Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) such as the Internet and mobile phones are often recognized for their role in helping connect people and communities, and spread knowledge and information. People may be unaware, however, that they’re also a powerful force for international development — provided that they are not suffocated by regulation and censorship.

The ICT Development and Initiative Dossier from June 2002 [PDF file] stated that, “since the beginning of the 1980s almost all national telecom and information technology markets worldwide have been transformed by technological innovation, product diversification (especially the introduction of mobile/cellular telephony and Internet) and market restructuring (particularly privatization, liberalization and the introduction of independent regulators).”

This holds true in some countries more than others. In some instances, the levels of liberalization and regulation in the ICT sector seem to directly correlate with the health of the country’s democracy.

Civil and Economic Benefits

Market liberalization and the adjustment of regulation levels for ICT industries results in a growing shift from state-owned monopolies to a more open market which allows for competition from various dynamic and privately driven entities. Some governments and national operators are threatened by the prospect of increased competition and decreased state control, but for civil society and the economy as a whole, there’s an array of benefits.

Economic analyst Vlade Milićević argues that, by adjusting the legislative and regulatory mobile telephony frameworks, increased competition leads to improved customer choice, enhanced quality, more efficient services, reduced prices, faster product innovation and growing economic development for both the market and the relevant country. These positive impacts are notable in various case studies on Central Eastern European countries, where the sector has recently been liberalized.

Similar cost benefits patterns have occurred in various ICT sectors. Between 1998 and 2002, retail prices of the fixed telecommunications industry in the EU decreased by 8.2 percent due to liberalizing the regulatory framework. Likewise, the liberalization of Internet telephony, which includes the legalization of voice over IP (VoIP) services in various countries, resulted in a dramatic decrease in phone charges. For example, in the U.S. a few years ago, calls to India were 50 cents per minute — now they are less than 5 cents per minute from fixed lines.

Other than decreasing costs, information and telecommunication technology liberalization has other benefits. The use of VoIP enabled the advent of outsourced call centers because it offers the possibility of routing a local number offshore. In the U.S. today, 80 percent of companies have call centers located offshore. This cuts costs for the American companies and generates employment and income for the offshore country. These employment and revenue benefits are significant for countries such as India, Malaysia, Singapore, Kenya and South Africa.

Other examples of the benefits of this form of liberalization include community initiatives like Village Telco, “an easy-to-use, scalable, standards-based, wireless, local, do-it-yourself, telephone company toolkit.” It uses open source software, VoIP and other technology to offer free local calls, cheap long distance, Internet access and other information services to previously disadvantaged communities in South Africa and other developing countries.

Lack of Liberalization

However, in some countries such as Zimbabwe, VoIP remains in a legal grey zone. According to a report commissioned by the Commonwealth Telecommunications Organization, “African regulators have been reluctant to legalize VoIP, based on a largely misguided attempt to protect the revenue base of the incumbent fixed-line, and in some cases, mobile telcos.” Unprogressive regulators can retard growth in the sector, stunt the country’s revenue, create lost opportunities, constrict the adoption of new technologies, and leave communities isolated in information vacuums.

The World Bank recently stated that there is positive and direct correlation between growth in gross domestic product and ICT development. Despite this, two factors seem to be preventing some governments from liberalizing ICT markets: The threat of a decrease in revenues for state controlled monopolies, and the decrease in control of the content that is available to the public. ICTs — and particularly the use of the Internet and mobile phones — are making it difficult for undemocratic governments to control information and in this age of communication, information is power.

“Freedom of information is…the touchstone of all the freedoms,” according to the 1948 UN Freedom of Information Conference. Similarly, the principles from the World Summit on Information Society of 2003 declared that: “We reaffirm, as an essential foundation of the Information Society, and as outlined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; that this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers. Communication is a fundamental social process, a basic human need and the foundation of all social organization. It is central to the Information Society. Everyone, everywhere should have the opportunity to participate and no one should be excluded from the benefits the Information Society offers.”

This sentiment was again reiterated in a recent poll by the BBC, which found that 80 percent of the 27,000 people surveyed around the world believe that access to the Internet is a fundamental human right. However, only about 25 percent of the world’s population has access to the Internet, and various countries moderately to severely censor the information available.

Along with many other economic and technological benefits, a global shift to a more liberalized ICT market would honor fundamental human rights, and help create a more equitable and informed world.