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Holes in the Net: The Internet and International Stratification

Princeton University


This paper explores how the unequal international spread of the Internet can perpetuate existing inequalities among the world's nations. World-systems theory is used -- supplemented by some considerations of cultural aspects -- to show how nations with high-development-level status have the highest level of network connectivity while nations with low development status have the lowest level of connectivity. The analysis uses Gramsci's ideas about hegemony to show how the disproportionately large representation of one culture can dominate network information to that one culture's advantage. Granovetter's theory concerning the strength of weak ties is discussed to explain how the differential spread of this new technological advancement can affect a country's development level through the unequal distribution of information. Data on the Internet's international spread is presented and analyzed to demonstrate the unequal spread of the network in favor of a few nations currently already in advantageous positions. This information is relevant to understanding which nations are benefiting most from the network and how they can increase their powers through it.



The Internet is a worldwide network of computer networks, or more precisely, a network of people using connected machines. According to recent statistics, there are almost thirty million computers in the world hooked up to the network in more than 170 countries [1] -- as compared to 136 countries in 1994, an already high number -- evidencing the extremely quick spread of the system. This paper shows how the Internet is spreading on an international level and points out how differences in patterns of Internet connectivity depend on nations' various development levels. This paper explores reasons for the different patterns of spread and discusses how this may affect power relations among the world's nations. The question of the Internet's spread is a complex issue that includes both a quantitative aspect (number of users in a country, the level of connectivity of a nation, and the speed and content capacity of the connection) and a qualitative aspect (how users are able to and how they do use resources retrieved from the network). This paper concentrates on analyzing information about the former. Considering that in only a few years more than 115 million people worldwide have come to use the Internet and growth estimates predict an ongoing increase of this number, some social scientific study of the topic is long overdue. [2]

This paper argues that the Internet connectivity of a country depends on its overall position in the world system, and thus on its development level, its financial and technical resources, and its culture. The Internet can simultaneously consolidate dependency for unconnected nations and offer useful resources to those who have it. The unequal distribution of Internet resources means that countries that are not able to get connected on their own are dependent on other countries to be connected. Countries' interest in connectivity is due to the advantages offered by the network. However, despite the potential advantages the Internet offers countries, a dependent country may slide into increasing dependency when establishing connection through other nations, because it has to rely on aid from other countries. In addition, the network expresses hegemonic knowledge and culture, and hence the increasing international spread of connectivity also brings the expansion of Western hegemony.

Theoretical framework

World-systems theory is useful for explaining how the Internet has varying effects on different countries. The theory takes as its unit of analysis the entire world, the relation of all nations. [3] It considers the development status of individual countries within the framework of the world-system. In addition, the theory uses a trimodal approach, recognizing that differences among countries are not always clear-cut and cannot be described by two opposing categories of developed and underdeveloped. Core countries dominate over others by exploiting their resources; semi-periphery countries are in an in-between position, sometimes exploiting and sometimes being exploited; and periphery nations are exploited for their raw materials and cheap labor market. Since the world-systems approach acknowledges that semi-periphery nations can be simultaneously exploiters and exploited, the theory allows for their movement from one development status to another. A country may move from periphery to semi-periphery, or from semi-periphery to core status, or make a similar move in the opposite direction. [3]

The spread of the network happens in various stages. In the beginning of the global spread, some nations established full connectivity quickly, while some only had e-mail access, and yet others had not joined the network at all. Today, most nations have full connectivity and it is harder to distinguish among nations on the basis of their level of connectivity. Usership is impossible to measure accurately, and estimates vary widely. Due to such limitations it is increasingly hard to measure differences among nations. The fact that countries achieved connectivity shows that Internet connectivity is a gradual, multi-level process. By 1997, the majority of nations had achieved some degree of connectivity -- measured by "full connectivity," "e-mail only," or "no connectivity." Consequently, the figures on connectivity levels hide the fact that large variations do exist among nations when considering the estimated host distribution across countries. To highlight the vast differences in spread, 1995 data is used to analyze the relationship between a country's connectivity status and its development level, given that variations on this measure were more apparent then. This process can be compared to the gradual development level of countries in the world-system. Internet connectivity may contribute to a country's mobility on the development scale or may reinforce its current status. On the other hand, lack of Internet connectivity may render upward mobility difficult or make the current status more insecure. In addition to the trimodal approach, world-systems theory also emphasizes the interactions among countries. The Internet fits this model of interactions well, because it is by definition a system that relies on the interaction and communication of people and resources in various locations and enables information flow across borders.

World-systems theory does have some limitations for analyzing the Internet, however, because it does not account for numerous issues concerning development status. It bases all events on the economic situation of a country. To balance out this limitation of the theory, a more complex approach is used here to explain the development status of nations. Variables other than economic status are included to account for other aspects of development, such as education level and cultural aspects. (Although education level is related to economic status, the relationship is not consistent across nations.)

The Human Development Index (HDI) was first calculated in 1990 by the United Nations Development Programme. [4] It is an indicator of human development and applies to both industrial and lesser developed nations. The HDI is consistent with world-systems theory's move away from simplistic bimodal categorizations in that it includes enough variables to produce a more gradual categorization of nations that looks at more than their economic status. HDI allows for a gradual differentiation based not solely on pure economic factors like a GDP continuum does. HDI is also a helpful calculation method because it uses specific indicators of a nation's various developmental factors to create a more generalized index, simplifying a very complex reality.

Gramsci argued -- under the term "hegemony" -- that a group can exercise leadership on others through cultural means. [5, 6] The functions provided by the Internet can be divided into two major categories, both representing means to disseminate one's own culture. Certain services are part of the network information retrieval group while others are computer-mediated communication services. [7] Both types of Internet services are for expressing one's views and opinions; services in the retrieval information category present views in the form of already existing data, while services of the computer-mediated communication group represent direct communication tools for users to engage in an ongoing exchange of ideas. The opinions expressed on the network are influenced by the cultural background of the people posting the information. The idea of hegemony is characteristic of the network given that the dominantly present group's ideas infiltrate most areas of the Internet and, therefore, affect the opinions and views of others.

Hegemony forms truths which unconsciously guide people's lives. Many aspects of everyday life are led by accepted truths created by those in power. Those who have more opportunities to make available their information influence others more through and about their own truths. Optimal circumstances for wide availability of one's own information are linked to the visibility and the easy accessibility of the network location that contains one's information. Easier access allows more and more users to find and retrieve the data. This depends on the quality of connectivity in terms of its speed, the amount of data that can be transmitted, and the reliability of the network to function at most times. The country with the highest number of users with high-quality connections is the best represented through the information provided by its citizens.

Information disseminated through Web pages, newsgroups, listservers, and other types of Internet services represents the cultural norms of its originators. Since most users are in the United States, most information originates from that one country. Visibility on the network also adds legitimacy to information, because many people do not see the anarchy of the system and do not realize that anybody can "publish" anything. Ideas gain interest among communities through their mere existence on the network, especially if they are connected to commonly used WWW sites or are published on popular newsgroups. This may lead to increasing demand for information from the originators of the already-existing data which adds to the importance of those people or institutions providing the information. These observations do not mean to suggest that all ideas and opinions expressed by contributors in the United States are homogenous and represent identical points of view. They do, however, represent particular rhetorical styles in addition to certain political and cultural traditions which must be considered when analyzing the implications of international network use.

The Rand report of 1995 mentions that "e-mail increases the power of individuals, permitting them to be active participants in a dialog extended in both time and space, rather than passive recipients of 'canned' programming and prepackaged information." [8] However, Markus and Kitayama point out in their article about culture and the self that "many Asian cultures have distinct conceptions of individuality that insist on the fundamental relatedness of individuals to each other." [9] Interdependence is much more important than independence. While certain network activity may positively affect this role of the self in relationship to others, it is important to recognize that individuals are perceived differently in different cultures and thus Net activity may have different effects on and importance to them.

A look at possible structural relationships between countries shows how the Internet can be advantageous to the nations that are connected. The importance of network connectivity will be highlighted by considering the different levels of interaction available on the Internet. In "The Strength of Weak Ties" and subsequent articles, Mark Granovetter explores the importance of different levels of ties among communicators in determining information flow. He points out the best types of ties for acquiring the maximum level of information. Granovetter's theory argues that weak social ties are significant. [10] He starts out by identifying the importance of weak ties in general. He points out that in a community where every participant has connections only to the others in that one community, the group as a whole is in total isolation from the outside world. Since members of a tight community tend to have similar interests and similar close acquaintances, a tie to one member is quite similar to the tie to any other member when it comes to information retrieval or dissemination. However, by adding a weak tie to one of the participants of such an isolated community, that member then has a connection to the outside world. (Admittedly, there is a concern involving the unit of analysis in this discussion. As it stands, actions made by individuals are being attributed to countries.)

Connectivity to the Internet refers to the possibility of developing weak ties which offers the inhabitants of a country additional opportunities for information diffusion and knowledge retrieval. A tie created by way of the Internet can expand beyond the realms made possible by the current communication system of a country. Nonconnectivity, on the other hand, leaves the residents of a country in isolation from the free flow of information on the network. People in these nations cannot profit from the advantages offered by weak ties.

Depending on the level and quality of connectivity, the number of weak ties may differ. According to Granovetter, "the number of weak ties is increased by the development of the communication system." [11] This can be extended to apply to the various stages of network connectivity of nations. Full connectivity offers opportunities for more weak ties than does sole e-mail connectivity. The more weak ties one has, the more opportunities there are for information exchange. Increasing exchange of valuable information can benefit a nation in many of its service sectors, including education, medical practice, academia, and business. Improvement in these sectors can lead to an increase in development level which may result in a change of development status.

The spread of the Internet

Internet spread in various countries follows different patterns depending on the nation's development level. A nation like the United States was able to support rapid spread of the Internet because the necessary phone lines, computers, and technical personnel already existed before the emergence of the system. Technological adaptation in this case did not necessarily lead to serious financial concerns and did not depend on significant expenditure due to the training of professionals. However, in many lesser-developed countries these essential factors required for connectivity are not readily available. Weighty financial investment coupled with solutions to other issues concerning local politics and culture is required for the establishment of necessary infrastructures to support the spread of the Internet.

In high development level countries the availability of telephone systems is taken for granted. Yet, lesser developed nations -- with 75 percent of the world's population -- have only 12 percent of all telephone lines. And those available are often of poor quality and low reliability. Put in another way, half of humanity has never made a phone call. [12]

Moreover, the mere existence of telephone lines is not enough for a country to achieve connectivity easily. The telephone lines need to be of high quality and tariffs need to be accessible to the population. Several countries require payment in hard currency for usage. This seemingly minor issue poses a serious problem for connectivity in some nations. Furthermore, government policies and laws pose impediments including control over various aspects of electronic communication for security, political, or revenue-generating purposes. [13] Such controls exist in China, parts of the Middle East, and a few other countries.

Cultural factors affect everything from language problems to lack of interest in sharing and communicating with certain communities. Much of the information on the network -- including instructions for usage -- is often available mostly in English. Furthermore, use of the system often requires substantial technical knowledge. Although several easy-to-use interfaces (America Online, CompuServe, and others) have been developed for the common user, they require system capabilities higher than those present in the average lesser-developed nation. Moreover, the six most popular commercial online vendors are American. [12] This is just one more aspect of the hegemony of the United States in the Internet arena.

Other reasons for limited diffusion include cultural aspects such as having less need or desire for impersonal communication or information sharing. Muslim nations are relatively underrepresented on the network in proportion to their wealth and populations as compared to the rest of the world. In early 1994, out of almost 15,000 networks on the Internet, only 42 were in Muslim nations, 29 of which were located in Turkey or Indonesia. [13]

Since the Internet's worldwide spread is still a recent phenomenon, the current international spread of the system should reflect the infrastructural and other issues mentioned so far. Out of the 174 countries that are listed and accounted for in the 1995 Human Development Report of the United Nations, 41.4 percent (72) had full Internet access in 1996, 36.8 percent (64) had e-mail access, and 21.8 percent (38) had no connectivity. Since these statistics on connectivity do not indicate the actual number of users, even full connectivity may only be referring to a very limited number of users. Out of the 136 countries with at least partial connectivity, 37.9 percent (67) had commercial Internet providers in 1996. This additional information is important in considering the availability of the network to the general public. The presence of a commercial provider enables anybody with the appropriate financial resources to have access to the Internet. It is highly likely that in countries where such services are not available in the free marketplace, public network access is greatly limited. Lack of commercial access providers may mean access is restricted to technical professionals, university and government personnel, or employees of international organizations and companies that access the service through special means that are not available to the general public. In addition, it is important to emphasize the financial restrictions possibly imposed by commercial access providers even if they are present and offer an alternative way for connectivity.

The following cross-tabulations show the relationship between countries' connectivity and their development levels. Table I shows the relationship between connectivity and the human development index. Close to four-fifths (79.4%) of countries in the high human development category had full Internet connectivity in 1995 while less than one-third (31.3%) of medium and less than five percent (4.3%) of low human development nations had this level of connectivity. This is in stark contrast to the values showing the nonconnectivity of nations. Only 6.3 percent of high human development countries did not have any access to the Internet, whereas 18.8 percent of medium and 46.8 percent of low human development nations were in the same situation. Moreover, a look at the availability of commercial access providers according to human development level shows that full access (versus full connectivity) was just as unequally distributed. Table IIa shows that countries with full Internet connectivity were more likely to have commercial access providers (83.3 percent) than countries with e-mail-only opportunities (10.9 percent). Table IIb shows that almost three quarters (73 percent) of high development level countries had commercial access providers, as compared to one quarter of medium and 11 percent of low development level countries. Moreover, a look at providers' availability by network connectivity controlled for human development level (Table IIc) reveals that high development level countries with full connectivity were more likely to have commercial access providers (90 percent) than countries of medium development level with full Internet connectivity (65 percent). These numbers reveal that general access is more likely to be found in high developed level nations. The three-way cross-tabulation suggests that full connectivity results in full access only in the most developed countries. A moderately developed country is more likely to have full connectivity without full access than a highly developed country in the same situation.

It is impossible, at this point, to collect information about the actual number of users of the Internet in various countries. However, there are data available about the number of hosts in the world, which are the number of machines connected to the network with individual IP (Internet Protocol) addresses. A program periodically collects information about hosts by going through all the Domain Name Servers on the network. [1] In the January 1996 study, 9,472,000 hosts were counted. This is a 42 percent increase from the July 1995 count, which yielded a sum of 6,642,000 hosts. (The present discussion considers 1996 figures to stay consistent with the year of analysis above. Comparison with current 1998 host distribution figures will reveal a similar pattern of global distribution.) Table IIIa shows the breakdown of host distribution per country by top-level domain. (Only the top 19 countries are shown in the attached table; more detailed information is available from the author.) The top nations are what would be considered Western countries. They all have an HDI value of 20 or higher which places them in the first tier of high development level nations. A look at the lower end of the host distribution data shows that many of the countries with fewer than 100 hosts are medium development level countries (e.g., Guatemala (112), Iran (70), Morocco (117), and Zimbabwe (121). The numbers in parentheses show the exact position of the country on the development scale.) Some of these countries are even from the low development level group, although that is less common because almost half of those countries did not have connectivity at all, as was shown in the previous paragraph (e.g., Ethiopia (171), Kenya (130), Nepal (151), and Senegal (152)). There are also high development level countries in this part of the table, but many of these can probably be attributed to their small population sizes (e.g., Bahamas (26), Cyprus (23), and Malta (34)). Table IIIb shows the top fifty countries regarding host distribution with respect to countries' population size. Both the Bahamas (26) and Cyprus (23) move up in rank when population size is taken into consideration. Only four countries out of the fifty are not in the high development level category, and they occupy lower ranks within the list of fifty nations: South Africa (95) is ranked 34th, Bulgaria (65) is 37th, Nicaragua (109) takes the 47th place, and Jamaica (88) is 49th. This ranking again reinforces the fact that high development level nations dominate the network.

The Internet is a new technology, but in some ways it resembles some already existing technological communication tools. It can be revealing to look at the relationship between the Internet's spread and the availability of these other forms of technology in the countries of this study. Considering the availability of phones is essential, because the network often directly depends on that technology. In addition, a look at radio and television distribution may lend itself to interesting findings.

Phone availability was grouped into high, medium, and low availability according to value frequencies (as measured by receivers per one hundred inhabitants). The gamma of .60 for connectivity by telephone availability shows that there is a strong association between the two variables. Radio and television availability were also grouped into high, medium, and low categories. The former association yields a gamma of .56, whereas the latter has a gamma of .62. These strong correlations show significant association between the availability of the various technological tools and Internet connectivity.

It is interesting to note that gamma, indicating association with Internet connectivity, is higher for television than for phone. The highest expected association would be with phone availability, since network connectivity is often directly dependent on telephone infrastructure. However, with the increasing emergence of satellite communication that does not necessarily require physical wires, the results are not entirely surprising. Perhaps the higher association with television distribution is due to the Internet's resemblance to television programming, especially in the case of the World Wide Web. It is a medium with visual information. Unlike the phone, radio, or television, the Internet offers personal communication, recreational programming, and useful resources. Although all are modes of technological communication, the Internet does truly offer a new alternative and therefore can only be grouped with these other media to a certain extent. However, these are just speculations, since I am not aware of any research or data available specifically on the associations of the spread of these media.


The Internet offers information to be used in the most diverse realms of life from education to recreation, from business to medicine, and from academia to politics. This wealth of knowledge available through the network makes it a valuable resource to its users. The potential to create valuable weak ties also reemphasizes the positive aspects of the Internet. Through creating links with an increasing number of resources, residents of countries have an extended information base to profit from. Since high development level countries have the best Internet connections, they can benefit from these resources to the highest extent. Low level connections may not make the same resources available to users, but they do, nonetheless, offer some information. Given the multitude of resources on the Internet and the various technical levels at which they function, connectivity of any level can be advantageous to a country.

A disproportionately large presence of certain countries leads to the cultural domination of those present in the most visible ways. According to the connectivity patterns outlined in this paper, high development level nations are the most capable of creating high-level connections. American usership outnumbers any other culture's presence and, therefore, American cultural norms and beliefs are prevalent on the network. This cultural domination has two implications. On the one hand, the ideas of one culture are disseminated more than those of any other; they gain the most visibility internationally and influence others' thoughts and beliefs. On the other hand, the availability of only one type of information limits the users of other cultures in retrieving the same amount of information valuable to their American counterparts, because of the barriers they must surmount in understanding some of the data representing specific cultural norms and available in only one language. Internet content is largely dominated by American contributions reflecting the specific cultural views of users from the United States. Moreover, the most common way users of other countries can retrieve information relevant to them is through American materials as is highlighted by the following example.

"It is far easier for a Russian language speaker with a computer to download the works of Dostoyevsky translated into English to read than it is for him to get the original in his own language. Why shouldn't Pushkin or Lermontov be more available in Russian?" For the moment the answer is simple: the demand is not big enough to make it worth anybody's while to provide such services. [11]

Non-English speakers are required to master the English language or else they cannot profit from Internet resources to the extent that English speakers can. Even if they speak the language, the different rhetorical styles represented by users from other cultures may impede the understanding and use of materials. Inequalities are also created by the opportunities for some countries to develop advantageous weak ties while others have no possibilities for such expansion in resources. As was shown through the data presented in this paper, high development level countries have more widespread connectivity than do medium and low development level nations. This means that high development level countries have more opportunities to create weak ties and to profit from these additional information resources.

The dynamics associated with the international spread of the Internet outline specific patterns. Given the Internet's recent emergence, it is impossible to recognize overarching effects of the network at this point. However, some potential consequences can be outlined by drawing on the observations presented above. One possible effect of connectivity -- especially connectivity at different levels -- is that nations will be able to take advantage of its positive and negative aspects at varying degrees. Some countries may be able to use network resources as a means to achieving upward mobility on the international development scale, while others will slide even further down on the scale. It is possible that high development level and certain medium level countries representing the core and semi-periphery of the world-systems will benefit from the resources of the Internet. This allows for the reinforcement of their advantageous positions in the system or for upward mobility on the development scale. At the same time, other nations of medium and low level development representing other countries of the semi-periphery and periphery will be increasingly left behind.

As soon as there is more equal presence of different cultures on the Internet, the issues of hegemony will be less apparent and less problematic. Spencer [11] points out the already ongoing process of diversification on the network.

As the Web grows the number of people on it who speak French, say, or Russian will become more varied and that variety will be expressed on the Web. . . . According to Christian Huitema, who is on the board of the Internet Society, which tries to set world standards, it takes about 2 million potential customers to establish a workable market. Japan now has close to 3 million, and it has become far less dependent upon and bothered by the hegemony of English than many other countries. [14]

This shows the potential for a decline in American hegemony. However, the countries mentioned in the citation also represent high development level nations, not unlike the United States (France (8), Canada (1), Russia (52), and Japan (3)). The observation also makes it clear that a country (or language) has to be highly present with several million users to start creating an environment less dependent on that created by English-speaking users. Again, these observations can be extended to current 1998 data, but the pattern of visibility limited to high development level nations remains. Most countries of medium and lower level development status are nowhere near achieving equal presence on the Internet. This shows that inequalities are likely to persist in the future.


Table I. Cross-tabulation in percentage of countries' connectivity by the value of their human development index*

Connectivity HDI Ranking  
 HighMediumLowRow Total
High (Full Internet)79.431.34.341.4 (72)
Low (E-mail Only)14.35048.936.8 (64)
None6.318.846.821.8 (38)
Column Total36.2 (63)36.8 (64)27.0 (47)100 (174)

* Percentage of High Connectivity (Full Internet), Low Connectivity (E-mail Only), or No Connectivity by High, Medium, Low Human Development Level

Table IIa. Cross-tabulation in percentage of the availability of commercial access providers (CAP) by a country's Internet connectivity*

CAP Connectivity  
 HighLowNoneRow Total
Yes83.310.90.038.5 (67)
No16.789.1100.061.5 (107)
Column Total41.4 (72)36.8 (64)21.8 (38)100 (174)

* Percentage of High Connectivity (Full Internet), Low Connectivity (E-mail Only), or No Connectivity

Table IIb. Cross-tabulation in percentage of the availability of commercial access providers (CAP) by a country's human development level*

CAP Human Development Level  
 HighMediumLowRow Total
Yes73.025.010.638.5 (67)
No27.075.089.461.5 (107)
Column Total36.2 (63)36.8 (64)27.0 (47)100 (174)

* Percentage of High, Medium, or Low Human Development

Table IIc. Cross-tabulation in percentage of the availability of commercial access providers (CAP) by Internet connectivity controlling for human development level*

CAP     Connectivity      
HighLowRow TotalHighLowRow TotalHighLowRow TotalTotal
Yes (46)65.09.425.0 (16) (5)38.5 (67)
No 10.088.927.0 (17)35.090.675.0 (48) (42)61.5 (107)
Total 100.0 100.0100.0100.0100.0100.0100.0100.0100.0100 (174)
 X=35.64p<.01  X=25.23p<.01 X=19.55 p<.01  

* By High Connectivity (Full Internet) or Low Connectivity (E-mail Only) ("No Connectivity" is not included because there can be no commercial access provider in a country that does not have any access at all.)

Table IIIa. Host distribution per country by top-level domain*

RankCountryHDI RankNumber of Hosts
1United States** 25,029,478
3United Kingdom18451,787
15New Zealand1753,610
18South Africa9548,277
20-30  10,000-30,000
31-51  less than 10,000
52-71  less than 1,000
72-95  less than 100
96-106  less than 10

* This table lists only the top 19 countries. A more comprehensive list is available from the author upon request. Rank by number of hosts.

** Includes .com, .edu, .gov, .mil, and .us domain names. (In 1996, a considerable number of .com domain names were American.)

Table IIIb. Host distribution per country by population for the top twenty countries (country, HDI rank, hosts/1,000 inhabitants)

CountryHDI RankH/P(1000)
United States220.22
Antigua and Barbuda5515.88)*
New Zealand1713.66
United Kingdom188.02

* This country is bracketed because it has fewer than 1,000 hosts and, therefore, may not be statistically as significant as the other cases.


Thanks to Nancy Whittier and Marc Steinberg of Smith College for their helpful comments on this paper.


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