Institutional, policy
and legal barriers
to information support
for development projects

Paper at the ALP / Government Libraries Group Workshop - Aid agency information services assisting economic development. 62nd IFLA General Conference 25 - 31 August 1996, Beijing, China (IFLA Paper no. 241GL2/ALP(WS)2E)

Mark Perkins, Librarian, Secretariat of the Pacific Community Library, New Caledonia, South Pacific, 13 August 1996


In recent years the Internet has been hyped as the solution to mankind's problems (see Wired magazine, <>) including the problem of "development". In fact this hype does not refer to the Internet per se but the World Wide Web (WWW) - a user-friendly graphical interface to the Internet. This does not only reflect the increase use of the Internet due to WWW but also the internets commercialization [1] and the interest/fears of governments in their citizens use of this technology (see below). The speed of soft/hardware developments in Internet technology has overcome many of the technical problems for its implementation in developing countries while various aid agencies (for good or ill) are to some extent addressing the financial side [2]. This paper tries to address the non-technical barriers to the Internet as a tool for support to development projects.

What can the Internet offer?

The Internet need not be purely an information delivery mechanism like newspapers, radio or television. Once a user has a computer, software (available for free) and access to the telecommunications system, it is only the capacity, efficiency & cost of the latter which limits participation in this worldwide network. Such participation allows users to: - independently gather information from a variety of sources on a myriad of topics - refereed or not; make independent contact with people worldwide; participate in worldwide discussions; participate in group decision making over long distances; independently disseminate information of all types (e.g. human rights, project appraisals, technical, cultural, political, scientific articles & reviews). Such participation allows for people who are isolated by geographical, institutional and status factors to engage in knowledge creation, dissemination & decision making. Information support then becomes a form of communication between people, instead of a dominant body providing (possibly inappropriate) information to a subordinate body. This is part of the reasoning for participation becoming a keyword in development programmes [3].


The free flow of ideas allows for those involved in development projects to receive, & make informed decisions about, information support. Censorship minimises such free flow and thus inhibits what information support is possible.

The ancestor of the Internet was designed to overcome the most drastic censorship of all - the destruction of infrastructure by nuclear war - by rerouting messages until the final destination was reached. This still holds for the Internet and makes technical methods of restricting the content of the Internet extremely problematic. While the only a small percentage of the population had access to this means of communication, governments were quiescent - even though the most extreme examples currently used to justify censorship (pornography and race hate material on Bulletin Boards and Usenet - a decentralised network of discussion groups transmitted over the internet and other networks) were developed in this period. It is only in the past two years or so - since the WWW has popularised the Internet that censorship has become an issue, although censorship proposals are not restricted to WWW. The examples that follow will illustrate this point.

USA [4]

In February 1996 the Telecommunications Act became law. One section of this prohibits the making available to minors of "indecent material" over the Internet. The problem with this is that the definition of "indecent material" means that material legally available to minors in hard copy will be illegal if distributed on the network. Another issue is that there is no way an Internet access provider (IAP) can know if it is a minor or adult accessing the material - causing the material to be inaccessible to both. The Act also requires computer manufacturers to include "V-chips" in their hardware. This allows for access to material to be restricted by password if it carries predetermined ratings; these ratings would have to be applied not only to the WWW but all internet content that is publicly available - including electronic conferences and Usenet. While there is no current provision of a centralised rating system, it puts in place the technology to allow this - and future governmental control. A more immediate & direct censorship impact is that the Act prohibits the making available over the Internet information about abortion and where to obtain it. The constitutionality of these provisions has been rejected by a District Court in the USA, which held that "the Internet may fairly be regarded as a never-ending worldwide conversation. The Government may not, through the CDA, interrupt that conversation. As the most participatory form of mass speech yet developed, the Internet deserves the highest protection from governmental intrusion." [5] Given that this finding is being challenged by the US government, the implications for those countries that do not have the same constitutional protection of free speech are evident.

UK [6]

The government plans to make IAP's at least partly liable for libel distributed via their connections.

Germany [4]

In December 1995 the German government ordered an IAP (CompuServe) to prevent access to various sources of pornographic and race hate material illegal under German law. Due to the very nature of the Internet the only way CompuServe could comply was by barring access to this material worldwide. The material is still available if it is physically located on a computer in another country accessible via the WWW. The German government tried to bar access to race hate WWW material located in Canada. The information was immediately made available through many major WWW sites in the USA and the German government backed down rather than bar access to those USA sites.

France [7]

The government has made IAP's liable for material distributed via their connections.

Singapore [8]

The government of Singapore has decided that IAP's will be treated as broadcasters rather than carriers (cf. telephone companies). They will thus be responsible for any distribution of material, via their Internet connections, that could "undermine public morals, political stability or religious harmony", i.e. anything the government wishes.

China [9]

The Chinese government has required that Internet users - let alone IAPs - are required to register with the police and sign an agreement promising not to harm the country or do anything illegal. The latter includes "transmission of state secrets, information harmful to state security and pornography over international computer links". Given the recent record of the governments treatment of those distributing material in traditional formats (whether musicians, trade unionists or pamphleteers), this effectively blocks the independent development of the Internet in China.

European Union [4]

After a book banned in France under privacy laws was made available over the Internet, the EU is considering restricting Internet "publishing".

Privacy [4]

Normal Internet communications are similar to writing a message on a postcard - it can be read by anyone who gains access. This has two effects - financial transactions are insecure limiting commerce. Secondly, governments can read private communications of their citizens with all the civil liberties implications this entails. The former restricts what commercial information is available electronically to development projects, while the latter has a "chilling effect" on what people are prepared to communicate - especially true in areas of instability and conflict. The solution to both problems is encryption technology, which encodes messages so that only permitted people can read them. Financial transactions can now be made between 'secure' computers. Secure personal communications are also possible using encryption software such as "Pretty Good Privacy" (PGP) which even governments cannot overcome. This has disturbed governments and the US banned its export on the grounds that it was a "weapon". Instead they proposed instituting their own technology to which they would have the 'key'. Not surprisingly this solution was rejected by commerce on the grounds that the CIA is involved in industrial espionage and civil rights activists on the basis of the FBI's previous behaviour in the non-electronic world [10]. The Internet Architecture Board and the Internet Engineering Steering Group have noted that various governments are proposing restrictions and controls on such encryption technology and have issued a statement opposing such moves [11]. This issue is still not solved within the USA and its relevance to countries with less civil rights amd/or more oppressive governments is clear.


Copyright has been developed over centuries in order promote the creation and distribution of ideas by balancing creators, distributors and users legal rights. This has an important effect on all information distribution, whether commercial or otherwise, and thus also on information support to development projects. This balance is actually enshrined in the US constitution. While the US government was the first to address the issue of Internet & copyright via it's White Paper and the "National Information Infrastructure Copyright Protection Bill", other governments have moved quickly to address this issue. The World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) is also addressing this issue via a Committee of Experts with a Diplomatic Conference in December 1996 to implement a "Protocol to the Berne Convention and New Instrument". Given the World Trade Agreement requires compliance with the Berne Convention, this has implications for all countries. As copyright is the first area where international regulation of the Internet is being attempted, I will spend some time on this. The easiest way to explain this issue is highlight one set of legislative proposals (the European Unions) for two reasons: the background reasoning for the proposals have been well documented and critiqued; the core of the proposals (specifically that temporary electronic storage should be seen as an act of copying) has been put forward to the above mentioned WIPO Committee of Experts for inclusion in the new Protocol to the Berne Convention.

The Green Paper (Copyright and Related Rights in the Information Society) [12] has probably the most far-reaching implications for use of the Internet. I will also quote from the European Commissions Legal Advisory Board's (LAB) "Reply to the Green paper on Copyright and Related rights in the Information Society" [13]. The Green Paper [12] makes almost no mention of fair use rights (i.e. users rights), emphasises that "a high level of protection is maintained"[12 p.6] and only pays lip service to users of services. The latter are seen solely in terms of "individual consumers"[12 p.3] not as participants in the "Information Society"; traditionally the Internet has been a two-way communication medium leading to readers becoming publishers, not purely a vehicle for "video on demand"[12 p.20, p.22].

Electronic intellectual property legislation is seen as important "primarily because of the need to ensure that goods and services can move freely"[12 p10]. Due to the ease of making and distributing perfect copies of works via the Internet the "danger of piracy and improper use without payment" [12 p.28] is the driving force behind the recommendations. The view of copyright as a vehicle for promoting the development of culture and science is lost to be replaced by "two fundamental factors.... The protection of rights holders the service with maximum economic efficiency" [12 p.41]. "The LAB observes that the Green Paper has been written with the clear purpose of strengthening the protection of intellectual property"[13 p.2]

More specifically, "The digitisation of works or other protected matter should generally fall under the reproduction right, as should such things as loading on to the central memory of a computer." "The fact that private copying in certain Member States means that some operators will be afraid to allow access to their service there."[12 p.52] "But where there is the technical means to limit or prevent private copying, there is no further justification for what amounts to a system of statutory licensing and equitable remuneration."[12 p.50] ". A degree of harmonisation will be needed to resolve these problems. The precise response will depend on the technical scope for controlling reproduction, and especially private copying"[12 p.52].

Given that current use of the Internet relies on 'implied license', whereby placing documents onto the 'net' implies that users have the right at least to read and download to hard disk for personal use, the effect would be chilling. "Thus, for example, sending electronic mail, 'browsing' the Internet and viewing a digital file would become restricted acts.... The catalogue of restricted acts would be extended ...Such a use right is antithetical to the traditional principle that copyright and neighbouring rights do not protect against acts of consumption or reception of information... According to LAB, the broad interpretation of the reproduction right, as advanced by the Commission, would mean carrying the copyright monopoly one step too far" [12 p.7]. If followed, the above will effectively spell the end of fair dealing exceptions as information moves into the electronic environment, i.e. copyright payment or no access. "The LAB regrets that the all-important issue of copyright exemptions is treated somewhat haphazardly in the Green Paper... The inflexibility of current platform specific limitations combined with the expanding right of reproduction threatens to upset the delicate balance between copyright protection and user freedoms"[p.9], "Rights and exemptions are intertwined; if the scope of rights increases, exemptions must be widened accordingly"[p.10]. Given that for an item to be transmitted over the Internet, each computer en route must make a temporary copy, each "Internet Service Provider" could also be liable for copyright infringement, causing a breakdown in the system. "The Commission's approach would imply that practically every act of transmitting a work over the network...would qualify as countless acts of reproduction of the protected work"[13 p7].

The Paper also recommends that "the different rights attached to services transmitted by electronic means can hardly be made subject to exhaustion"[12 p.48]. This means that even though an electronic item has been purchased outright over the Internet, it would be illegal to resell it - something which totally overturns current consumer rights.

There is on area in which the Green Paper recommends the lessening of protection - Moral Rights. "Independently of the author's economic rights, and even after the transfer of the said rights, the author shall have the right to claim authorship of the work and to object to any distortion, mutilation or other modification of, or any other derogatory action in relation to, the said work, which would be prejudicial to his honor or reputation"[Berne Convention, Article 6bis]. Given the ease of manipulation, Moral Rights are difficult to enforce for electronic works/copies. These rights are "untransferable, inalienable and perpetual" leading publishers et al to see them as a "major source of uncertainty in the exploitation of works, and consequently discouraged investment". Thus the view that "...problems of moral rights are to be resolved by contract?"[12, p.67].

Given that the Green Paper was drawn up by Directorate General XV, Internal Market and Financial Services, its conclusions are not surprising. In the understated words of the Legal Advisory Board "LAB regrets that the parties invited to express their views at the 'Superhighways' hearing did not include (proportional) representation of major information users, such as libraries, intermediaries, universities and end users"[13 p.3]. If users are prevented from accessing information in electronic formats due to financial constraints or IAPs are afraid of prosecution due to their users infringements, Internet participation - as opposed to passive reception of commercial information products- will not only not spread but possibly decrease from its current level.

Another proposal to WIPO from both the European Union and the USA is to ban the manufacture, distribution, possession or importation of devices that can circumvent technical copyright protection mechanisms. These proposals are so widely drawn that their effect would be to outlaw devices allowing users to exercise fair use rights or access to public domain materials with respect to electronic works protected by such means [14] The cost implications of such legislation would mean that much information support would be out of reach for many development projects.

Institutional Context

An IDRC organised conference on evaluating IT impact in developing countries [15] raised many issues. Information seeking can be biased towards justifying decisions. Preference can be given to non local information due to the its manipulation by local elites. Utilisation of information can be determined by factors such as whether increased taxes will counteract increased productivity. Decision-making is not purely a rational process but takes place in a social context where information fulfils irrational and symbolic functions. The oral tradition of many cultures means that the integration of electronic information and communication into such societies is problematic but essential if such information is not to be by-passed by traditional, informal networks. [16] Cultural and educational training in the interpretation of written - let alone visual - information is essential if benefits are to result from networks. Equal access does not mean equal utility - i.e. appropriateness of information to the user is essential for beneficial impact. The following provide some practical examples of these issues.

A study of the impact of microcomputers in the Kenyan public sector [17] revealed some issues relevant to the current theme. The take up of the micros was dependant not on the simplicity of the application but its significance. Information applications were found to be more complex to implement than automation applications due the following factors: - training (in information use rather than computer use [18, 19]); incentives to use; frequency of use; bureaucracy or supervision needs. It was the significance of the application rather than its complexity which determined its institutionalisation, leading to a more complex end user information application (see above) being taken up while a simpler implementations were not. Sustainability was reliant on indigenous acceptability.

Netherlands Library Development Project's (NLDP) ultimate aim is to develop within Pakistan an efficient information network and eventually link with international information networks. However neither library development nor this project have been mentioned in the official Dutch aid agency's policy paper on Pakistan. NLDP is not purely an infrastructure project - a large percentage of its activities are human resource related - training, policy formulation, institutional development etc. [20]

Rural Information Service (RISE) Pilot Project tries to address the issue of the failure of extension projects due to poor information dissemination. This is seen as due to the lack of proper information services at village level and information in an inappropriate form for village people. RISE intends to establish village information centres dealing with general information, village information, development information, reference services, lectures, document delivery services & continuing education for neo-literates. While some of the above involve networking, most relate to organisational & educational issues.[21]

Pakistan is also introducing a Social Action Program funded by the Government of Pakistan and international donors. Part of the monitoring of this program is the implementation of Educational & Health Management Information Systems. The difficulties experienced with these systems illustrate the problem with technical solutions: poor data reliability, timeliness & coverage, lack of accountability of staff, low literacy rates, lack of political will, etc.[22]

In article dealing with famine early warning systems [23] it was noted that political interests can lead to information being ignored, not only must information be decentralised but the decision making also, information cannot in itself overcome bureaucracy, access to information does not necessarily lead to access to resources. To quote "It is only by situating EWS in the wider political and institutional context within which they operate, that obstacles to the effective exploitation of the information to trigger response can be addressed." Menou also notes that "The concept of information resources encompasses information services, systems, sources, human resources and facilities" should take into account the specificity of sectors, socio-cultural factors affecting organization and individual people..."[15, p59]

One problem with Internet information support to development project arises from the normal problem associated with such projects per se - sustainability. How will such information support be maintained once donors funding has ended? This problem was at the centre of an electronic conference run by VITA (Volunteers in Technical Assistance). The discussion centred around Community Communication Centres (CCCs). Aside from the issues mentioned in previous "Institutional Context" paragraphs, the suggestions on financial sustainability included the balance that individual CCCs should strike in provision of services for profit, non profit and official purposes - the thrust being that if the balance was right a CCC could be maintained which would provide internet access for a wide selection of the local population, including development projects. Archives of this conference can be obtained from <>.

Various factors can lead to the Internet reinforcing current North dominated information flows. Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) requirements for developing country markets to be liberalised and deregulated can lead to telecommunications systems being incompatible, inefficient and unable to move towards regional or global integration [24, p212]. Network sustainability beyond developing country elites is problematic due to the high relative cost for most of the indigenous population [24, p212]. Lack of evaluation by donors of networking projects in developing countries leads to decisions based on Northern experience [25]. Lack of developing country infrastructure leads to manpower trained in networking overseas remaining overseas [26]. It is essential that donors co-ordinate their policies in differing areas (e.g. SAPs and networking) to avoid contradictions [24, p214]. Such contradictions not only inhibit indigenous Internet development but can also inhibit & counteract any information support given to projects in developing countries.

Many developing countries (and some western countries, such as France) have argued that the Western - specifically English - content of the Internet will swamp & malform traditional values and culture. This is often given as a reason for governments and institutions to restricting access [27]. Given the relatively low cost the best solution is to widen access and encourage all citizens and organisations to place their own information, in their own language, reflecting their own culture, onto the internet, instead of passively receiving others information and values. This participation would also be the best training in the use of the Internet as a tool for information use, development and empowerment.

The industrialised countries did not develop their telecommunications system - or the Internet - on the basis of the free market; standards and compatability were organised. Developing countries cannot be expected by donors to waste to their limited financial resources by allowing a multiplicity of incompatible systems to develop in the hope that the necessary infrastructure will eventually arise at some point in the future. Fear of prosecution due to censorship or copyright laws will chill participation in this network and scare off the IAP's essential for spreading use of this communications technology beyond an elite. Anti-privacy laws will self-censor even those that do have access due to fear of persecution, so defeating the very purpose of communication. It is important that we in the industrialised world, where the Internet is developing, keep it free of such restrictions to allow for the widest participation in the creation and communication of information. If we do not, we cannot be surprised if less liberal societies do not permit its use to widen opportunities for participatory development. This road has been trodden before - both radio and cable television were seen as technological solutions to the problems of information participation. Both succumbed to the twin pressures of government regulation and commercial domination [28, 29], with these problems magnified in developing countries. While the Internet - and other technologies - can be a powerful tool for social betterment we must not forget that it is the latter that is important and the former a possible means to it.


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