Public Access to the Internet and Social Change: An experience in Colombia, between silence and hope
AbstractThe use of information and communication technologies (ICT) can contribute to community development. Public access venues such as telecentres, public libraries and cybercafés make ICT more broadly available, extending the benefits of ICT to underserved sectors of the population. Development is seen as a process of empowerment of marginalized communities to transform their immediate reality and improve their quality of life. This paper presents a case study of public access venues in the small municipality of Carmen de Bolívar, a small town in Northern Colombia. This municipality has a strong tradition of community organization for social development, and a long history of violence that have shaped its social fabric. The case study assesses the contribution of public access to ICT for community development, capitalizing on the region’s experience with community organization. This study found that the introduction of public access to ICT may not have contributed significantly to community development. Venues that provide public Internet access are mostly used for personal social networking (e.g., Facebook) and to access pornography. To a much smaller degree, public access ICT is also used for homework by schoolchildren and for online banking and government transactions by adults. The absence of community development activities is especially surprising given the relative strength of the community organizations that have worked on communication activities in this region during the last decade. This vacuum may be a consequence of the violence suffered by the inhabitants of the region in its recent history, or of the preference for private access to computers and Internet at home or at work for community development purposes. We conclude that public access to ICT alone does not necessarily contribute to community development, especially if the political environment is not conducive or if there are no strong social organizations in the community.