Having emerged from the academy just a few years ago, the Internet has rapidly blossomed into the most profoundly influential force of our era. Its social and economic importance has been likened to that of the Industrial Revolution. There is now a widely shared vision of universality -- an expectation that every individual and organization will have online access to a vast array of information and services in the not-too-distant future. At the most recent World Economic Forum in Davos, Michael S. Dell, founder of the Dell Computer Corporation, asserted that the Internet eventually will be as ubiquitous and as normal as electricity is today.
We, too, believe that the universality of the Internet is inevitable. However, every country will take its own distinctive path toward that goal, a path that will have a far-reaching impact on national productivity, the development of civic society, and the prosperity and lifestyles of individual citizens.
While Internet growth in developed nations should and will be led by private enterprise and individual behavior, it is becoming clear that a "digital divide" threatens to create an Internet underclass. Governments around the world are concerned that unequal connectivity to the Internet could widen social and economic divisions -- among individuals, within companies, even among nations. Although commercial providers of computer equipment and Internet connectivity are cutting prices, and introducing products and services to address underserved user groups, the distribution of Internet access will likely remain uneven. Unless governments step in to even out the growth rate and the reach of Internet access across all of society, the digital divide will only worsen.
At the same time, governments have an imperative to lower the cost and improve the quality of the public services they deliver, and online technologies will facilitate that improvement. But if a significant portion of the population remains offline, governments will have to run parallel structures, adding to cost and complexity, and reducing the potential savings from e-government. Because many of the citizens most in need of government services are likely to be lowest on the commercial sector's priority list, there is clearly additional value in using government initiatives to accelerate a nation's Internet adoption rate.
As a major force in the marketplace, governments can drive universal access and usage. If governments, for example, were to move all of their supplier relationships online, it would enable (and in some cases oblige) many companies to follow suit. Similarly, if governments were to provide a cash incentive to encourage citizens to submit their tax returns online (as the U.K. and U.S. governments have done), it would encourage use by individuals. At a more basic level, governments, like large organizations, are major employers: The access and Internet training provided to their work forces has a significant impact on the broader marketplace.
Case in point: the United Kingdom. Although the U.K. has a high level of Internet penetration and was Europe's largest e-commerce market in 1999, an emerging digital divide threatens to leave 20 million people excluded from the knowledge economy in three years' time. That is why the U.K. government took the lead in driving toward a goal of Internet access for every citizen in the United Kingdom. In March, Prime Minister Tony Blair made universal access an official goal to be reached by 2005. The alternative would be to settle for a widening gap between the connected and the unconnected, a gulf with severe economic, educational, and social implications. Although the falling costs of personal computers and Internet access will help to increase penetration rates, vibrant market forces are not sufficient to ensure universal access to the online world.