Bringing information to Africa

Date: Fri May 12 2000 - 07:01:28 MDT

I was on a crypto panel discussion the other day, and as we chatted
afterwards I learned that the moderator, an interesting and pleasant
guy, had recently received a windfall in the hundreds of millions of
dollars. He is Mark Shuttleworth, the head of Thawte Communications,
a South African crypto certificate company which was recently acquired
by Verisign, the big US certifier.

Due to South African regulations, the money must be "repatriated"
to African, which I gather means that it is not just stock options,
but actual cash. I asked if he was going to be carrying it back with
him in a briefcase chained to his wrist, but Mark said that these days
six hundred million dollars can be transferred with just a fax.

His plans for the money involve funding various startups and ventures
in Africa in the hopes of improving the terrible conditions there.
In particular he hopes that improving communications so as to make
Internet access widespread will go a long way towards alleviating the
ignorance and government control which has kept the continent in chains
for so long.

He talked about the example of Senegal, whose socialist government
has been rigging elections for 40 years, until this past March when
an opposition party candidate won the presidency, an event virtually
unprecedented in Africa. Mark attributed this change in large part
to the existence of private radio stations and cell phones, which made
true and accurate information more widely available and prevented the
election stealing that had gone on in the past.

We have had speculation here about what might happen if people mired
in the abject poverty which prevails in so much of the world could be
given access to modern information technology. Will the truth truly
make them free? If Mark's visionary and optimistic plans go through
as he hopes, we may have a chance to find out.


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