Israel spearheads drive to open the information society to all

Israel is seeking ways to narrow the growing digital divide. What divides the world’s ‘haves’ from the ‘have-nots’? It used to be access to food, health care and education, but nowadays it’s just as likely to be access to the …

Israel is seeking ways to narrow the growing digital divide. What divides the world’s ‘haves’ from the ‘have-nots’?
It used to be access to food, health care and education, but nowadays it’s just as likely to be access to the Internet.

The growing digital divide could lead to what some have called gigantic ‘cyber ghettos’ – pockets of the world where millions of people are cut off from the emerging information society.

Israel hopes to play a leading role in bridging this digital divide – and last week held an international workshop to share strategies for doing just that. High-ranking government officials from Slovenia, Latvia, Azerbaijan, Colombia, Chile and Kazakhstan attended the brain-storming session in Tel Aviv, entitled ‘Laying the Foundation for Collaboration in the Information Society’ – held within the framework of the Telecom Israel 2004 exhibition.

“The idea was to learn from the experiences of the others and share Israel’s knowledge in this field,” said workshop moderator Shmuel Ravel, director of Economic Department 3 of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which organized the workshop in cooperation with the Ministry of Finance.

In Israel some 50 percent of the population are connected to the Internet from home, and some 65% through work or home.

“Whoever fails to use the Internet as an everyday tool will be deprived,” warned Dr. Amir Etziony, president of the Israel Internet Association (ISOC-IL). “The real victims are those with special needs.”

“Our agenda,” he continued, “is to bridge the digital divide, in particular by opening the Net to the disabled and to senior citizens,” said Etziony.
Spearheading efforts to bridge Israel’s digital divide – particularly among youth – is the Education Ministry which, in 1994, launched a national program to computerize the education system. “We started with a ratio of one computer for every 10 children in schools,” noted Yaffa Vigodsky, director of the Ministry of Education’s Science and Technology Administration. “But then we saw that this is one reason for the digital divide. So we changed the ratio to one computer for every five children, and improved it even more in peripheral regions of the country or areas with a high-risk population.”

Since November, Vigodsky noted, the Education Ministry keeps computer labs in schools open past regular school hours, staffing them until midnight. Internet community centers are also open from morning through midnight “to enable children without computers at home to do their homework there, and to take courses,” said Vigodsky.

Schools are able to have free access to the Internet, thanks to an agreement between the Education Ministry and a local telecommunication company. The ministry also ensures that school computer labs get free technical support.

In the private sector, Israeli companies, such as Gilad, Tadiran, Indigo and ECI are helping to bring the Internet to far-flung spots of the world. Colombia’s Communications Minister Martha Elena Pinto de de Hart noted that Israeli satellite technology is responsible for providing 13,000 phone lines and 10,000 satellite communities in rural areas of Colombia.

Boaz Dolev, director of the e-government department of the Ministry of Finance, explained how Israeli citizens are increasingly able to carry out transactions through the Internet. “Despite thousands of cyber attacks every day, we have built a secure gateway to the Net that enables individuals and businesses to pay millions of shekels in a single transaction.”

Dolev noted that the number of e-government portal users in Israel is growing daily as citizens prefer to fill in forms and pay bills via computer. As a safety measure, all government workers have smart cards with e-signatures.
Dolev offered to help other countries save time and money by sharing Israel?s own lessons in launching e-government programs.

That offer should be welcomed by Prof. Imants Freibergs, President of the Latvian Information and Telecommunications Association, who noted that Latvia regards e-government and e-services as resources for boosting the economy which, at the moment, lags significantly behind that of other European Union countries.

“Some 2 billion people in the world have no access to information resources,” said Azerbaijan’s Minister of Communication and Information Technologies Prof. Ali M. Abassov, explaining the urgent need to bridge the digital divide. “Ninety five percent of the information resources are used by people in developed countries. Lack of information is one of the main obstacles to development.”

On the academic front, in May, 2003, Tel Aviv University (TAU) established an institute to coordinate research on the impact of the Internet on society. “We will be exploring the social, cultural, economic, legal and ethical impact of the Net,” said Prof. Niv Ahituv, director of TAU new Interdisciplinary Center for Internet Studies. Among the specific topics on the agenda: the digital divide, e-learning, human rights, and cyberterrorism.

The Israeli workshop came in the wake of last year’s World Summit on the Information Society, in Geneva, a UN-initiated international gathering that is to hold its next session in November, 2005 in Tunis.