The Internet in Transition Countries

While the countries in transition are far from homogeneous, there are a few commonalities in their prior Internet experience:

1. Invasion of the Internet

The Internet penetration rate in transition countries varies by country – but remains extremely low even by European standards, let alone American ones. This is due to a lack of infrastructure, prohibitively high service costs, a predatory pricing structure, computer illiteracy, and luddism (computer phobia).

Societies in transition are immobile (and the majority of them are conservative or traditionalist) as a result of years of central mismanagement. Many people view the Internet (and computers) as a threat – primarily because they are part of a technological revolution that is displacing people.

2. The Rumour Factory

All forms of instant messaging – most notably earlier versions of IRC – were instrumental in fostering social cohesion and facilitating the exchange of uncensored information. As was the case in other parts of the world, communication began with the Internet: IRC, MIRC e-mail and e-mail fora, and SMS (short message services on mobile phones and other portable devices) were – and continue to be – all the rage.

The IRC was (and continues to be) primarily used for the exchange of political views and news, as well as inter-personal interactions. The media in transitional countries is notoriously unreliable. Decades of official indoctrination and propaganda have trained people to read between the (real or fictitious) lines. Rumours and gossip have always taken the place of news, and the Internet was ideally suited to serve as a primary channel for the dissemination of conspiracy theories, malicious libel, hearsay, and eyewitness accounts.

Instant messaging services also resulted in an increase in the quantity (though not necessarily the quality) of user interactions – from dating to service provision, the Internet was enthusiastically adopted by a generation of alienated youth, isolated from the world by official doctrine and from one another by political regime-induced paranoia.

The Internet introduced its users to the west, to alternative modes of existence that place a premium on trust and collaboration. It multiplies the amount of interaction between them. It cultivated a sense of self-worth and community. The Internet is not widespread in transition countries, and thus has a very limited impact. It had no discernible impact on the way governments in this region operate. Even in the United States, it is only now beginning to influence and be integrated into political processes (for instance, through blogs).

The Internet facilitated entrepreneurship and social mobility aspirations. Similarly to mobile telephony, which enabled developing countries to avoid massive investments in obsolete technologies, the Internet was viewed as a shortcut to prosperity. It attracted the young and creative due to its decentralized distribution channels, global penetration, “rags to riches” ethos, and dizzying rate of innovation.

Many chose to pursue careers as software developers, establishing a local version of “Silicon Valley” or India’s thriving software industry. Russia developed anti-virus software, former Yugoslavia developed web design services, and the Czech Republic developed e-media. However, this is a privilege reserved for a minuscule segment of society. For example, e-commerce is a long way off (though m-commerce might appear sooner in countries like the Czech Republic or the Baltic).

E-commerce is the logical end result of a process. You will need a robust computer infrastructure, a functional telecommunications network, affordable Internet access, computer literacy, an inability to delay gratification, a consumerist philosophy, and, finally, a modicum of trust between the economy’s players.

All of the above are lacking in transitional countries. The majority of them are unaware of the Internet’s existence or the benefits it can provide. The penetration rate, the number of computers per household, the number of phone lines per household, the reliability of the telecommunications infrastructure, and the number of Internet users at home (and at work) are all appallingly low.

On the other hand, the cost of internet access remains prohibitively expensive. It would be a gross exaggeration to refer to the emerging Internet enterprises in transition countries as “industries.” There are a few isolated instances of success, but that is it. They arose in response to local demand, occasionally expanded internationally, and remained largely confined to their immediate vicinity. There was no agreement between countries and entrepreneurs regarding which projects would be developed. It was completely random.

3. The Equalizer of Nations

The citizens of transition countries quickly recognized the Net’s “great equalizer” effects. They used it to express their frustrations and aggression, to wage cyberwar, to ignite an explosion of visual creativity, and to engage in deconstructive discourse.

By “great equalizer,” I meant “equalizer” with the developed, wealthy countries. See the article I referenced previously. The citizens of transition countries are frustrated by their inability to catch up to the West’s affluence and prosperity. They perceive themselves to be inferior, overlooked, looked down upon, dictated to, and, in general, belittled.

The Internet is viewed as a means of reestablishing equilibrium. Except, of course, that it cannot. It is still primarily a medium for the wealthy. Former US President Bill Clinton highlighted the Digital Divide within America – a divide that exists to a much greater extent and with more venomous consequences between developed and developing countries. The Internet has done nothing to close this divide – on the contrary, it has increased the productivity and economic growth of rich countries (primarily the United States) while leaving the have-nots in the dust.

4. Intellectual Property Protection

Intellectual property, which was initially alien to the global Internet culture, became a symbol of Western hegemony and monopolistic practices. Violations of copyright, software piracy, and hacking became status symbols as well as a form of political declaration. However, the rapid dissemination of programs and information (for example, illicit copies of reference works) acted as a leveler.

Piracy is quite prevalent in transitional countries. Transitional economies are the second capital of piracy (after Asia). Software, films, and even books are freely and openly copied and distributed. While street vendors sell counterfeit goods, the majority of them are sold through retailers and OEMs.

Intellectual property, I believe, will follow the pharmaceutical industry’s lead: rather than fighting windmills, intellectual property owners and distributors will embrace the trend. They are likely to form partnerships with sponsors who will subsidize the cost of intellectual property in order to make it affordable to residents of developing countries. Sponsors could be multilateral institutions (such as the World Bank) or charitable organizations and individuals.