For centuries access to the world’s information – and the ability to communicate it – was controlled by the wealthy and the well educated. Today the internet has broken down many of the barriers that exist between people and information: effectively democratising access to human knowledge.
By typing just a few key words into a computer it is possible to find out about almost any subject. In a matter of minutes anyone can compare prices, products and policies. Not surprisingly people are using that power to buy better value goods and services, to hold others to account and, above all, to express themselves.
The democratisation of information has empowered us all as individuals. We no longer have to take what business, the media or indeed politicians say at face value. Where once people waited to be told what the news was, they can now decide what news matters to them, and increasing numbers are actually commenting on events themselves – creating blogs every second of every day.
It is the first rule of the internet: people have a lot to say. They no longer want to be passive recipients of information. People want control over their media – not to be controlled by it.
The internet’s critics question whether it is good for us to have access to so much information, or for users to be able to generate their own content so easily when a lot of it is of dubious quality. These are legitimate concerns.
But people in general are extremely adept at telling the difference between products that are good or bad – or information that is right or wrong. Indeed it is the liberation of end users that has made the internet the success it is today.
The extent of human ingenuity was brought home to me recently when I discovered that about one-quarter of all searches carried out on Google are new. This astonishing statistic demonstrates that far from “dumbing down” our intelligence, as some claim, the internet is feeding people’s curiosity – encouraging them to ask new questions and to expand the boundaries of their knowledge.
The more we have access to information the more we will use it. Today there are more than a billion people online – all connecting, communicating and sharing information. But that is still less than one-fifth of the world’s population and most of those people live in developed countries.
Over time digitisation will make it possible for people throughout the developing world to access the same information that is available to us in the west.
A schoolchild in Africa will be able, for example, to find research papers from around the world or to see ancient manuscripts from a library in Oxford. Yet the digital divide currently prevents that happening. Developed countries have nearly 10 times the internet penetration rates of the developing world.
Throughout the developing world fixed-line telephones are available only to the wealthy few in urban areas. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, less than 1 per cent of households have a landline. Even if every home had a high-speed broadband connection a lot of families in the world could never afford a personal computer, which costs many times their average annual income.
It is for this reason, I believe, that internet access via mobile telephony will have such an important part to play in helping close the knowledge divide between rich and poor.
Mobile phones are cheaper than PCs, there are three times more of them, growing at twice the speed, and they increasingly have internet access. What is more, the World Bank estimates that more than two-thirds of the world’s population lives within range of a mobile phone network. Mobile is going to be the next big internet phenomenon. It holds the key to greater access for everyone – with all the benefits that entails.
In just a few years the internet
has moved from the periphery to the centre of our lives. We have not seen such a life-changing communications technology since the invention of television. As a result it is often easy
to forget that the world wide web
is still in its infancy: today just 10 per cent of the world’s information is
available online. Like any child, the internet is pushing at the perimeters of established systems – business models from the last century, traditional media, long-accepted notions of national jurisdiction, even old concepts of control.
This is a challenge for everyone. Some of the “pushed”, most likely governments with the power to regulate and legislate, will inevitably feel the need to push back. But rather than focus on how to control the web, legislators should concentrate on how to give internet access to more people in more countries.
The prize is a world in which every human being starts life with the same access to information, the same opportunities to learn and the same power to communicate. I believe that is worth fighting for.
The writer is chief executive of Google
Get alerts on Africa when a new story is published