could not get out of the socially weak position.

c. Disability

Development of ICTs received a lot of attention and expectation that it would be used to assist disabled people by allowing them to work at home, access electronic libraries and remote access services and use e-commerce services for purchasing  the necessaries. However, their disabilities have created difficulties in accessing such information or ICTs services.

Consider the situation where a lame person wants to use electronic libraries. If he/she does not have a computer or the Internet access at home, he/she has to travel to public access points. This makes no difference to normal libraries, which require disabled people to inconveniently travel to get to.
In case of vision-impaired people, they have great difficulty in using the commonly used GUI (Graphical User Interface) style web browsers. Therefore, unless voice-activated electronic library or screen narration services for these people are developed, it may not be viable for them to enjoy the full benefits of ICTs.
d. Age, Race, Nationality

There are many factors that restrict the access to the information and network and deepen the inequality other than educational levels and gender difference. Minor groups such as kids, elderly people, people of color and migrant workers are socially disadvantaged groups in the real life as well as in the cyberspace.
The situation where these people have little opportunity to get access to information deepens the isolation by resulting in the disparity of perception. In 1995, an American anthropologist, Batteau found an interesting fact while he was conducting a case study targeting a southern Chicago area where a population of 41,000 people (62% consists of the black, 32% Latin American mixed blood and only 7% consists of the white). First, he found that most people in that area considered the use of computers as something for the while people. They believe that they could not use computers due to their low educational background. However, paradoxically, they (most of them are

 low income earners) have been spending average $170 per month for getting information through means other than using computers. Apparently, although they knew the needs for information, they were not familiar with computers and network that could have satisfied their needs more economically. And this ¡®unfamiliarity¡¯ have resided deeply into their perception and prevented them from accessing ICTs services.

2. Universal Service

¡á Origin of the Universal Service

As an approach to prevent this inequality regarding the access to information or network from causing another significant social conflicts, many countries have been preparing ways to deal with this problem. The most well known strategy for reducing the impact of information inequality is the ¡®Universal Service¡¯ policy.  

Originally, the ¡®Universal Service¡¯ was one of the governmental policy aims or means targeting the communication industries in America, which was organized and led by the market and corporations. This concept was first understood in early 1990s, when the American telecommunication industry was controlled by regions by a number of independent telecommunication companies such as AT&T. However, AT&T started to expand their business by acquiring all sorts of patents and trade licenses, and independent telecommunication companies had to exit the market one after another. As it became an issue that AT&T was trying to monopolizing the telecommunication market, Theodore Vail, who was the directing manager of AT&T, promoted a slogan, ¡°One Policy, One System, Universal Service¡±, in order to justifying their effort to own telecommunication services throughout the country. ¡®One Policy¡¯ meant that to apply and sustain the same policy in terms of fees and services, and ¡®One System¡¯ meant that to sustain

 the compatibility of the system in order to allow all service subscribers to connect to each other. This played a role of dominating the market over their competitors by clearly demonstrating AT&T¡¯s own strength as well as reducing the inconvenience of telephone connections caused by different companies managing different areas independently.      

Later, in 1934, after The Federal Communication Act had been launched, the Universal Service policy became a part of the important public policy among telecommunication policies in America. In other words, the government let AT&T monopolize the telecommunication services while imposing the responsibility of offering the Universal Service that allows users ¡°to easily access the ¡®basic¡¯ telecommunication services in wide area at an affordable price¡± in order to prevent the increase in prices or service inequality, which might be caused by the monopolization. AT&T implemented the internal cross-subsidy strategy to balance the profit differences between local call sector, which was making loss, and long distance call sector, which was making profit, and successfully fulfill this requirement. As a result, the ¡®Universal Service¡¯ policy was utilized to minimize the cases of service rejection or deficiency in quality towards socially weak groups in telecommunication market that was controlled by

a monopoly company. Soon after, this policy was widely adopted as an important ground rule and management principle by other countries¡¯ communication policies as well as other communication services policies.    

OECD defines the Universal Service as follows
(1) To be able to access telephone services at anywhere throughout the country
(2) Anyone should be able to access the telephone service at affordable price
(3) To be able to access good quality service
(4) There should not be disparity in fees charged

¡á Information Super-highway and Universal Service

The introduction of the ¡®Information Super-highway has brought changes in the principle of the Universal Service.
First, the existing implementation strategy for the Universal Service which a large monopoly corporation such as AT&T balance the profit structure by internal cross-subsidy between different business sectors becomes unfeasible in situations where a number of companies participate in the market competitively. Therefore, it becomes a problem how to supply financial funds if the Universal Service policy remains the same. Another change is that it becomes ambiguous to decide the boundary of the ¡®basic services¡¯ that was the basis of the Universal Service as a various information communication services become available by virtue of technology advancements. In the past, voice telephone service was the fundamental tool needed by all American citizens to participate in a social communication process. However, there is a numerous services available in nowadays such as all sorts of supplementary services, video conferencing services, the Internet services and so on, hence it becomes difficult to decide what and how much should be included as an Universal Service sector to be enjoyed by all people without any inequality. As a result, this again draws the attention to the issue of how to implement a policy to exercise a proper care for socially weak groups in the situation where a number of information communication companies participate in the market competition with a various types of services.    

In Switzerland, ¡®Computer for all¡¯ policy is well known as an effort to reduce the digital divide. When an employer provides computers to his/her employees, tax benefits can be claimed, and although it is a over-incomes for workers, no tax is charged for this income. In America, the government enforced the public facilities such as schools, libraries and hospitals to provide information communication services for regional, island and isolated areas where these services are not properly supplied. Currently, it becomes an important issue for the Universal Service requirements to offer information and support minor non-English spoken people in America.

However, there are voices raised to argue that there is no need for the government interventions to implement these public policies. The reason is that the resources such as information, network and frequency categorized as a ¡®public resources¡¯ public goods due to their scarce nature are now sufficient enough for everyone to use. This can be considered to be on the line of neo-liberalistic idea that requires the minimization of the government intervention to market.
¡á Limitations of ¡®Universal Service¡¯

Yet, it is still questionable whether the Universal Service by public policy can be achieved by the market principle. Application of the market principle means the expansion of competition, and this inevitably leads to the situation where service sectors become more concentrated to areas where higher profits can be produced. This problem has already been seen in air transportation industry where privatization started relatively early as well as communication industry.

Here, we need to consider the criticisms made towards the concept of the ¡®Universal Service.¡¯ The Universal Service provided in America can be seen as an effort to protect the public interests by preventing the own decision-makings and tyranny of the monopoly company in the communication industry system at that time, where a company monopolized the telephone service business throughout the country. However, it was argued that it was only a tool to calm down the possible complaints of people regarding the inevitable bad effect on society resulted from the monopolization. It means that low and affordable price is not the only matter. Development and advancement of technology and services are real issues to be considered in order to construct a system where all people in the society can equally enjoy the benefits.   

Another fact to point out is that the Universal Service has become a policy reflecting interests of corporations. Network is generally value adding when a certain number of people use the system. Hence, it becomes a vital issue for new companies how to get this number of people at low cost and in short time. Consequently, the policy enforcing companies to provide services to many people under the name of the Universal Service has been a good strategy for companies for exploring the market in early stage using tax paid by citizens. Due to this reason, the information super-highway policy that many countries are strongly supporting can be explained as a way to relieve the financial burden in relation to the large amount of the initial burying costs that a company has to invest to enter the market. Therefore, the establishment of a concept beyond that of Universal Service is necessary to exercise the right of universal access in the information society.

3. Public access

Article 19 of Universal Declaration of Human Rights says, ¡°Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.¡± It means that rights to receive information including freedom of expression and thoughts is one of the most important human rights.

The problem regarding the universal service is not just a ¡®economic¡¯ policy problem since it relates to the issue of inequality. It is a political and social issue. Therefore, it is necessary to focus on the concept of ¡®public access¡¯ as an advanced idea over the universal service.

This seems to be an effort to overcome limitations of disputes of the Universal services ? returning to economic issues such as how to spread the cost or the technology-centered views that development of technology would resolve the conflict. Also, it is different from the existing awareness of the Universal Services since it regards the public as ¡®information provider¡¯ and ¡®active player¡¯ at the same time instead of considering the public as ¡®consumers¡¯ who passively accepts the ICTs services. Furthermore, it promotes changes in technology or the system itself as well as the policy supporting this perspective regarding the public.

¡á Introduction of Public Access

Recently, claimable rights such as act to open information have been established as regulations in order to protect people¡¯s right to know. Likely, it is essential to establish economic and technological environments as well as legislative system to allow unlimited access to information in information society. In order to construct an environment where everyone can easily get access to information they need, securing the access pints and various information source, and sustaining the compatibility of information are required. Therefore, the expansion of the concept of ¡®right to know¡¯ would include the right to access the network which is the base of information communications as well as the right to access information.

The access channel is the political awareness of these issues. In the past, broadcasting services were considered as public goods due to the scarcity of frequency resources, but gradual commercialization resulted in a public announcement of media¡¯s monopolization of the scarce frequency. As a result, the broadcasting service has become a tool for profit making of monopoly large corporations rather than become a representative of public interest to meet the needs of the public. Recently, as a various types of media and channels become available via the introduction of cable TV, satellite TV and the Internet broadcasting services, efforts to actively participate in the media from the mere receivers of the services. Particularly, in some countries, there are many activities and efforts conducted to protect the public interest against commercialized mass broadcasting services via establishment of public access channels such as public channels or open channels.

¡á Tasks for protecting the right of public access

First of all, the issue of the right to access is not a matter of ICTs policy. This is because the fact that regardless of whether it is information or network, everything seems to move towards privatization and commercialization in neo-liberalism trend. This would adversely impact on the perspective of the information and network as a public good, and the possibility to protect again this effect seems relatively small. Therefore, access to information and network would become a matter of continuous challenge.

Also the issue of the right to access is not a matter of ¡®use¡¯. It is a matter of ¡®right¡¯, ¡®ownership¡¯ and ¡®participation.¡¯ This is not a privilege given by the government or companies. This is a universal right that are naturally entitled to people in democratic societies. What is the more important than how well the given information and network can be utilized is whose information and network is and for whom they exist. Thus, it is the matter of ownership and participation.

And the issue of the right to access is not only a matter of prices. Affordable price is the essential requirement for protecting the right to access, but itself is not sufficient to fulfill the whole requirements. The issue is the system that protects the right to access. The right to access movement would be the effort to make it possible for the society to have a system which supports educational system that are not burdened to individuals but responsible for the society, network system that are not the tool for producing profits but for facilitating social communication which fulfils the original role, and information that are not created as arms for competing but accumulated by public knowledge.  

After all, the issue of right to access is not limited to physical network problems. Of course, it is very important to approach the universal design that enables the universal access from technology and networks. However, on its own, it only means a right to access for form¡¯s sake. The fundamental principle of the protection of the right to access is to secure both this design and supply for public use. Consequently, if information and network are not viewed as something that works together, the protection of the right to access would always be insufficient.     


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