Bringing Iraq Online

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Our guest blogger is David Nassar, a Vice-President for Strategy with Blue State Digital. David has a professional background in the Middle East.

iraq-internetThe Obama campaign demonstrated that there are few stronger democratic forces than the internet. It can decentralize power while at the same time bringing people together around shared interests, creating what Robert Putnam called social capital. So it was only natural that eventually someone tasked with supporting democracy in Iraq would call on web 2.0 experts to visit Iraq. I was part of that delegation, sponsored by the State Department, last week.

In my opinion, there are currently three obstacles to Iraqis taking advantage of the power of the internet to strengthen their democracy.

First, they lack some of the necessary physical infrastructure. Second, they are not skilled enough in Web 2.0 technologies to take advantage of the power of the World Wide Web. Third, it is uncertain whether or not the Iraqi public can gain the confidence to use the web effectively to create change.

Some of the earliest meetings we had on our trip were about the physical infrastructure of the web in Iraq. It was clear from an overview perspective that the physical infrastructure will be the easiest problem to solve, and indeed this is already well under way. The U.S. government is currently assisting the Iraqis in laying fiber-optic cable to facilitate greater connectivity. The problem is that those opposed to the Iraqi regime are digging up the cable and cutting it, causing costly delays. Alternative solutions have been sought and are being implemented. The hope is that Baghdad, at least, can be connected through fiber optic in a few months. This must happen. From the students we talked to, to the business leaders we met with, the lack of connectivity was expressed again and again as the main thing preventing them from getting online.

Just in case the infrastructure does not come online, there is another solution. The growth of mobile technology in Iraq since 1993, when almost no one had a mobile phone, has been dramatic. Today more than two-thirds of Iraqis have cell phones. Increasingly, people are accessing the internet through smart phones. With the right kind of support and incentives, Iraq could leap-frog right over land-line based, computer based internet access into a mobile powered web. U.S. policy should dedicate time and energy to helping Iraq develop those incentives.

Even with a powerful infrastructure, however, the web will be useless if Iraqis themselves do not have the skills to engage. At the moment, virtually no one in the public space — from academics, to students, to government officials — has the background in the web 2.0 tools, or anyone to train them. They don’t have a strong understanding of what the tools are or how to apply them. Certainly they know and use Facebook, YouTube, MySpace and many others. However, they don’t use these tools for organizing off-line, nor are they familiar with tools that offer more flexibility if they are capable of writing some basic code.

Finally, there is the elephant in the room. There is a lack of public confidence in their own abilities. This is a society that has been run by the government since before Saddam. The public we met with, and these were elites, clearly waits to see what the government says is acceptable and often looks for direction from the government on how to utilize technologies like the web. There are certainly some independent forces trying to change that, both in the political and business realm, but the majority of the public and the government agencies seem content to do things the old way. Clearly, this will have to change if the web is to be put to use. Without this confidence, Iraqis are stopping themselves from attempting big things anytime they might imagine what is possible.

If any or all of these three problems are going to be overcome, supporting the development of the internet’s physical and human infrastructure will need to be a high priority for U.S. support projects this year and next. This tech delegation in which I
participated reflected that commitment, but it is just a first step.
The commitment has to be represented in every aspect of our assistance.

One of the lasting legacies of the Obama campaign will be the example it set of how to use the internet to create a mass movement for democratic change. Other countries may try to follow this example and in some place like Iraq, where the U.S. is directly involved, I am glad our government is encouraging it. But the Iraqis need more. The internet can empower them and in so doing help Iraqis to be more free.