Iraq: Fully Connected or Digitally Isolated?

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June 8, 2012 by Dan Swinhoe

When businesses talk of Iraq, the word you will hear is always ‘potential.’ And in part it’s true. Now the combat is over and Iraq is heading slowly towards peace and prosperity, the country is ripe for companies looking to gain a foothold as various industries start to pick up.

The war has left a metaphorical clean slate for investment, and many companies, especially US ones, are looking to find a niche for them to invest into. But much of this information is outdated or lacking depth, meaning it’s very difficult to know what the state of play really is within the country. A 2006 reportfrom the US over possible investment was pretty vague about the telecoms and IT industry, simply explaining, “The lack of modern office equipment or computers, and antiquated bookkeeping and accounting systems, retard the development of small and medium-sized enterprises” and then went on to describe the lack of infrastructure and fixed land networks. More recently a 2012 business guide didn’t paint a much better picture, saying, “Infrastructure for IT services remains underdeveloped in most parts of the country. Universities have limited Internet capacity, most university faculty does not have regular access to computers at work; computer labs for student use are inadequate and often non-functional. Many university faculty and staff lack basic computer skills and Internet experience. Outside of major urban centers, many academics and students do not have email addresses.” Although it did point to the country’s embracing of wireless communications and a more tech-savvy youth as a plus point.

On many IT reports and studies, Iraq is simply not included, making it very hard to know where Iraq’s standing in the IT world actually is. In fact, between the sketchy government data, it’s incredibly difficult to do anything other than paint a bleak picture of the country. In a report from the World Economic Forum and Instead Business school, Iraq was listed only twice, once to show how low its internet users per 100 inhabitants and levels of digitization were. What is needed is up-to-date and detailed information to really find out what today’s Iraq has, and what it needs to advance. Put enough time and effort in and you can find some information, though much of it is far older than it should be for such a fast-moving industry.

Mobile ownership is much higher than computer, with around 20 million owning mobile phones, compared to just over one million for landlines. Calls and text are by far the most common uses, with using games, photos or music used by around a third of people.

There is relatively low computer and internet use; in 2008 around 14% of the population owned a computer, with just under 6% of the population using the internet, (male use outnumbers female roughly 2:1) equating to around a million people, but this rate is growing fast. There is also a lack of fiber-optics, which is a hindrance in promoting wired internet adoption. Internet cafes are often a popular alternative to home use. Businesses seem to value the internet more highly than personal users, with a 2011 survey showing 15% of all Iraqi companies having their own website, with a further 21% using email to communicate with clients or suppliers.

According to stats from the Iraq government’s site, in 2009 20% of people aged 19-24 and 18% of 25-30 year olds rated themselves as having a good knowledge of using computers. But this figure drops dramatically to 12% of 15-18s and just under 5% in 10-14s. Those on the internet have a high engagement with social media- 72% of Facebook users in Iraq are between 18 and 34 (13-17 make up 11% while 35- 60 make up 17%). Clearly if this is accurate there is a need for the next generation to be trained and educated in how to use the technology, especially if Iraq wants to become a major player in the IT sector.

The same batch of stats gives a fairly even split for internet use, with around 45% saying the purpose of the internet is for entertainment and the same amount for research and study. Contacting relatives was also important for 40% of people. News and music streaming stood roughly at 20%.

Much of the Middle East suffers from high rates of software piracy (generally hovering around the 50% rate) but the last records for Iraq in 2007 put the number at a massive 85%, with an estimated value of $124 Million. It’s unlikely that this has reduced much since then, as the piracy rate among other Middle Eastern countries has stayed relatively stable and it’s hard to foresee any major changes.

The government is in the process of implementing its own Information Technology Crimes Act, which deals with privacy, anti-corruption, digital copyright enforcement, and data security with national economic, political, and security interests. This is a positive step which shows the government recognizes the value in its future digital sectors, although it has come under fire from freedom activists and Iraqi bloggers for being overly strict on freedom of speech. Access, a movement for digital freedom, published a report on the act, claiming it lacked uniformity and “seemed designed for yesterday’s crimes rather than emerging technology.” They also said, “Extremely harsh punishments are mixed among fines and misdemeanor penalties for rather benign crimes, with no attention to scale, necessity, or proportionality.”

Iraq is still finding its feet in the digital word, and the general consensus seems to be it’s still a way behind adopting the internet. But the high numbers of mobile devices mean it could be possible for the country to skip a boom in home computers and catch up to the rest of the world on adopting mobile as the chief means of accessing the internet and communicating through smart phones or tablets.

Original at: http://www.idgconnect.com/blog-abstract/537/dan-swinhoe-middle-east-iraq-fully-connected-digitally-isolated

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