Updated: Feb 10, 2020
Main points on this post:
Radio frequencies freely used to counterinformation in the past;
States blocking internet proxies as a means of control;
Global solutions to internet wireless connectivity promoting inclusion.
Council of Europe, 2017
During the Cold War, the Allies (USA, England, etc) had the support of the radio to spread their ideas and influence on the communist world. The radio waves encountered no barriers to be tuned in any device, independently of borders. At that time, the population had access to information and, even with some limitations, they could choose whether it was worth listening or not.
“The populations of these territories [Baltic and Black Sea region] still in the 1950s lived in the hope of possible British or American intervention. Western radios - especially Radio Liberty - promoted these hopes.” — Histoire de l'Europe de l'Est: de la Seconde Guerre Mondiale à nos jours. Soulet, Jean-François. (unofficial translation)
Now let's jump to 2019. The Internet allows billions of people to communicate and to create content. However, there is a huge gap regarding freedom of expression. Unlike the radio waves, Governments may choose to block proxies and to limit access to the internet and open information. The most famous example is China, which citizens cannot have access to Google, Whatsapp and counterinformation.
On the one hand, radio limits the number of people that may create content but allows spreading information with less authoritarian barriers. On the other hand, the internet allows every person to be a content creator, but States may easily limit access to critical content so far. Currently, the “freedom gap” is based on how the internet was technically created as it is cable dependant.
May the solution come from the private sector?
The idea of creating global access to wireless internet may appear inconceivable, but it is not new. In reality, some important players are launching this technology at scale in some regions. There is an interesting case in humanitarian action after the hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, knocking out most of its connectivity.
In 2013, Google announced that it would take the internet to less developed countries through giant balloons. Then in 2015, Facebook in a partnership with several companies, including Qualcomm, Nokia and Samsung, tried to implement a similar project. Now, Microsoft announced at a UK finance conference that it intends to extend Internet access to 40 million people by July 2022. The focus will be on poorly connected or poorly-served populations located primarily in America, Latin America and also in sub-Saharan Africa.
There are several challenges on the way to global wireless access to the internet and to universal access to information as well. However, there is a new paradigm ahead that may change the way we communicate.