Three-D Issue 29: The influence of Internet Indicators

UNESCO’s project to define Internet Universality indicators is organised around four principles – ROAM (R – that the internet is based on human Rights, O – that it is Open; A – that it should be Accessible to all; and M – that is nurtured by Multistakeholder participation). UNESCO has hosted many consultations and this comment was prepared for a panel discussion at the IAMCR Conference in Cartagena, Colombia, in July 2017. The aim of UNESCO’s extensive set of consultations with stakeholders around the world is to build consensus around a framework of quantitative and qualitative indicators that can be used to assess levels of achievement in individual countries in relation to these principles. UNESCO recognises that country experiences and characteristics will differ and its representatives have consistently said that it is up to country stakeholders to decide how to interpret the results of analysis using the indicators for internal policy.

Once agreed, however, the Internet Universality indicators, are very likely to be used in an instrumental way that provokes debates about leading and lagging countries and regions and comparisons of investment in infrastructure, capabilities and skills and the extent to which policies and practices in the countries which use the indicators demonstrate respect for the fundamental rights of citizens. This is likely despite this not being UNESCO’s intention. As with the many sets of indicators that have been developed to benchmark progress towards the expansion of the global connectivity and inclusion in the online world, when the results of surveys using indicators are compared by ranking country relative performance, the suggestion often is that there is, or should be, a linear pathway towards achieving policy goals. Thus, the inappropriate use of such indicators can result in a catch-up mentality, that is, a race to the top as if the ‘top’ should look the same in all countries. Yet, scholars familiar with the development and role of the internet in contemporary societies know that context matters and that internet models differ because countries elect to follow distinctive pathways towards the achievement of ROAM policy goals, even when there is agreement about the principles themselves.

The use of indicators of the kind proposed by UNESCO is often criticized because their use favours the normalization of a dominant and linear pathway towards a digitally mediated information society. Notwithstanding this criticism, however, when the results of research using such indicators are used to map and visualise the relative performance of countries there is a way in which this can potentially support policies favouring alternative pathways. This may be possible if the use of indicators is associated with mapping and visualisations which contribute to ‘a collective enabling enterprise, a project that both reveals and realizes hidden potential’1, instead of reinforcing the dominant models associated with the leading countries based on global indicators. Research based on the Internet Universality indicators could be used to ‘emancipate potentials, enrich experiences and diversify worlds’ rather than as a means for the normalization of the agendas of an imperialist technocracy or for societal control measures that infringe on fundamental citizen rights. In this sense, the availability of these indicators could be regarded as a means of ‘uncovering realities previously unseen or unimagined, even across seemingly exhausted grounds’.2 As Cassirer, the German Philosopher, put it, ‘in truth, however, what we call the world of our perception is not simple, not given and self-evident from the outset, but “is” only insofar as it has gone through certain basic theoretical acts by which it is apprehended and specified’.3 He made this comment in relation to spatial maps, but his awareness of the way in which data are contextualized and interpreted is relevant in the case of the application of the Internet Universality indicators as well. High-level principles are driving the development of these indicators and there is a risk that their application will privilege the policies and practices of the ‘leaders’. However, used in ways that are sensitive to local context, the Internet Universality indicators may be effective in revealing pathways that depart from the prevailing perspective. It is always important to remember that indicators ‘are not without effect; they have great force in shaping the world’.4

The UNESCO Internet Universality indicators will sit alongside others that give greater emphasis to progress towards the ‘knowledge economy’ or towards extending the reach of broadband access without reference to fundamental human rights. These indicators are developed by other UN agencies and consultancy firms and sometimes by academic researchers. What are the intersections between the different approaches, if any, and how likely is it that UNESCO’s indicators will influence policy makers to think and act differently than they do when they are influenced principally by the indicators that do not encompass the four ROAM principles? The time may be right for UNESCO’s initiative to have a potentially substantial impact in encouraging a shift away from the ‘race to the top’ approach. There is persistent evidence that techno-economic approaches are failing to meet the promise of encouraging countries and regions to ‘catch-up’ with the leaders, not the least because technologies of connectivity are constantly changing and because their application is never wholly benign. The ROAM indicators approach may help to signpost ‘realities previously unseen or unimagined’ because of the integration of rights indictors alongside those typical of approaches that focus on the diffusion and take up of technology and services.

If the Internet Universality indictors are to play this role in critically highlighting the features of the digital environment within countries, it is essential that they emphasise two aspects that do not seem to be given sufficient attention.

  1. The Internet Universality indicators need to yield information that can be used to map and visualize the position of countries within the global internet value chain. Country positions in value chains can help to demonstrate the constraints and opportunities facing domestic policy makers. This requires indicators of the intensity of digital industry concentration in and outside a country, e.g. who are the owners of the digital technology system (networks and services) and to whom are they accountable? Mapping and visualising where a country is positioned within the internet value chain would make it feasible to consider why countries that ‘ought’ to be performing well may not be achieving some of the ROAM goals which, in turn, might stimulate discussion about different potential pathways that could be followed.
  2. The Internet Universality indicators need to capture local experience, e.g. street level accounts of the intensity of internet use, who shares access, the experience of online interaction by children and younger and older adults of using internet-based services.

Although there is very little basis for comparative analysis of existing indicator sets because of the different methodologies that are used,5 if a few indicators in each ROAM category were to be linked to those used in other indicator sets, this could serve as a validity check and also potentially motivate investigation of reasons for discrepancies. This would provide a basis for critical engagement with the results,6 and stimulate a consideration of distinctive pathways toward achieving the ROAM goals. In this way UNESCO’s Internet Universality Indicators might be used to support citizen activism and resistance to developments that do not enhance the protection of human rights rather to foster a reinforcement of the ‘race to the top’ which downplays or ignores the need to simultaneously address issues relating to fundamental rights and responsibilities in a way that aligns with local contexts and experiences.


1. Corner, J. (1999) ‘The Agency of Mapping: Speculation, Critique and Invention’ in D. Cosgrove (ed), Mappings. London: Reaktion, pp. 213-52, p. 213.

2. Ibid., p. 213.

3. Cassirer, E. (1955) ‘Myth as a Form of Thought’ in The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms: vol 2: Mythical Thought (Trans. R. Manheim), New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, p. 30.

4. Corner, J., p. 250.

5. Puddephatt, A., Rossini, C. and Zausmer, R. (2014) ‘Defining Indictors of Internet Development, UNESCO background paper, Mar., draft, at

6. Werbin, K. C. and Lovink, G. (2006) ‘Critique of Ranking and Listing: Exchange with Kenneth C. Werbin, at

Posted by Einar Thorsen