ABDVol.32 No.2

Asia's Internet Experience
Steven Jarvis
 

A Potted History of the Internet pre-1995:

In the late 1960s the US Department of Defense commissioned the nationユs leading universities to develop a communications system that is robust enough to survive a nuclear war. This packet switched digital information network then takes root in government and universities where it proves an effective information sharing tool for the global community of academics and professional researchers (the birth of e-mail and file transferring).
  The Internet as we know it took shape in 1991 with the World Wide Web, a means of reading (accessing) graphical and written information stored on computers that are connected to the telecommunications network. The early 1990s also saw a break with the strict 'not for profit' orientation of the Internet when Congress passed legislation permitting business transactions over the network, and the Internet's governing body (the National Science Federation) starts offloading large portions of the network infrastructure to private telecommunications companies. The Internet was now open for business.
  By 1995 the Internet in the US was basically in private hands, and driven by phenomenal growth rates had spawned an array of related businesses such as Internet Service Providers (ISPs), Internet browsers (Netscape) and a fledgling commerce sector. By the middle of the decade the Internet had also firmly caught the world's attention and the global rush to join the net and its wealth of opportunity had commenced in earnest.

The Growth of the Internet in East Asia

  East Asia was a comparative latecomer to the "Internet Revolution", but it did not take long before it was generally recognized within the region that the Internet was important, and could not be ignored. By the mid-1990s all but the least developed nations in the region had some form of connection to the Internet, and with a small but growing base of computer users, and massive infrastructure projects in progress, the countries of East Asia soon began to jockey for position on the Information Superhighway. Each nation's approach and experience in adapting to the Internet has been unique, determined in different measures by their level of technological development, language base, system of government and relative economic prosperity. How this development has taken place is most clearly understood when the region's countries are divided into a number of representative groups:

1) The Default Leader
 In 1995, Japan with 1.6 million of Asia's 2.1 million Internet users and two thirds of Asia's Internet host computers dwarfed the rest of the region, although, this phenomenon is best seen more as an indication of the sheer size of Japan's economy and its level of technological development than the result of careful preparation. Japan had started the 1990s with a low penetration of personal computers in the home, schools and workplace, inadequate computer network infrastructure, and a generally poor level of computer literacy. Regardless of these factors, when given the opportunity to join the Internet the Japanese did so en masse, quickly establishing themselves as both the Internet's second largest population after the US, and the second largest linguistic group after English.

2) Ambitious High-Tech Development
 This grouping encompasses Asia's rapidly developing economies, where many in the private sector and government saw the Internet as an opportunity to bypass obsolete analog infrastructure, technology and even entire industries in their drive for development. Countries in this group have rapidly acquired some of the world's best Internet infrastructure (especially Singapore, Republic of Korea and Hong Kong), and a relatively high percentage of citizens online. With the aim of becoming an information economy hub for the entire region, Malaysia and Singapore initiated government-led campaigns to capitalize on their English language heritage, buoyant economies and rapidly developing high-tech manufacturing sectors. While Hong Kong, followed by South Korea and Taiwan showed a similar enthusiasm for Internet-driven economies, their approaches were more private industry focused. Thailand, the Philippines, and to a certain extent Indonesia also possessed post-industrial ambitions, but started from a much lower capital, infrastructural and technological base, and have been severely buffeted by the Asian Monetary Crisis of 1997-98.

3) Cautious Converts
  China and, to a lesser degree, Viet Nam have acknowledged the importance of the Internet to the future of their respective economies, yet still hold serious misgivings about the loss of control of the nations' information space. It is also possible to place Singapore in this grouping, as it has steadfastly tried to maintain control over what information and forums for discussion are available to its citizens. China, in particular, is looked to as a potential information economy superpower, and is predicted to overtake Japan's online presence some time in the next ten years.

4) Marginal Participants
  Lao PDR and Cambodia, being amongst the world's poorest nations, have mainly relied on international aid and NGOs for their limited exposure to the Internet. While in similar economic positions, Democratic People's Republic of Korea and Myanmar's concern over controlling domestic information flows originally led to outright bans on the Internet, with only marginal relaxation in recent times.

Present Situation

  The year 2000 was a watershed for the global Internet industry. The dramatic collapse of the dotcom boom in the US has deeply affected the development of the Internet in Asia. Many Internet startup ventures have seen their value plummet or have completely ceased operating, with Japanese and Hong Kong companies being particularly hard hit. The drop in global demand for computers and associated devices has also left many component manufacturers in a precarious position. Singapore, Hong Kong and Malaysia have experienced severe technology sector downturns, and the effects have flowed into their wider economies. While the economic malaise has been felt throughout the region, two countries, Rep. of Korea and Japan, have managed to become world leaders in the emerging Internet technology sectors of broadband and wireless.

Republic of Korea's Rush to Broadband
  Broadband Internet is best thought of as the next stage of development of the Internet. High capacity cables allow much more data to be sent to the computer over the network, allowing users to watch movies, play networked games and even do video conferencing. With more than 50% of Internet users having such a high-speed connection, Korea is the world leader in broadband Internet. Considering the next placed US only has 10% of its Internet users with a similar connection, Korea seems well positioned to draw on its experience and extensive skills base to become very competitive in streaming and broadband content delivery services.

Japan's Wireless Advantage
  If broadband is considered the next stage of fixed (telephone line) Internet development, it is easiest to understand the mobile Internet as the next generation of networked communications. NTT DoCoMo's extremely popular 'i-mode' service has been at the forefront of introducing mobile phones that are capable of sending and receiving e-mail, surfing modified web sites and doing most other Internet functions. While the technology is not unique to Japan, its implementation and success has been. Outside Japan, it was presumed that before spreading to the general population the initial users of the mobile Internet would be affluent business users, but the subscribers never materialized and a public relations disaster followed. However, DoCoMo turned this approach on its head and targeted the youth market by making the service appear fun, easy to use and a great way to kill time or meet new people, and the mobile Internet became an overnight hit. Key to DoCoMo's success has been the supervision of interesting content, and the introduction of an effective Internet micro-payments system which charges users small amounts of money for accessing information on the mobile web. Another milestone has been the 'always on' aspect of the mobile phone, where users are always connected to the Internet. Also crucial to the success of Japan's mobile phone industry has been the nation's advanced electronics industry that can produce small, light and attractive phones with colour screens, and even include miniature cameras.
  Japan's position at the top of the mobile Internet industry was confirmed in October 2001 when it became the first country to introduce the Third Generation of mobile phones (3G). The Third Generation Service is essentially a merger between broadband capabilities and the mobile phone, offering better screens and web surfing capabilities, higher security for online transactions and video telephony. Japan's telecommunications infrastructure, R&D and manufacturing capabilities, and large user base have helped establish its lead in this market. While Japanese companies presently have a very low global profile in the mobile telecommunications industry, it is anticipated that their technological edge will translate into significant gains in the international market.

The Internet and Society

  While much of the focus on the Internet has been very technology-based, there are a number of socio-cultural areas that have drawn intense speculation from political, academic and media sources. In the seemingly anarchic world of Internet information flows, how to deal with the problems of what information people can consume, and what effect this will have on society, are critical areas of concern.

Controlling Internet Content
  Conventional wisdom has lead observers to believe that the free flow of information associated with the spread of communications technologies would directly challenge non-democratic rule. But has it eventuated? The Internet as it stands now is basically about e-mail, general information web surfing, file transfer, news groups, online chat, online gaming, e-commerce and to a lesser extent digital government/administration. Of these facets, the only one the government can completely control is the information it chooses to post on the Internet itself, otherwise it must compete for attention in an anarchic and largely uncontrollable information marketplace.
  In order to maintain as much control as possible over the information consumed, Singapore and China have initiated a range of re-active and pro-active measures including limiting ISPs numbers, blocking web sites, monitoring chat rooms and online content, selective arrests and crackdowns, and promoting self-censorship. Undoubtedly, a considerable amount of potentially subversive information escapes attention and vigorous political debates do take place in the chat rooms, but the stability of the Singaporean and Chinese governments remains intact. Whether this can be maintained on a long-term basis is a moot point, however, it does suggest that access to information alone is insufficient to bring about dramatic political transformations. Especially when you consider the Singapore Government's legitimacy is in large part derived from delivering the economic development that allows half its population to freely access the web. If China is able to develop to the point where it can take its present 2% of the population online to a similar level, they may well be able to draw on a similar strain of political legitimation.

English Language Dominance
  The distinction between the global and the local is always a negotiated one. While it is the free availability of pornography that captures many headlines, the fact that three quarters of the content on the Internet is in English has led many Asian governments and leaders to voice concern that the openness of the Internet could be detrimental to the moral fabric and cultural identity of some communities. However, it is possible that this position could be somewhat overstated. While English dominates in pure numbers, when an eye is cast toward what information people actually consume on the Internet, the validity of the 'English Imperialism' argument becomes suspect. To take the case of Japan, over 95% of all web pages are written in Japanese in 2000*, and there is a relatively low level of access to non-Japanese sites. This could indicate that the majority of non-native English speakers feel most comfortable consuming information in their own linguistic, and most probably cultural, context. This conclusion is further supported when existing communications media are considered. For the non-polyglot bulk of Asia, whether it is TV, radio, newspapers or any other medium, people gravitate toward their mother tongue.

Future of the Internet

  Reach and richness are often used to describe the advantage the Internet holds over the more traditional forms of media. Basically, reach refers to the Internet collapsing distance for anybody with access to the network, making it possible to share information around the globe nearly instantaneously. While richness is used to describe the broad range of print, audio and visual content that can be transferred over the single medium. Many futurologists have gone as far as forecasting an era of media convergence, where all our information and communications needs are fulfilled by a few, or even a single device.
  If the Internet replicates and supersedes the role of the telephone, printed material, and full range of audio-visual media, will this mean the demise of traditional media? Possibly, but it would have to be a very long way in the future to reach this stage. For now, modern day life entails living in a very competitive information market that supports multiple media for good reasons. The privacy of a book, the disposability of a newspaper and the relative low cost of radio and television will offer attractive alternative media for the foreseeable future. However, one area where the Internet significantly departs from existing media alternatives is the ability it gives average users to stop being passive information consumers and become information producers and distributors. Education, community and interest-based political, social and cultural involvement, and increasing international understanding are just some of the areas that can benefit from having a greater number of participants contributing to the information space, but the possibilities are literally endless.
  The Internet, or at least something like it, is here to stay, and it is not unreasonable to expect it to continue its rapid pace of growth. Looking ahead, it is safe to say that the 'Internet' will get less obtrusive, easier to use and far more ubiquitous. The crowded human information space will be supplemented by computer information space, where machines (even fridges and toasters) are able to 'talk' to each other and us. It is also probable that a micro-payments method for Internet information transactions will eventually be popularised, opening up business opportunities to information content providers and further eroding the libertarian, anarchic roots of the Internet. It will also be possible to view something like an Internet-capable mobile phone as a type of remote control for navigating the digital world around you, it may well be your primary relaxation and communications device, but it would also be your wallet and a primary source of identification.
  However, it is important not to get swept up in the futurology, as there is flipside to this story. Gaps in access to technology, education and training exist between rich and poor countries, and within every nation. What is now being popularised as the 'Digital Divide' is the very real alienation of the bulk of this planet from any sort of communications device, let alone the Internet, and there are no quick fixes in sight. In order to fulfil the promise of the Inter-networked Utopia of Internet 'visionaries', it will be necessary to comprehensively address these issues of marginalisation, alienation and economic oppression. If the Internet can go some way toward this, it would be a truly revolutionary technological leap for humankind.

*source: Information Development Project
http://www.infodev.org/projects/375/Oecd_final.xls

Steven Jarvis
Steven has lived, worked and travelled extensively in the East Asian region since 1991, and has a keen interest in contemporary Asian history and politics. He is presently finishing a Ph.D. in East Asian Studies at the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, Australian National University, Canberra.
Steven Jarvis
Department of Human Geography, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, Australian National University, Camberra, phone: (61) 2 6125 2233, e-mail: sjarvis@coombs.anu.edu.au