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East: Analysis From Washington -- Priced Off The Internet

Washington, 27 December 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Several post-communist governments interested in restricting the access of their citizens to the Internet have found a new way to do it -- and one far less likely to spark criticism in the West. They are changing the tariff system for personal telephone access from a flat monthly fee to per-minute charges. That shift may lead some less well-off surfers to reduce the time they spend on line in order to save money for more immediate needs.

Because the governments involved can argue that they are taking this step as part of an effort to introduce free market principles -- in some cases, this may even be the primary motivation -- many Western observers are unlikely to condemn it. But the practical result is that many web surfers, especially those who are living close to the financial margin, may decide to surf less in order to pay for basic necessities.

In the decade since the collapse of communism, several governments in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet republics have attempted to restrict the access of their citizens to all or part of the Internet. Some Central Asian countries, including Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, have required their citizens to use either state-owned or state-controlled Internet Service Providers (ISPs).

Others like the Russian Federation have forced ISPs to allow the domestic security services direct access to their accounts or taken one or another objectionable site off state-controlled Internet portals. Both have had a chilling effect on users, by suggesting that the government can and will track Internet usage and by directing people away from websites the government has decided people should not visit.

But such efforts have been less than fully successful. On the one hand, all of them have drawn fire from international media watchdog organizations, prompting governments which want to maintain a good image in the West to backdown or at least deny what they are in fact doing.

And on the other hand, these measures have run into a fundamental reality of the Internet. If someone has access to a telephone line, he or she can go out on the web either by dialing in long distance to an ISP not controlled by the state or by bypassing these state-controlled portals and going directly to a desired web address.

Governments can limit access in this way and can certainly discourage their citizens from using the web or going to a particular site. But such regimes cannot close off access entirely except at costs -- such as total control of the telephone system and elimination of all but officially-sanctioned international calls -- that few of these regimes are prepared to pay.

Such measures not only would raise a new red flag about what these regimes are doing, but they almost certainly would limit still further the kind of direct foreign investment by Western firms that almost all of these countries now actively seek.

But rationing by price as the new per-minute tariffs allow may prove to be a far more effective tactic. Few in these societies have sufficient incomes to pay drastically higher telephone bills. Indeed, even the discussion of the possible introduction of such tolls has sparked protests in Lithuania throughout the fall and in Tatarstan last week.

Consequently, when an individual knows that each minute online may force him or her to cut back somewhere else, then that surfer almost certainly will restrict the time spent on the Internet. Indeed, many users may decide that they simply have been priced off the Internet entirely.

Obviously, those with higher incomes won't have to make this choice, but precisely because the number of the relatively poor is far greater than the number of the relatively well-off, these new telephone tariffs mean that the number of Internet users in these countries is not likely to grow as fast as many had hoped and predicted.

That in turn means that some of these societies may not only remain more isolated from the world that the Internet represents but also that their prospects for democratic development, which depends on the free flow of information, may be limited as well.