Some of us might have seen the NYTimes video a year back, about the bondage industry in Pakistan. It gave us a look inside the successful business of two Karachi brothers who made good money selling all sorts of garments and artefacts to customers in different countries. The most interesting part of that whole video was when the entrepreneurs were asked about how they started upon this line of business — what gave them the idea to start such a venture? It turns out that they stumbled upon this trade when they were searching the internet for ideas.

The power of the internet should come as no surprise to those reading this blog. It gives me the writer, the power to connect with you, the audience and vice versa. The UN, recognizing its importance, has recently released a report declaring the internet to be a human right. A Pakistani reader’s initial response would be to think that this is crazy talk. We are having a hard time as it is, fighting for women’s rights, minority rights, labour rights, and children’s rights. Why should we even care about whether people have internet?

Calling the internet a human right might be going too far, but access to internet must be taken seriously. In developing countries around the world the state does not have the capacity to enforce these rights. The internet however is not constrained by the ability of the state to govern. Internet services can be provided by the private sector. As a right, it is easier to provide then other ones because they bypass the state.

Ideally the state can help by setting some legislation, if the right incentives are laid then it will be easier for the private sector to step in and provide these services. However the case for internet access, when compared to its competitors is strengthened by a more causal relationship to profit. If companies that provide online services provide cheap internet they can reap rewards in terms of revenue. Companies like Google and Microsoft Pakistan should invest in spreading internet services as such a move will compliment their businesses in an emerging market.

The private (or public) sector must initiate some reforms and demonstrate some imaginative thinking. Banks must build a safe and secure online financial system. Very few people in Pakistan would be comfortable giving their credit card information online to a Pakistani website. The utility of the internet is greatly enhanced if people in Pakistan can use financial transactions to supplement their services. The e-commerce economy will boom if we can come up with a Pakistani Paypal. Pakistani software developers also need to work on creating a better Urdu script on the internet. They are too small and distort the shape of the letters. Most of the ones used on facebook and twitter make it hard even for the literate to read.

The spread of cellphones has taught us that technology does not expand in linear ways. Most developing countries skipped getting universal landline connectivity and went straight to cell phones. Mobile phone usage is growing exponentially in most under developed parts of the world including Pakistan. Cell phones provide an opportunity to overcome challenges of widespread illiteracy and expensive computers that are barriers to connectivity.

The future of the poor man’s internet lies on internet connectivity being accessible on the cell phone on a voice interface. At a Tufts University presentation, friend and colleague Samujjal Purkayastha gave a talk on his project Awaaznet which aims to create a market place to connect people all over the world using cellphones. It constructs a web forum where people can call in and leave voice recordings for jobs requests, advice, and general questions. There will even be a translation service as a way to communicate messages to a greater distance.

A rural farmer – let’s call him Raju – can get information about the weather or the price of the crop he is trying to sell at a market which could be a day’s distance away. Without this information, Raju would have risked going to the bazaar and getting a bad deal on his crops, or upon reaching the market find closed. He would have wasted a day on the journey. With this information he is able to make better economic decisions about when to go to the market and save time. This is just one instance of what Awaaznet seeks to do. While this project has a while to go before it is functional, it represents a promising trend of bringing a different kind of internet to the masses.

The internet can make things possible. Access to the internet means access to information and information means power. If we can harness it properly we can empower people to fight for the other rights that they are entitled to.

Asad Badruddin is a student of Economics and International Relations at Tufts University, Boston. He hails from Karachi and blogs at octagonaltangents.blogspot.com

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

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