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Access to the Internet has grown exponentially in Latin America over the past decade. The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) estimates that in 2009 there were 144.5 million Internet users in South America, 6.4 million in Central America, and 8.2 million in the Caribbean, or a total 159.2 million users in all of Latin America.1 At that time, ITU reported an estimated 31 million Internet users in Mexico, which would bring the overall number of users in Latin America to 190.2 million people. More recent estimates published by Internet World Stats place Internet access currently at an estimated 204.6 million out of a total population of 592.5 million in the region (this figure includes Mexico).2 According to those figures, 34.5 per cent of the Latin American population now enjoys Internet access.
In recent years, universal access policies contributed to the vast increase in digital literacy and Internet use in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, and Costa Rica. Whereas the latter was the first country in the region to adopt a policy of universal access, the most expansive and successful digital inclusion programs in the region have taken hold in Brazil and Chile. These two countries have allocated considerable resources to the promotion of digital literacy and Internet access among low income and poor populations; in both cases, civil society groups significantly assisted in the promotion of inclusion at the grassroots level. Digital literacy and Internet access have come to represent, particularly in the area of education, a welcome complementary resource for populations chronically underserved in nations with a long-standing record of inadequate public social services.
Digital inclusion is vastly expanding throughout the region, thanks to stabilizing economies, increasingly affordable technology, and the rapid growth in the supply of cellular mobile telephony. A recent study by the global advertising agency Razorfish revealed significant shifts in the demographics of digital inclusion in the major economies of South America, where Web access is rapidly increasing amid the lower middle class and the working poor.3
Several researchers have suggested that Internet access will bring about greater civic participation and engagement, although skeptics remain unsure this could happen in Latin America. Yet, there have been some recent instances of political mobilization facilitated through the use of the Web and social media applications, starting in Chile when “smart mobs” nationwide demonstrated against former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet when she failed to enact education reforms in May 2006. The Internet has also been used by marginalized groups and by guerrillas groups to highlight their stories.
In sum, Internet access in Latin is no longer a medium restricted to the elite. It is rather a public sphere upon which civil society has staked its claim. Some of the examples noted in this study point toward a developing trend whereby civil society, through online grassroots movements, is able to effectively pressure public officials, instill transparency and demand accountability in government. Access to the Internet has also made it possible for voices on the margins to participate in the conversation in a way that was never previously feasible.
1 International Telecommunications Union [ITU], “Information Technology Public & Report,” accessed May 15, 2011, http://www.itu.int/. 2 Internet World Stats, “Internet Usage Statistics for the Americas,” accessed March 24, 2011, http://www.internetworldstats.com/stats2.htm 3 J. Crump, “The finch and the fox,” London, UK (2010), http://www.slideshare.net/razorfishmarketing/the-finch-and-the-fox.
Prado, Paola Ph.D., "The Impact of the Internet in Six Latin American Countries" (2011). Western Hemisphere Security Analysis Center. 6.