Linking the Islands: Pacific Implications of the Web

This paper was presented at Recovering the Past, the Fifth Conference of the European Society for Oceanists, on 4 July 2002. It was accompanied by a Powerpoint presentation of web-page screenshots, but here has links to the sites instead—along with links to archive.org versions or, where those are unavailable or incomplete, to recent screenshots. The paper has been listed as an Excellent Source at The Infography.

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Contents

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Abstract

In the past decade Pacific islanders have been faced with a new force for change: the World-Wide Web. Although practical and economic constraints have limited its impact so far, the Web has already played a role in Pacific economies and politics, and in linking emigrant islanders with their home countries and one another. Its differences from other media give it the potential, not yet fully realised, to affect and interact with island cultures in new and challenging ways. This paper explores that potential against the background of the Web's influence on the Pacific to date.

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Introduction

A shared interest in the Pacific is not all that brought us together this week. Without the advertising of this conference on email lists and the Web, and the convenience of the online conference registration system—not to mention the online booking facilities of various airlines and hotels—fewer people would have attended, and those who did would have had a harder time getting here.

Even at this basic level, the Internet has significantly improved our academic lives. The days when one would have had to start a paper such as this by explaining the value of email, FTP and the Web to a general academic audience are behind us. Indeed, in Western countries it can feel as if the whole world is online: every billboard has a web address, every business card has an email address, and every office has a computer on each desk.

But as those of us who look beyond the West know, the whole world is not online. The term 'the digital divide' has become something of a cliché, but it describes something very real, as United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan reminded the world only two weeks ago:

We are still very far from ensuring that the benefits of [information and communications technologies] are available to all. The digital divide still yawns as widely as ever, with billions of people still unconnected to a global society which, on its side, is more and more 'wired.'

And as UN General Assembly President Han Seung-soo added at the same event [related link]:

The digital divide threatens to further marginalize the economies and peoples of the developing countries as well as countries with economies in transition. Moreover, given the very dynamism of the ICT revolution, every day that passes without effective action further widens the divide, making the need for concerted effort by the international community a matter of utmost urgency.

It is clear that developing nations face significant obstacles in their access to information technology and the Internet. In such countries, computers are usually only found in government offices and the most successful businesses, and even then are often out-of-date or less powerful models by Western standards. Telephone lines, too, can be erratic and unreliable. A lack of air-conditioning in tropical countries can result in a short life for sensitive computer equipment. Meeting even the basic requirements for reliable Internet access is a challenge in many countries.

Yet the desire to realise the promise of computer technology is not limited to Western countries alone. In 1997 the Tongan government capitalised on an underused resource by selling Internet domain names in the .to domain to all comers [archive], a scheme that was quickly copied by other small nations around the world with attractive top-level domains, such as Niue (.nu) and Tuvalu (.tv).

But the Internet equivalent of flags of convenience does not indicate the existence of an Internet equivalent of a ship-building industry. While selling a few domain names can bring governments some useful income, it does nothing to promote or enable the use of the Net and the Web in their countries.

Should this be of much concern to people in the Pacific, and to those of us who study them? Surely there are many greater priorities in terms of improving standards of living than getting islanders online? What about schools, textbooks, water quality, electricity, telephones? Not only are these all more important than the Internet, some of them are essential preconditions for it.

The lag in digital development in the Pacific is still cause for concern, however, for reasons this paper will explore. First, though, it is worth examining where the Pacific Web stands today.

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The Pacific Web

Academic

Even though the world of web design and development can seem a long way from the islands, there has always been a Pacific presence on the net and the Web—one that began with, but now goes beyond, the departmental websites of university centres for Pacific studies in various parts of the world. Although it was scientists who founded the Web—specifically Tim Berners-Lee and the researchers at CERN in Switzerland—social scientists were not far behind in making use of it.

The CoombsWeb server at RSPAS at ANU, launched on 25 January 1994, was the 850th web server in the world; there are now millions. The Pacific Studies WWW Virtual Library [archive], run by Matthew Ciolek and 'Alopi Latukefu at the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, grew out of it the following year, when the Web was first coming to the attention of the wider public. Like many early academic sites, it was (and is) a bibliography of sorts—an index of other Pacific resources on the Internet. In the days before there were very many websites, pages such as these pointed to electronic mailing lists, collections of relevant files available via FTP, and resources accessible in Gopherspace, the text-only precursor of the Web.

Another site of similar vintage was Pacific Islands Internet Resources, run by Michael Ogden at the University of Hawaii from 1995 to 1998 [archive]. Early adopters like Ogden played an important role in university departments in encouraging and establishing a web presence for their departments as a whole, as well as trying to fill a perceived vacuum of material about their academic fields on the Web itself. The Web as a publishing medium accessible from any point on the Internet held—and still holds—an obvious attraction for smaller subject areas such as Pacific Studies; the linking and sharing of resources through sites such as this gives a better sense of the total size of a thinly-spread community of researchers than one would get from observing their isolated activities in any one institution.

Not every situation has only a handful of Pacific researchers, though, and centres of Pacific Studies also established web presences throughout the mid- to late 1990s. As well as RSPAS, examples include:

As more people began to use the Web throughout this period, and the medium itself moved from a novelty to a serious resource, some of the Pacific Web pioneers in the academic community began to create sites for more than just an academic audience, by acting as news hubs. While still very useful for academics, such sites also catered to expatriate islanders, journalists, and anyone with an interest in the region:

  • David Robie's Cafe Pacific [archive], not simply a news hub but also dealing with media and journalism issues in the Pacific; and
  • Pacific Islands Report at the East-West Center in Hawaii [archive], which very much was and is a news hub—now five years strong—publishing stories from Pacific media sources that at first could be found nowhere else on the Web, and often still cannot, since not every island paper has a web presence.

News Media

By the end of the 1990s even the news media of small island countries were joining the rush to get on the Web—at first in a straight web version of their non-web counterpart newspaper/magazine, with or without a regularly changing selection of their major stories; then shifting, sometimes, into broader sites aimed at providing more than news alone. This was the path followed by Fiji's news magazine The Review, which along with the Daily Post now forms the news backbone of FijiLive [archive], which played a critical role in providing news updates to the world during George Speight's attempted coup of May 2000. Also associated with The Review and the Daily Post is HelloFiji [archive].

A similar site, FijiVillage [screenshot], is associated with the Fiji Times. Note its prominent message: paid access only [beyond the front page] from 1 July 2002. News organisations around the world have been grappling with the costs of keeping up a regularly updated web presence, and with the threat such sites pose to their main source of revenue; many charge for access to archived stories or even to their entire site. In the Pacific as elsewhere, promising sites languish as the realities of doing a lot of work for no money—indeed, having to outlay money just to keep going—take effect. For example, OverHere [archive], an independent Fiji online magazine that ran from 1999 to 2001, has gone offline. The site for Matangi Tonga magazine [archive], now exists as advertisement only; its last news update was in early 2000. For small island magazines that draw considerable revenue from overseas subscriptions, a free website containing much of the content of the print edition is not economically sensible to maintain.

This is more of a problem for English-language magazines and papers, and perhaps less for indigenous language papers that rely overwhelmingly on local sales. For example, Tonga's leading non-government paper, Taimi 'o Tonga [archive], provides regular stories in Tongan to expatriates in New Zealand, Australia and North America.

Television and radio organisations in Fiji and Tonga also maintain a web presence, although their usefulness varies. Radio Fiji [screenshot] has a comparable site to the newspaper-based FijiLive and FijiVillage, with news feeds serving as part of a larger site with chat areas and other features. FijiTV [archive] has a glossy site which contains little more than information about the corporation and the latest broadcasting schedules. Tonga Radio [screenshot], while it looks attractive, has only about three paragraphs of text spread over as many pages.

Expatriates

The sites shown so far cater to a mixture of audiences—academics, journalists, expatriates—who are often based outside the islands. They are more engaged with the islands than the audience for tourist sites (such as the South Pacific Tourism Organisation [archive] or the numerous hotel, airline and travel agency sites)—but they are not the usual focus of interest of Pacific researchers: islanders living in the islands themselves. Closest to those are expatriate islanders, who have far greater access to the Web in countries like the United States and Australia than they would at home. Some use this access to build virtual communities of fellow expatriates; Tongans are a particularly good example here:

The 'chat' option is one of the main attractions of such sites, allowing visitors to log in on the spot and communicate with fellow visitors in real time—either anonymously or not, and with none of what is said archived anywhere. A similar feature is the bulletin board, where posts are archived, and build up over time into threads of conversation. An early example is the Kavabowl Forum [archive], which closed in 2000; this archived version is from 1999. Another is the HelloFiji Forum [screenshot]. Both show the highly argumentative nature of Fiji and Tongan bulletin boards on the Web, which tend to follow the Usenet tradition of frequent flaming among participants. In some cases this can lead to censorship or even closure of the boards in question by management [screenshot of closed board at Fiji Online].

These boards can, however, play host to serious debates among islanders, expatriate and at home, about their politics and culture. For example, from the Kavabowl forum in 1999:

It is alluded that the influx of these Chinese [who bought Tongan passports in the 1990s] would adversely affect our cultures and traditions and consequently we will loose all that we cherich and value as a people. How is this going to happen? What are we as a culturally concerned people going to do about this? Do we have any control over the in-coming tide of changes to traditions and accepted mores? Are the Chinese Tongans going to make changes that are not already happening?

To address the question of Tongan political sovereignty we have to support the Prodemocracy movement new Constitution on the condition that it provides for indigenous sovereignty. ... The irony is that it is the present conservative system who is allowing Chinese to settle in Tonga which invites these hostilities from all those 'romanticed' Tongans who left their 'beloved' country behind for God to look after and protect from the rest of the world.

Governments and Political Parties

The Web becomes particularly interesting for social scientists when it is more than just a publishing alternative to newspapers or television, but instead acts as a locus for serious conversations and even for loose communities of participants. Bulletin boards like the above are one of the features of the Web that allow such conversations and communities to emerge. They permit a fair degree of anonymity, which can remove cultural restraints on speaking critically in public—although the downside is the potential for flame wars—and they allow critical, subversive or unpopular comments to be placed 'on the record' for as long as the host site exists, bypassing editorial and censorship controls that may exist in the print media. They have the potential, therefore, to greatly enlarge the written record of islander opinion about their everyday lives and social and political concerns.

Concerns about state censorship are not as great in the islands as in some other parts of the world, but the potential for the Web to remove informal and practical constraints on who may say what about whom is a new and significant development: liberating and promising for some, threatening to others.

The Web comes with its own constraints, though, and there is no guarantee of any great political influence. Anonymous criticisms of governments or social systems are potentially diminished by their anonymity, as readers have no way to judge the biases or vested interests of the critic. And even if web-based criticism does gain some influence, governments that feel threatened by it have less to fear than one might think. Andrew Stroehlein, in an article in the USC Annenberg Online Journalism Review, 16 April 2002, writes about the attitudes of repressive regimes towards the Internet:

We've learned ... that the Internet does not inevitably lead to democracy any more than it inevitably leads to great wealth. The idea that the Internet itself is a threat to authoritarian regimes was a bit of delusional post-Cold War optimism. ... Many repressive states see the Internet as such a threat that they simply ban it altogether. ... Relying on high access costs as a de facto censor is an easy trick ... [although] official control is actually very possible in practice, especially as regimes run the telecommunications infrastructure when the country comes online. ... For all the excited talk about the Internet bringing freedom, actual examples of online publishing bringing about change in these countries are few.

In the case of Fiji and Tonga, there is not a great deal of formal political opposition to their governments to be found on the Web. Both governments have websites: Fiji's being polished and extensive, with press releases and other timely information [archive]; Tonga's more of a 'brochure site' [archive]. But as for the opposition, there is no Tongan Pro-Democracy Movement presence; and in Fiji, there is nothing for any of the major parties—the SVT, the Fijian Association Party, or the NFP—apart from the Fiji Labour Party, which went online on the significant anniversary date of 19 May 2002 but whose site is still in development [screenshot].

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ISP Services and Net Usage

There is a simple explanation for why the Web is still underused by such organisations in the islands as a whole. First, the cost of computer equipment places it out of reach of most islanders apart from higher income-earners, government workers and students with institutional access (for example, via USP IT Services [screenshot]). But even if one does have access to a computer in the islands, access to the Internet adds considerable extra expense.

The following tables and graphs compare Internet access and costs in Fiji and Tonga with figures from three industrialised countries, the US, the UK and Australia; and with a poorer African nation, Madagascar. Population figures are taken from the CIA World Factbook (July 2001 estimates); Internet user estimates for 1999-2001 are from the International Telecommunication Union; and GNP per capita figures are from the World Bank (2000 figures).

Table 1: Internet Usage by Population
CountryPopulation (2001)Internet Users (2001)Users as % of pop.GNP per capita (2000)
USA27805888114282300051.434100
UK596477902400000040.224430
Australia19357594720000037.220240
Fiji844330150001.781820
Tonga1042271000*0.961660
Madagascar15982563350000.22250

*1999 estimate; true 2001 figures may be twice as high.

Figure 1: Internet Users

Internet Users

Not surprisingly, access is high in the three Western countries and low—one or two percent of the population—in the other three, although growing across the board in the years shown. A look at relative costs of Internet access explains the discrepancy.

Determining access costs is straightforward enough in Fiji, where the only ISP is Connect [screenshot], and in Tonga, where all access is through the Tonga Communications Corporation [archive], but the picture is more complicated in other countries. The rates shown below (as at June 2002) are taken from government ISPs in all cases except Madagascar, but note that cheaper rates are possible in the US, UK and Australia through private ISPs. Figures are taken from: AT&T (USA); BT Openworld (UK); Telstra Bigpond (Australia); Connect (Fiji); Kalianet (Tonga); and Simicro (Madagascar). Exchange rates used (22 June 2002) were 1 US dollar to 0.67 UK pounds, 1.74 Australian dollars, 2.08 Fiji dollars, 2.13 Tongan pa'anga, and 6,719 Malagasy francs.

Table 2: Monthly Internet Access Prices (US Dollars, 2002)
Country2 hours per month20 hours per monthUnlimited accessGNP per capita (2000)
USAN/A [1]16.95 [2]21.9534100
UK2.64 [3]17.9923.9924430
Australia3.4216.64 [4]22.39 [5]20240
Fiji6.23 [6]30.63 [7]163.44 [8]1820
Tonga18.78103.29431.92 [8]1660
Madagascar12.5046.14133.94 [9]250
  1. 2 hours per month access plans unavailable through AT&T.
  2. 20 hours per month rate buys 150 hours for AT&T.
  3. 2 hours per month through BT priced as local calls, assuming 8x15 minutes at evening rates.
  4. 20 hours per month substituted with 300MB download per month for Telstra Bigpond.
  5. Unlimited access substituted with 450MB download per month for Telstra Bigpond.
  6. 2 hours per month rate buys 3 hours for Connect.
  7. 20 hours per month rate buys 25 hours for Connect.
  8. Unlimited access substituted with 90 hours per month for Connect and Kalianet.
  9. Unlimited access substituted with cost of 30 hours peak plus 60 hours offpeak per month for Simicro.

Comparing these monthly rates for access with GNP per capita per month across the six countries yields the following:

Table 3: Cost of Access as Percentage of GNP Per Capita Per Month
Country2 hours per month20 hours per monthUnlimited accessUsers as % of pop. (2001)
USA0.600.7751.4
UK0.130.881.1840.2
Australia0.201.011.3337.2
Fiji4.1120.20107.761.78
Tonga13.5874.67312.230.96
Madagascar60.00221.47642.910.22
Figure 2: Cost of Net Access

Cost of Net Access

The figures confirm local accounts of the level of Internet access, for example in Tonga:

Less than 1% of the population is connected, while the remainder have only heard of the Web, never having seen it before. The probabilities are that a phone call or letter will find someone faster than trying to get one of the e-mail connected to make contact. Full Internet access is only available in Tongatapu. If you are visiting our outer islands there is no practical Internet access and other telephony services (facsimile, voice) may be limited. The schools wish they were on the 'Net, but with difficulties supplying basic needs such as text books, there is increasing difficulty in supplying computers, telephone connections, networks, let alone the Internet connection fee.

Web cafes offer no real alternative. In the few available in Fiji, rates range from three dollars an hour to 22 cents a minute, and connection speeds are "excruciatingly slow" (Burt Lum, Honolulu Advertiser, 7 May 2002)—although some of the expensive resorts have dedicated connections. In Tonga, the Royal School of Science has cybercafe facilities, but "the number of patrons far out weighs the number of available machines", and visitors are warned to "be prepared for disappointment or for a long wait".

The conclusions are clear: only a tiny percentage of people in Fiji and Tonga can afford to connect to the Internet at home, and those who do have access cannot afford to stay connected for long. Slow download speeds and expensive rates mitigate against use of the Web, implying that most access is likely to be email.

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Voices on the Web

Certainly, there are more important priorities for the islands than Internet access; but it is worth stopping and considering what might potentially be, especially when some fascinating possibilities are already being realised in other parts of the world. Actual usage of the Internet and the Web in the West and in Asia continues to grow, despite the collapse of technology-related stock prices in 2000-2001. The Web is a global medium in a way that newspapers, television and radio are not, since those are all constrained by geographical limitations on broadcasting range and physical distribution. A worldwide conversation is taking place online—yet more than half of the people of the world, including most islanders, are unable to take part in it.

On the occasions when people in developing countries can and do take part, everyone benefits: Western perspectives are challenged and broadened, and non-Westerners gain a voice where before they had none. For example, Bermi village in Tanzania [archive] has created a web presence with information about its people, traditions and oral history (written down "for the first time"). Creating the site has not been easy:

Although power lines pass through the village, for some reason, the transformer that will bring power into the village has yet to appear. ... Petrol has to be bought in a nearby village and put into the only generator in the village. This gives four hours of power, so we have to work fast. Completed pages are taken to Babati (37Km away), where a British NGO, Farm Africa, will let us email them to a friend in England who FTP's them to the webspace. If the email is down, it is a three day round trip to Arusha (210Km away) where we can FTP them from a cybercafe.

Particularly promising in its potential is the weblog (or 'blog'), a relatively new form of personal site that is a combination of links page, online diary and opinion column. Weblogs are updated frequently, from once every few days to several times a day, with the newest entries appearing at the beginning of the page. The format has become increasingly popular in recent years as a way for ordinary people to record their thoughts, express their views, and track what they find on the Web.

Using free tools such as Blogger [archive] and free server space from GeoCities, Tripod or BlogSpot, publishing one's thoughts on the Web is a possibility for Internet users everywhere. Iran, for example, has seen a boom in weblogging (Alfred Hermida, BBC Online, 17 June 2002 [screenshot]); the country's 400,000 Internet users have surprisingly open access to the Web:

The internet in Iran is not censored. This has allowed Iranians to use blogs to air issues that they cannot talk about in public. ... An Iranian journalist living in Canada ... created one of the first blogs in Persian last year. ... He had so much interest from Iran that he decided to write a simple guide in Persian, to help others set up their own blogs. Seven months on, there are more than 1,200 Persian blogs, many of them written by women. ...

One female blogger [says,] "Women in Iran cannot speak out frankly because of our Eastern culture and there are some taboos just for women, such as talking about sex or the right to choose your partner. ... I have the opportunity to talk about these things and share my experiences with others. ... I've had e-mails from men who have told me that I changed their attitude towards women in Iran. ... I had some negative responses, people saying I am disrespecting the image of an Iranian woman. Some people even insulted me. But negative responses are few compared to positive ones."

Weblogs are predominantly a Western phenomenon so far, but bloggers can already be found in even the poorest of countries, as the example of Malagasy blogger Barijaona shows [screenshot]. True, these are only a few voices out of millions in their countries, and not necessarily typical of the majority; but they are voices where there were none, recording their lives and their surroundings, and that surely is of interest to any sociologist or anthropologist.

It is highly unrealistic to expect a computer in every home in countries with limited electricity and phone lines—but not impossible to imagine better net access being made available to more people than have it at present. Once that access is there, people will use it in unexpected and fascinating ways. To pick up the theme of "recovering the past", a medium that offers ordinary people the chance to record and report views and thoughts that would otherwise go unrecorded is one that recovers the past at the very moment that it becomes the past. Far from being futuristic pie-in-the-sky, the Web and its online archives could be the future historian's 21st century equivalent of the missionary's journal—written by islanders themselves as well as by their observers.

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Page created 20 June 2002 · last modified 23 January 2004

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