31 JULY 2002

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ICTs – the 21st century’s social equalisers

Justice and Local Councils Minister Dr Austin Gatt addresses the International Comnet-IT Workshop during which he tackles the subject of information poverty and the digital divide. ICTs, according to Dr Gatt, are the social equalisers of the 21st century society – holding the power to bridge time-honoured economic, social, political and democratic gaps, unthinkable by traditional ways and means. But to do this, Dr Gatt is adamant, we require a no nonsense pragmatic strategy backed by a strong political backing and support


The year 1989 dawned before us just like every other previous one. Certainly, few of us here would have predicted that, that year, the world would be witnessing two great developments of immense historical significance.

One of the developments was promptly recognised and largely celebrated – the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, which symbolised the beginning of the end of communism and ignited the flame of democracy which in turn lighted the beacon of political freedom in the eastern part of the European continent.

The other development was much more silent and covert. It was unintentionally confined to the walls of a handful of computer laboratories in North America and Western Europe. Nevertheless, this development had an equally strong impact on the way we were to work, play, learn and communicate in the years to follow. A development which for the first time in history has silently brought down geographical and political boundaries and dispelled long-standing barriers fuelled by differences in race, colour and creed.

As you may have clearly understood, this development was the invention of the World Wide Web by Tim Bernes Lee of CERN in Geneva. The graphical browsers that came after served as the popularisation vehicle which have contributed to the annual doubling of the online community – a community of 540 million, which literally grows as we speak.

Nevertheless, this figure represents less than 10% of the global population. And this leads me to ask the inevitable question: What will be the impact of information and communication technologies on the poorer nations and on the less-privileged segments at the peripheries of our societies?

The digital divide and the information poverty is not a political cliché for which we have a license to stretch, fix and match according to the prevailing political environment. This modern phenomenon is a very serious issue with a multitude of national, international and global dimensions – from social to democratic; from economic to political.

In my views it is matter to which, all conscious Governments should give their undivided attention within a radical framework of positive practical action. Invariably, this is the way in which the Government which I form part of is treating this sensitive matter and in my address today, I would like to share with you the cornerstones of my Ministry’s policy in its endeavours to radically eradicate the digital divide in our society.

By nature, the digital divide is a vast matter that calls for a wide range of programmes and initiatives. In view of this multidimensional characteristic, we decided to build our action streams on a strong framework moulded on the basis of three basic pillars:

The first pillar dates back to the first edition of this Government, when the new administration led by Prime Minister Fenech Adami, with vision, decided to turn its back on the previous administration’s technology-hostile attitude and discarded the obsolete telecoms network and go for a clear line of action – Digital connectivity for everyone. Today the statistics speak for themselves. Each household has a digital landline; ADSL services are practically available from one end to the other of both islands; 95% of the territory is covered by fibre optic cable; two out of every three citizens own a mobile telephone and 31% of the population with regular access to the Internet.

The second pillar revolves around the attainment of synergies between all players in the information society and economy. An inherent characteristic of public policy in many countries is the persistent duplication of efforts and overlapping of initiatives. Malta was no exception. A key success factor in the success registered by this Government was the set up of the eMalta Commission.

The Commission, which was set up by Government to be the driver of all information society related initiatives, succeeded in bringing together a record number of public and private entities to uncover the common ground that exists amongst them and to converge their resources into one strong synergy, pulling the rope in the same direction.

We have brought together all the Internet Service Providers to come up with proposals on how together we can proliferate Internet take up in households; we have succeeded in bringing all Local Councils in one forum to discuss the role of Local Councils in the engendering of the information society; we have brought telecoms players around one table to see the big picture; we have converged in one forum the ICT-education institutions and the ICT-industry; together with the regulator we have brought together all the key players involved in the making of the information economy and we have also succeeded in bringing all the relevant public and private stakeholders to join forces in addressing the phenomenon of child abuse over the Internet.

The third and last pillar was of a more silent nature and probably is the most challenging of all the others. I am referring to the need to inculcate the appreciation and the demand for the information society on a national scale.

Our aim is to drive the public sector, citizens and businesses to fit in an ICT-engagement model, which will enable us to reach the much-desired critical mass in our web-browsing and ICT-literate population. This, we are addressing through a continuous public consultative mechanism and a state-of-the-art communications campaign aimed at demonstrating to each sector of society what’s in it for them.

The solid framework provided by these sine-qua-non pillars positioned us in a favourable stance to come up with a suite of focused initiatives targeted at addressing the deepest roots of the digital divide in our country. This we are undertaking in four inter-related policy streams.

The first policy stream aims at ensuring the accessibility to information and communications technologies, particularly to the Internet, to every Maltese citizen. In devising our policy we did not concentrate exclusively on the housebound form of accessibility. Conversely, we have discriminated towards establishing policy in favour of public Internet access.

This particular policy line has also been taken up in the eEurope 2005 action plan adopted by the European Council in Seville, exactly one month ago. The Government’s rationale behind this approach is the simple fact that the main barrier to entry, for households, to the Internet is the capital outlay incurred to purchase a personal computer and the rapid rate (and cost) of technology-refresh required.

In view of this Government devised an accessibility programme, which will enable citizens to obtain free access to the Internet virtually every hundred metres in practically every locality by the end of this year.

Apart from the fact that Malta has the highest rate of Internet cafes per capita in the candidate countries and compares very well with the respective EU-average, Government opted to embark on a set of public-private initiatives aimed at extending this even further.

Together with the Internet Service Providers we will be setting up an Internet Centre in each Local Council for the free use of the local community; we will be opening the doors of our public libraries the Internet laboratories in our public schools after school hours to serve for public Internet access; and we will install a number of web phones to serve for public Internet access by the kerb.

Despite this strong propensity towards the accessibility factor, we are also working on a second stream to improve the affordability of information and communications technologies, particularly at entry-level. In this sense we are working with the ICT-industry and the commercial banks to primarily identify a formula through which the cost of entry can be mitigated to enable a much wider Internet audience.

The third policy stream, which we are aggressively tackling, is the introduction of ICT-education at all levels – not only of the educational system but also of society at large.

The Government’s policy in this field has also been acclaimed as a best practice in the first eEurope+ report, published by the European Commission, on the state of readiness for the information society in candidate countries. Following an enormous investment committed by this Government in the last years, Maltese schools boast the highest rate of computers connected to the Internet per student. Moreover, each student has his or her email account and hosting space to publish their own web page.

Together with the Local Councils, in a few months time, we will be offering a state-of-the-art ICT-awareness training programme to all the Maltese citizens who are still ICT-illiterate. The same awareness programme will be broadcast on public television and will serve as the basis of the first full bilingual e-learning system in Malta which will lead the way to a multitude of other state-of-the-art e-learning applications.

Through our global ECDL-programme, we will be providing the opportunity to all our secondary school leavers to leave their school-bench with an ECDL-log book in their pockets. And to complete the circle we are partnering with large multinationals to provide our students and ICT-workforce industry-leading certifications.

The final element of the Government’s info-inclusion policy is the formulation of specialised initiatives for the three groups that it considers to be most likely apt to fall between the gaps created by the digital revolution – senior citizens, under-privileged families and persons with disabilities. Our policy in this respect is to customise the programmes developed in the other three elements and mould them together into initiatives that will positively impact the inclusion and the take-up of the information society by these divide-prone groups.

This Government considers ICTs to be the social equalisers of the 21st century society. They have the tremendous power to bridge time-honoured economic, social, political and democratic gaps – something which was simply unthinkable by traditional ways and means. Nevertheless, the task we face is not an easy one and requires a no nonsense pragmatic strategy backed by a strong political backing and support.

This Government has amply demonstrated its clear determination in leaving no stone unturned in adopting this approach for the benefit of all the members of our society.

 



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Editor: Saviour Balzan
The Business Times, Network House, Vjal ir-Rihan San Gwann SGN 07, Malta
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