What is ICT Policy?
The Oxford English Dictionary defines policy as "A course of action, adopted and pursued by a government, party, ruler, statesman, etc.; any course of action adopted as advantageous or expedient." While this definition suggests that policy is the realm of those in power - governments or official institutions - a wider sense could include the vision, goals, principles and plans that guide the activities of many different actors.
ICT policy generally covers three main areas: telecommunications (especially telephone communications), broadcasting (radio and TV) and the internet. It may be national, regional or international. Each level may have its own decision-making bodies, sometimes making different and even contradictory policies.
Although policies are formally put in place by governments, different stakeholders and in particular the private sector make inputs into the policy process and affect its out-comes. Thus, for example, in the International Telecommunications Union, an intergovernmental body for governments to coordinate rules and regulations in the field of telecommunications, the influence of multinationals has grown enormously. Privatisation of state-owned companies has meant that governments can rarely control telecommunications directly. The privatised telecom companies, often partly controlled by foreign shareholders, look after their own interests. In the context of globalised markets, large and rich corporations are often more powerful than developing countries' governments, allowing them to shape the policy-making process.
Two sets of issues in ICT policy are critical to civil society at the moment: access and civil liberties. Access has to do with making it possible for everyone to use the internet and other media. In countries where only a minority have telephones, ensuring affordable access to the internet is a huge challenge. Much of the response would lie in social solutions such as community or public access centres. In richer countries, basic access to internet is available almost to all, and faster broadband connections are fairly widespread. Access to traditional media is now a key concern, as new technologies make community video, radio and television more feasible than before.
The other set of issues, civil liberties, includes human rights such as freedom of expression, the right to privacy, the right to communicate, intellectual property rights, etc. These rights as applied to broadcast media have been threatened in many countries, and now the internet, which began as a space of freedom, is also threatened by government legislation and emerging restrictions. Some of the most blatant attacks on freedom of expression come from developing countries such as China and Vietnam, but even in countries which have a long tradition of freedom of expression, such as the USA, there are new attempts to restrict internet users' privacy and to limit their right to choose. At the same time, restrictions that are intended to limit media monopolies are being weakened and pushed aside.
Source: ICT Policy: A Beginner's Handbook , APC/Ed. Chris Nicol, December 2003