Internet Access Highlights Rich-Poor Divide

UNITED NATIONS -- When leaders of an attempted coup against Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev seized radio and television stations in 1991, Russians used a fledgling computer and fax network to disseminate calls for resistance to defeat the revolt.

Within a few years, use of the Internet exploded, opening a fast track to knowledge and communications. But fewer than 3 percent of Russians today have access to it, says the 1999 Human Development Report, published by the United Nations Development Program on Monday.

Some 88 percent of the world's Internet users - 143 million in 1998 and an estimated 700 million in 2001 - are in wealthy industrial nations with the United States having more computers than the rest of the world combined. The average Internet user is male, younger than 35, college-educated, English-speaking and more often than not a U.S. resident, where 26 percent of the population uses the World Wide Web.

The Internet, an example of the shrinking global village, at the same time shows up glaring inequalities in the world economy, with rich countries getting richer and poor people relegated to shantytowns. "Global inequalities in income and living standards have reached grotesque proportions," the report says.

"Even as communications, transportation and technology are driving global economic expansion, headway on poverty is not keeping pace," CNN founder Ted Turner said in a contribution to the report.

"It is as if globalization is in fast-forward and the world's ability to understand and react to it is in slow motion," he said.

For the past 10 years, the Human Development Report has looked for new ways to measure people's lives using yardsticks that go beyond economic statistics - such as who attends school, who has access to clean water and who shares in economic benefits.

This year's 260-page survey focuses on trends in "globalization" - the growing integration of economies, culture and science around the world that has been spurred by an explosion in information and communications technology.

Since the 1980s, many countries have benefited from globalization, among them Thailand, Malaysia, South Korea and Poland. At the other end many countries reap few benefits, with Russia, Madagascar, Niger, Tajikistan and Venezuela among them.

A fifth of the world's people living in high income countries control 86 percent of world export markets, 68 percent of foreign investment and 74 percent of the telephone lines. The result is a "dangerous polarization" between those benefiting from the system and those who are "merely passive recipients of its effects," the report says.

But the authors of the report argue that pernicious trends of market expansion are not inevitable.

Among their suggestions are creating new sources of finance for technology, such as a "bit tax" on Internet messages and independent legal aid to support weaker countries in the World Trade Organization as well as debt relief for the poorest countries.