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How Political Affiliation Determines Internet Access

Government officials around the world tend to ignore the Internet needs of political opponents and marginalized minority groups, according to a recent study.

By Rick Paulas


(Photo: jamescridland/Flickr)

Whether the goal is a full-blown government toppling, unionizing labor, or getting the boss to switch out the Coke machine for some chilled San Pellegrinos in the fridge, the seeds of revolution are watered by open lines of communication. That’s previously meant closed-door meetings in hushed tones, distributed pamphlets, and conference calls. But then the Internet came around and threw everything into hyperdrive.

Protests tend to work when a populace is informed about infringements of rights, and then told about where to go in an effort to propagate change. The Internet has made this information dissemination relatively easy—at least, easier than it has been. The quick coalescence of movements like the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, and Black Lives Matter can be attributed to the proliferation of social media, and, by proxy, the Internet.

Yet these perceived advances in protest movements by the world’s marginalized populations obscures the reality of how the Internet has been unfurled. When it comes to infrastructure allocation, there is a “strong and persistent political bias” in who gets coverage and who doesn’t. And those that aren’t already part of their country’s political process, don’t.

A recent study in Science uncovered this result by examining router information from the world’s subnetworks, and then developing a map showing where the Internet was available. They used census data to cross-reference areas of connectivity with the ethnic groups residing in them. Then, to account for more “logical” reasons why a group wouldn’t be connected — say, living deep in the hard-to-reach mountains — they filtered out other potential Internet barriers like “settlement pattern.” (Basically, they removed the difference that living in an urban — as opposed to a rural — area would have on Internet deliverance.)

“The […] results demonstrate that excluded groups’ political status leads to significantly lower Internet penetration rates compared with included groups in the same country,” the paper concludes. “This result is not driven by the groups’ level of development, their geographic location and quality of infrastructure, or their urban-versus-rural settlement pattern.” It’s also not driven by economic factors.

In other words, the best indicator of whether or not someone had access is whether or not their group is “excluded from political power.” It doesn’t even matter what kind of government is in power, or whether connectivity is controlled by private business or public utility, or if the country has a democratic or autocratic regime. The result was always the same.

“Governments have their hands on where [providers] expand, when they expand, what technology goes where,” says Nils Weidmann, the study’s lead author. “Even if some of this goes on in the private sector, it works within the framework of telecommunication regulation, and that is in the hand of the respective national government.”

How do governments flex their connectivity muscle on politically excluded groups? The paper provides two theories. The most forward one — let’s call it the North Korea method — is when governments purposefully and strategically exclude certain groups from access. “If they’re afraid of groups that caused trouble in the past, giving them technology that can be used for political mobilization would be stupid,” Weidmann says. “If new cable is built, where are you going to put it? Not in the resurgent regions.”

But the other tactic is more insidious. “Ethnic groups in power can foster economic and technological development in their home regions, a phenomenon typically referred to as ‘ethnic favoritism,’” the study explains. Essentially, those elected will first provide for their own ethnic group, which in turn rewards the favoritism that’s showed with re-election. The Internet is one of the favors installed to the politically included.

At some level, you can even see this pattern in the United States. Earlier this year, the Federal Communications Commission reported that 68 percent of those living in Native American tribal lands don’t have access to broadband Internet. Compare that to 39 percent of the rural population without Internet. Native Americans are rarely represented in U.S. Congress. Since 1977, there have been only five; currently, there are two, both of whom won their re-election bids this year.

“If you think the Internet is driving revolution and making people aware of their status, and making them ask their government for more participation, that only happens if the population actually has access,” Weidmann says. “This uneven allocation shows a strong limitation of the potentially liberating effects [of the Internet].”