There is no question that the new information age is here. Conservative estimates indicate that more than 60 million people across at least 168 countries are now wired up to the Internet (Nielsen/NetRatings, May 2001). The speed of the technology--information literally could be circulated around the world in a matter of seconds--and the reach--messages could be sent to thousands of people--have dramatically transformed global communications. The Internet is cheaper than other forms of telecommunication, and does not require elaborate sophisticated skills to use. With over 6.8 million documents available on the World Wide Web, the technology potentially offers people from all over the world access to an incredible amount of information.
Understandably, there has been enormous excitement about the potential of the Internet to finally bring Africa and other parts of the developing world into the information age. Potentially, the technology could give students in Africa access to the same educational materials as their counterparts in the developed parts of the world. African educators could establish routine contacts with recognized authorities in their fields in the West, and have access to the best libraries in the world. Governmental and non-governmental development agencies could use the Internet to tap into the wealth of knowledge at important data banks all over the world. Economically, once isolated tribal merchants and small urban entrepreneurs in Africa could sell their wares globally through the Internet. The technology could even reduce brain drain, one of Africa's biggest problems. Many African citizens go overseas for training and never return home, and hundreds more migrate every year to the West in search of knowledge. By giving African professionals access to information in the West, the desire to migrate to the West could be reduced.
By all accounts, the new global economy is knowledge-based, and driven primarily by digital communication technology (Carnoy, 1993). For nations to participate in the new digital global community, they must be capable of delivering faster and higher quality commercial products in a more efficient manner, using digital communication technology (Allen, 1993: Tapscott 1996). Digital communication technology in essence is now dictating the global division of labor, the competitive profiles of national economies and corporations, and the ability of national economic infrastructures to generate and maintain new growth patterns. Digital communication technology has spawned new products and livelihoods by creating national and international demands for new job skills and new workforces that are technologically oriented, and geared toward information management. For Africa and other parts of the developing world, digital communication technology has enormous potential to create sustainable national development that could truly help fight poverty. Digital communication technology could help marginalized constituencies participate in both national and global economic entrepreneurships.
A number of analyses indicate that there is a direct link between telecommunication development and economic growth. In a report released in 1999, the World Bank predicted that the twin forces of localization and globalization, sustained primarily by digital communication technology, would shape the world economy in the 21st century (World Development Report, 1999). The report also noted that as we enter the 21st Century, improved telecommunications would fuel the desire and means for local communities to shape their own future. The new globalization, with the Internet as the driving force, will bring expanded markets, higher productivity and improved standards of living.
Digital communication technology has already accelerated the globalization of world economy by including direct localized commerce into the global economy (Charles et al., 1996). Electronic home shopping is already giving consumers the ability to browse through products from all over the world on their computers and order directly from individual vendors, who are becoming a staple of the new digital global economy. More than 80,000 companies, most of them in the West, are connected to the Internet (Newsbytes, June 2001). Between them, the companies have more than 1.4 million Internet hosts. There is no question that the Internet is poised to move the world into a knowledge-based global community, and that any nation without widespread access to digital communication infrastructures will not able to partake in the new global economy.
But while the potential of the Internet shows exciting promise, the characteristics and tendencies of the technology as they have manifested tell a different story. The Internet relies on technology which is much less accessible and much more expensive in Africa and other parts of the developing world than in the industrialized world. Currently, 70 percent of the host computers connected to the Internet worldwide is in the United States. Over 110 countries have direct Internet access (Nielsen/NetRatings, May 2001). All Western nations, most of Eastern Europe, Latin America and Southeast Asia have direct access to the Internet. Parts of Central and South Asia, and Africa are connected only to e-mail. Many African countries are not connected at all to the Internet, and several of those that are connected go through rudimentary networks that are run mostly by hobbyists on personal home computers. Messages on these networks take two or three days to travel from one end of the continent to the other.
In fact, telephone is still a major luxury in Africa. There are more telephone lines in Manhattan, New York than in the whole of sub-Saharan Africa. Tokyo, Japan has as many telephones as all of Africa. Thirty-five of the 49 nations that have less than one telephone per 100 people are in Africa. Only 1.5 out of a 100 people in the Third World have access to telephone lines, and those lines are located in mostly affluent urban areas. The six most-wired countries based on networks per million of population are in the West. Globally, more than 80% of the world's population still lacks the most basic telecommunications.
Amid all of the hype, it would be easy to think that the Internet is taking the entire world by storm. That may be so in the developed nations, but the majority of people in the Third World have yet to taste the Internet. Because of logistical barriers, it is very difficult to determine how many people are online in Africa. But the few estimates that are available provide a disturbing glimpse. Compared to other parts of the world, Africa is the most digitally disenfranchised. One report indicates that there are only 682,375 computer users in Africa, compared to 17.3 million computer users in Europe (WACC, 1999). Of the one million dial-up users in Africa, 650,000 are in South Africa. Nairobi-based AfricaOnline is the continent's largest Internet service provider, with 60,000 dial-up accounts in nine countries (Tomlinson, June 2001). The comparative ratio of Internet use from developed to least developed nations is 10,000 to 1 (World Bank Seminars, October 1998). Another study indicates that only a paltry 1.14 million African are online. Asia and the Pacific fared slightly better with 26.55 million people, and South America did not do as well with 4.5 million online. Conversely, 33.39 million people in Europe and 87 million in North America are online. Another source indicates that there are a mere 682,375 Internet users in all of Africa, compared to 17.3 million in Europe. The number of Internet users in Africa is even more distressing when examined on a country-by-country basis. In Kenya, there are currently 15 Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and only 5000 Internet users.
Another observer indicates that only 25,000 computers in Africa were permanently connected to the Internet in 2000, and only one out of every 250 Africans is an Internet user, compared to a world average of one in 35 people. The paucity of the ratio is more pronounced when we realize that one in three people in North America and Europe is an Internet user (Tomlinson, 2001). In fact, more than half of the connected computers in the world are in the United States, whereas less than 10 countries in Africa are directly connected to the Internet. Even though some estimates indicate that the number of people using computers in Africa is growing by as much as 20 percent a month, it must be noted that South Africa alone accounts for much of that growth. In fact, 650,000 of the continent's one million dial-up users are in South Africa (Tomlinson, 2001). Any way you cut it, Africa has a huge disadvantage in computer or Internet use when compared to other parts of the world. Education is a major obstacle to mass use of the Internet in Africa. More than three-quarters of the population of Africa are functionally illiterate. Since much of the information on the Internet is in English, a substantial segment of African population is digitally marginalized because of deficiency in language. Ii is safe to say that as long as English remains the primary language of the Internet, the use of the technology in Africa will remain in the domain of the privileged elite.
Cost is another prohibitive factor because individual users of the Internet need a computer and modem, affordable telephone lines and reliable electricity, all difficult propositions in Africa. While it costs only $20 a month for Internet services in North America, people in Africa pay about $100 for similar services (Tomlinson, 2001). Also, customers in the United States pay only the Internet service provider's charge and nothing for a local phone call, but most other countries have a system where they allow both access charges and a per minute local phone call charge.
Internet service is a commercial activity. Naturally, much of the digital ventures in Africa have taken place in major urban areas where modest telecommunication infrastructures are available (Investor's Business Daily, July 24, 1997). The limited digital ventures in Africa have concentrated in urban centers also because middle class markets are generally located there. Rural areas, which make up the largest portion in Africa, have been totally shut out of digital investments.
The goal of digitizing Africa must not be to catch up to the West or to match the Western technological prowess step by step. Most of computer technology developments in the United States are spearheaded or sponsored by corporations. Naturally, technological innovations in the U.S. reflect similar commercial imperatives that guide U.S. corporate culture. This is also means that the transfer of technology from the U.S. to Africa is primarily a commercial venture. A new contextually oriented paradigm in computer design is important if we are to have a broader view of the technology. It is important that we begin to see computers as a human tool as well, and not only a business tool. Seeing computers as a human tool means that community ideas and goal must be incorporated into the philosophy of the technology. Computers must be adaptable to environmental peculiarities and sensitive to indigenous realities. The Media Lab at Massachusetts Institute of Technology is a trendsetter in developing new orientations in computer design by incorporating indigenous ideas and using local using local materials (Wired News, July 2, 2001).
A handful of wireless technology projects in Africa have shown very measured success. AfricaOnline has developed E-Touch Internet Centers, a franchise that gets people online for very nominal cost. Mozambique, Ghana and Uganda have proven that they can supply the necessary bandwidth at an affordable price in unregulated markets. In Congo where regular mail is unreliable and telephone calls are expensive, as is the case in most African countries, a wireless broadband network called Raga was set up in Kinshasa in August 1999. The idea was to use the network to provide a voice-over-Internet service that will bypass the tedious communications exchange in the country. Interestingly, however, subscribers were more interested in using the network, which is accessed by satellite link, for telephone calls than for the Internet.
Since 1997, cyber cafes have been sprouting up in major urban centers in Africa. The service providers use wireless and satellite technologies to circumvent government telecommunication monopolies. The funding for hardware and network development for the cyber cafes in some Africa countries have come from the U.S. Agency for International Development's Leland Initiative program. The program, named after Mickey Leland, a Democratic congressman from Texas who died in a 1989 plane crash in Ethiopia, launched a five-year $15 million program in 1995 to extend Internet access to Africa. A handful of enterprising urban residents have been using the cafes for everything from e-commerce to reading foreign newspapers. Many of the cyber cafes have been doing well commercially, even though online cost is still not within the reach of the average African. Toptechnology, one of 15 "cyber tea" locations in Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania, charges $1.50 an hour. Customers at Kinko's Media Services in Lagos, Nigeria pay about $3 dollars for half an hour. These costs may seem fairly modest when compared to the cost of getting online in the United States, but they are exorbitant by African standards.
Partnerships between Western educational institutions and African companies may offer another avenue to generate initiatives to close the digital gap in Africa. A model of such a partnership is being tried between the Indian government and Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States. Under a proposal to build the Media Lab Asia, the Indian government will provide $200 million over 10 years, and $800 million will come from the private sector. The innovations developed at the lab will help disaster-relief efforts, connect remote Indian villages, and provide low-cost computer access for millions of disadvantaged Indians (Wired News, 2 July 2001)
Unless there are dramatic improvements, it would appear that the Internet, as it is currently manifesting, would further disenfranchise marginal constituencies. The North-South information disparity has never been wider, and Africa has never been in a more precarious position. In deed, we may be witnessing another variation of the techolonization of Africa. Second-tier nations such as Russia and China are actually making better headway with digital communication technology than Africa. Russia is using the Internet to embark on distance-learning programs to make education available to students in rural areas. Tomsk State University, for example, reaches students 250 miles away with its Prokopyevsk Distance Learning Center. Students attend online classes and use interactive digital textbooks on CD-ROMs. Physics students participate in digital lab experiments, using a virtual particle accelerator. China's Ministry of Education is introducing digital education program that would allow five million college students to take part in online education by 2005. At present, 240,000 students are taking part in online education at 38 online universities in China.
The perverse racial and class bias in the nature of the Internet is demonstrated by the fact that the digital gap in the United States and much of the industrial world pretty much mirrors the global digital profile (Ebo, 1998). Despite the significant growth in computer ownership and usage overall in the United States, that growth has occurred remarkably more within some income levels, demographic groups, and geographic areas. Even though all racial groups now own more computers than they did in 1994, for instance, Blacks and Hispanics lag even further behind Whites in their levels of personal computer ownership and on-line access. At 40.8%, White households are still more than twice as likely to own a computer than Black households at 19.3% or Hispanic households at 19.4%. Disturbingly, this digital divide between the races in the United States even shows up across all income levels. At incomes higher than $75,000, Whites are still more likely to have personal computers at 76.3% than Blacks at 64.1%. Also, the rates for on-line access are nearly three times as high for Whites at 21.2% than for Blacks at 7.7% or Hispanics at 8.7%. These figures indicate that there may be other socio-psychological issues at play with digital diversity.
In the United States, there is still a significant divide among racial groups in telephone penetration. Overall, White households have a far higher telephone penetration rate at 95.9% than Black households at 86% or Hispanic households at 86.5%. This divide is particularly pronounced at incomes below $15,000, where it is 90.3% for Whites, 76.3% for Blacks, and 78.4 % for Hispanics. The telephone divide is quite significant because without telephone, the ability to get online will be severely curtailed.
The Internet is still the domain of men in the Western World, but women are quickly gaining ground. The digital gender gap in the United States, United Kingdom and Germany in particular is quickly closing. In the United Kingdom, men make up 49.2 percent of the population and their online use is 59.9 percent, while women, who are 50.8 percent of the population, are online only 40.1 percent of the time (NetValue, December 2000; Internet Wire, March 6, 2001). For Germany, men are 48.9 percent of the population and have an online use of 59.2 percent, while women's online use is 40.8 percent even though they are 51.1 percent of the population. The gender digital gap in France and Spain are much wider. Women make up 51.3 percent of the population in France, but their online use is 38 percent compared to 62 percent online use for men, who make 48.7 percent of the population. In Spain men comprise 49 percent of the population and have an online use of 68.7 percent, compared to women who have online use of only 31.3 percent even though they make up 51 percent of the population. The digital gender gap in the United States is much narrower, with 50.6 percent online use for men, who make up 48.9 percent of the population, and 49.4 percent online use for women, who make up 51.1 percent of the population (NetValue, December 2000; Internet Wire, March 6, 2001).
Educational level seems to be the most pronounced variable when it comes to Internet use in the United States. The greater one's education, the greater the likelihood the person will have a phone, personal computer and a modem. At 97.6%, those with college degrees are far more likely than those without any high school education at 87.8% to have telephone service. The comparison is even more striking with respect to personal computer ownership, where those with a college education at 63.2% are almost ten times as likely to own a computer as those without any high school at 6.8%. Thirty-eight percent of those with college education have online access compared to 9.6% of those with a high school diploma and 1.8% of those without any high school education. Rural areas are also underrepresented in personal computer use in the United States at 5.5%, compared to 64.7% for suburban areas (Newsbytes, June 2001). Overall, though, United States residents continue to cruise the information superhighway in record numbers. The number of United States residents going online skyrocketed by 15 percent, from 100.3 million surfers in October 2000 to more than 115.2 million in October 2001 (Mariano, 2001).
There is no question that the Internet has a strong hegemonic tendency and an inherent bias against marginal constituencies. There also is no doubt that we need aggressive remedies to narrow the digital divide between the developed and the developing nations. The use of mobile computer labs may be one quick and practical way to bring Africa online. The Community College Foundation of California has been successfully using mobile computer labs, called eBuses, to promote technology awareness in poor urban areas. The eBuses have workstations and a satellite linkup, and travel through underprivileged neighborhoods, offering computer training and Web access services. Corporate sponsors and state organizations provide the funding for the program (Wireless Newsfactor, 23 August 2001)
The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) has a Mobile Internet Unit that works in partnership with national and regional development agencies in parts of the developing nations to promote mobile computer programs. The UNDP and its Asia-Pacific Development Information Program helped Malaysia start a mobile computer program in 1998. Their computer-equipped buses tour through the countryside and introduce poor children to computers and the Internet. The Malaysian government has pledged to increase the number of computer buses by 20 over the next four years. Ghana also has computer buses that travel through the rural areas. (New York Times, 23 August 2001).
Well aware of the low literacy in the rural population in the developing nations and that radio is an important knowledge lifeline, OneWorld Online has developed the OneWorld Radio News Service. The radio service uses the Internet to deliver programs to community radio stations, that then disseminate the programs to local audiences (World Bank Seminars, October 1998). Programs could include farmers sharing information on planting strategies and local residents sharing ideas on cooperative ventures to maximize resources.
There is modest pressure on Western corporations to design computers that accommodate indigenous infrastructural problems in Africa. Some have suggested the development of solar or dynamic-driven computers to address chronic energy deficiency in Africa. Others suggest computers that have environmentally friendly safe guards to protect against chronic external detractors such as sand and humidity. The problem is that digital communication technology is a commercial enterprise and it is doubtful that Western corporations would make investments in computer designs unless they are convinced that there would be a huge market in Africa for such computers.
Some international organizations are promoting the idea of community connectivity in the Third World by launching digital community centers. Currently, United Nations Development Programme has implemented two such initiatives, and others are on the drawing board. The Asia-Pacific Development Information Programme (APDIP) and the Internet Initiative for Africa (IIA) are underway, and programs for Latin America, the Caribbean and the Arab States are in the planning stage.
The Digital Opportunity Taskforce, an initiative that came out of the 2000 G8 Economic Summit meeting in Japan, produced a detailed study that recommended ways to close the global digital divide. The report noted that the Internet could be used to tackle global poverty, infant mortality, and deficient educational systems (Newsbytes, June 1, 2001). The report also discussed how non-English content could be placed on the Internet, and ways schools could be wired for e-learning.
A few Western companies have initiated efforts to improve telecommunications infrastructure in Africa. The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) has launched the WorldTel project to try and close the digital gap between the developed and the developing nations. United States corporation AT &T has been soliciting investors for Africa One, a $1.9 billion project to wire the continent with high-capacity fiber optic cable. Reminiscent of earlier West-sponsored White Elephant development projects of the 1970s, the AT&T initiative has been criticized for its grandiose nature. Germany's Siemens has denounced Africa One as shortsighted, and has instead proposed a more measured project to wire Africa piece by piece. Microsoft has invested millions of dollars in building an African market for its products, with a major operation in South Africa (Wall Street Journal, May 14, 1997. The company is expanding into Zimbabwe, and plans to open offices on the island of Mauritius.
A legitimate question is whether Western corporation are digitizing Africa to bring the continent into the new global economy or to create more market for Western products and services. The answer to this question could offer some insights behind Western digital initiatives, and may ultimately determine whether the initiatives succeed or fail. There are economic speculations that by 2005 non-English speakers will constitute the majority on the Internet, and that about 66 percent of e-commerce dollars will be generated outside the United States (NewsFactor Network, May 31, 2001). The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) estimates that there is a $30 billion deficit in investments worldwide for Western nations because of the limited digital capability of many nations, especially Third World nations. Well aware of this, Western companies are scrambling to incorporate multiple languages into the Internet. Some fifty-seven Fortune 100 companies in the United States had multilingual sites in 2000, twice as many companies that had such sites in 1999 (NewsFactor Network, May 31, 2001). Yahoo has started broadcasting in languages that are native to Latin America, China and India. The complex multilingual nature of Africa makes it extremely difficult for Western companies to include Africa in their multilingual digital projects.
The motives behind many of the initiatives by Western corporations to digitize Africa are difficult to discern, but some of them may actually end up techolonizing the continent because they lack strong indigenous components. At a 1994 conference on African Information Technology in the United States, Dr. Adebayo Akinde of the Computer Association of Nigeria proposed a complete ban on importation of hardware systems, and instead advocated the establishment of computer manufacturing industries in Africa. The concern is that Africa's past practice of latching on to technology from the West without questioning its validity or contextualizing it for indigenous use could repeat itself with computer technology.
For many developing nations, the issue of cyberimperialism is major concern. These nations see the Internet as an important propaganda tool that has given the West an added advantage in the global information warfare (Ebo, 2001). The U.S. State Department has been emphasizing the significance of the Internet as a diplomatic tool at its annual Net Diplomacy conference. The United States Undersecretary of State Marc Grossman stated at the second annual conference "We have got to use these technologies to tell America's story, to promote America's interest, and perhaps further the ideas of freedom and democracy around the world" (Associated Press, September 6, 2001). Many people, such comments translate into using the Internet to infuse America's socio-political agenda into other cultures, especially the cultures of the developing nations.
The good news, though limited, is that proportionally Africa and other developing parts of the world are witnessing a modest acceleration in the use of the Internet. There are optimistic projections that by the end of 2001, the number of Web users in Africa, Latin America, Caribbean, and East and Central Europe will quadruple from 7.6 million to 25.6 million. There is no question that the Internet has tantalizing possibilities for inclusive globalization, and that it potentially offers Africa the best avenue yet to join the global economy. Small entrepreneurs in Africa could use the Internet to inexpensively pool their resources to develop lucrative global commercial ventures. Small investors in Africa could tap into economic resources and markets in developed nations.
The story of Ann McCreath illustrates the potential of the Internet to include small entrepreneurs in the global economy. In 1998 McCreath started an e-business in Nairobi, making wedding dresses. Customers choose designs from pictures posted on her website, and she uses email to consult with them about measurements. McCreath has found a fairly profitable market in the United States, making wedding and bridesmaids' gowns for large wedding parties in North America. Customers make online payments by credit card, and she uses three-day international shipping to get the merchandise to them. The Internet has made it possible for McCreath to have access to the global market, fashioning traditional African fabrics, buttons and beads into clothes that reflect international trends (Tomlinson, 2001).
The 1999/2000 World Development Report notes that as we enter the 21st century, improved communications and diminishing trade barriers will make the world smaller, and drive the desire for the reallocation of global resources and cooperation in financial flow. Understandably, efficient and effective communications technology will be an important part of this new globalism. This means that only local constituencies that have access to the new digital technology will participate actively in the global debate on resource reallocation (World Development Report, 1999). For instance, OneWorld Online, a digital knowledge clearinghouse, collects and packages all sorts of information from various agencies and organizations from all over the world that its 300 subscribers could link Besides the thousands of development workers from over 120 countries that use the service, organizational subscribers include small non-governmental agencies in Africa and the United Nations (World Bank Seminars, October 1998).
In its 1999 World Development Report (WDR), the World Bank points out, "Knowledge is like light. Weightless and intangible, it can easily travel the world, enlightening the lives of people everywhere.... Poor countries differ from rich countries not only because they have less capital but because they have less knowledge." Clearly, the World Bank understands the importance of redirecting the thinking of traditional economics from market forces and monetary policies as the baseline development model to social progress arising from the knowledge economy. A notable component of this new thinking is the recognition of the rapid technical changes that accompany the information revolution, including the Internet. More importantly, this new thinking places global emphasis on how to integrate the Third World into the emerging knowledge economy.
It becomes important to develop progressive global policies and regulations that break down global digital isolation and information barriers if we are to alleviate information and material poverty. We must technologically empower Africa and other parts of the developing world. Important components of any strategy must include education and training, debt relief, social democratization, investment in infrastructures, improved and cheaper telecommunications services. There is no doubt that immense resources are needed to enable Africa partake in the new digital globalization, and that both the public and private sectors must be on board. It is equally imperative that all initiatives to digitize Africa be needs-defined and needs-driven in order to incorporate indigenous considerations. The remedy must not be to flood Africa with low-cost second-hand and reconfigured computers and equipments. Such a move could simply make Africa a dumping ground for obsolete Western technology.
So is the Internet the messiah that will lead Africa to the new global economy or the demon that will relegate the continent to perpetual information poverty? While the true profile of the Internet is still emerging, many of the characteristics and tendencies of the technology that have already manifested indicate that Africa has little hope of joining the digital global community any time soon. The technology is less accessible and much more expensive in Africa than in other parts of the world. Because of the initial cost of hardware and continual online charges, Internet services are beyond the reach of the majority of the African population. Necessary infrastructure for the use of the technology, such as telephone lines and electricity, are obsolete and undependable in many parts of Africa and the Third World.
Early optimistic observations that the Internet will offer Africa the best opportunity yet to leapfrog into the global technological revolution may be exaggerated. Arguably, in its current form, the Internet may be nothing more than another hegemonic tool for the exportation of Western cultural and political ideology to the developing world. What appears to be emerging as the Internet continues to evolve are innate characteristics that fit into the classic notion of cultural imperialism, in this case techolonialism is probably more appropriate. We may be witnessing another technology driven by Western transnational media conglomerates, and poised to control or suppress indigenous social and economic activities in Africa and other developing parts of the world. Only time will tell.
 The author visited Kinko's Media Services in Lagos, Nigeria in August 2001 during a private visit to the country.
 NetValue was founded in France in 1998, and started operations in the United States in April 2000. The company also operates in the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Spain, Sweden, Chine, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore and Mexico.
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|Bosah Ebo is a Professor in the Department of Communication at Rider University where he teaches International Communication, Communication Ethics, and Media and Popular Culture. He received the Rider University Award for Distinguished Teaching in 1994 and was a Fulbright Senior Scholar to Germany in 1996. His work includes numerous journal articles, and book chapters in World Opinion and the Emerging International Order (Praeger, 1998), The Huddled Masses: Communication and Immigration (Hampton Press, 1998), News Media and Foreign Policy (Ablex, 1997), and Africa's Media Image (Praeger, 1992). He has published two books: Cyberghetto or Cybertopia: Race, Class, and Gender on the Internet (Praeger, 1998) and Cyberimperialism: Global Relations in the New Electronic Frontier (Praeger, 2001)|