People use the internet, much as they did the telegraph since 1838, to keep in touch, be informed and be entertained. But the state’s intent for offering internet is often tied to e-governance and livelihoods. China’s experience illustrates the disconnect between top-down technology policy and bottom-up need-driven internet use, and prompts us to ask what access to the internet really means, what the internet should be used for, and who drives access and use.

In 1825, Samuel Morse, a painter of modest means, was on a trip to Washington DC to work on a commissioned piece, when a horse messenger delivered a message from his father. Morse’s wife was ill. He dropped his work and rushed back home, but by the time he got back, his wife had already died. The message had reached him too late.

Twelve years later, on January 11, 1838, Morse and his collaborator and friend, Alfred Vail, wound two miles of cotton-insulated wire around nails on the second floor of Speedwell Ironworks in Morristown, New Jersey. They were perfecting a contraption that might send messages across long distances at the speed of electricity.

A small local crowd had gathered at the factory for the first public demonstration of this long-distance writer, the telegraph. Using an electric pattern to represent words and numbers, Morse and Vail sent off a test message: Railroad cars just arrived, 345 passengers. “Time and distance are annihilated,” said the report in the local newspaper. Morse and Vail had a sense of blending invention with need. The telegraph would become the artery of communication across huge distances, whatever the message may be.

The first transatlantic cables came up in 1866, linking the United States to England. By 1870, India was connected to England. Soon after, telegraph cables bridged Australia to the other continents. Lines covered both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans by 1902. The telegraph network handled more than 230 million messages by 1945. Telegrams brought news of the first flight in 1903, of the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, and accelerated the United States’ intervention in the Great War after a German telegram was intercepted in 1917. Access seemed to be everywhere, and when it wasn’t, people would walk miles to get to a telegraph office. This ‘Victorian Internet’, as one writer called it, was how people instantly messaged each other and kept in touch before it ceded to other richer, more efficient ways like the telephone, and eventually, the internet.

Today, just 20 years after the internet went mainstream, its use is so pervasive that it has modified the grammar of messaging. The world tweets, IMs, and WhatsApps. It has also unleashed health concerns. Text neck – bending the neck to stare at a phone for long periods of time – is now shorthand for a repetitive stress injury. In China, one can be medically diagnosed for being addicted to internet gaming.

The internet has become so much a part of people’s everyday fabric that ensuring unfettered internet access folds itself into global human rights treaties. The United Nations warned in 2011 that “cutting off users from internet access, regardless of the justification provided” was a violation of a freedom of expression clause in an international civil and political rights treaty. In Estonia, France, Costa Rica and Finland, legislators went further to guarantee internet access itself as a basic human right.

But even as these trends are underway, the marching tune for broadband internet policy is about bridging the digital divide between the rural and urban citizen. Access is a key driver for broadband policy in many countries. Conversation around internet access runs along parallel streams: one on the fallout from widespread access, and another on the need to bridge gaps in access. Given this dichotomy, it makes sense to ask three connected questions: What does access to internet mean? What should the internet be used for? And who drives access and use?

The latest statistics from China indicate that at about 630 million, rural residents are still almost half of the population. The China Internet Network Information Center surveys are conducted  twice a year to evaluate the state of internet development in the country. In its July 2014 survey of 30,000 people in 31 provinces, it estimated 632 million internet users, almost half of the 1.3 billion-strong population. But only about 178 million of those – less than a third of the users – are from rural areas.

To bridge that gap, there has been a large push from narrow-band to broadband access over the past decade. China Netcom, one of the main fixed line operators, is said to have invested over US$2 billion starting in 2008 to upgrade the copper cables with fiber optic cables across its network. By the end of 2007, a World Bank report estimated about 164 million broadband users in the country.

The state adopted a Broadband China Strategy in 2013, with specific goals to wire the country. They intend to have 95% of villages covered by a broadband network by the end of 2015, and 98% by 2020. Similarly, the plan is to have about half of all households connected by broadband by 2015, and 70% by 2020. There are even more specific numbers. China’s 12th Five-Year Plan (from 2011 to 2016) lays out a project guaranteeing 530 TB in digital resources for half of all households in the country. The National Human Rights Action Plan of China aims to show one digital movie every month in every village.

The numbers come laden with predictable biases since they’re put out by government agencies. The broad theme in the state’s policies is to provide the internet as a commodity to rural populations.

But statistics-centered plans don’t always square with ground realities. A 2013 World Bank survey of 3,000 households in three provinces revealed that less than a quarter of all the villages had a tele-centre – a public internet facility. And only about one in six villages had a library or reading room that had internet access. Even if a broadband-enabled computer existed, it doesn’t guarantee that there’s a user sitting behind it. When they asked people how they accessed the internet, less than 5% of those who used the internet said they went to a tele-centre or library. The vast majority of people use a smartphone. Over 80% of those who used the internet went online on a mobile device, according to the China Internet Network Information Center survey.

Despite that, a 2009 World Bank report recommended that the Chinese government “should consider a wide-scale programme that would ensure access to relevant information resources and essential services—including training and assistance—through a network of public facilities.” One of the guiding principles for these was what was called a Five One policy – having one place of access with one set of computers, one responsible centre operator, one set of rules and one way to sustain the model across different locations.

But Elisa Oreglia, a research fellow at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, has seen the divide between policy and practice from her fieldwork in Hebei and Shandong provinces in China. “The lone tele-centre I encountered in my year of fieldwork was always locked-up,” she writes in her 2013 doctoral dissertation, From Farm to Farmville: Circulation, Adoption, and Use of ICT between Urban and Rural China. “Most people still found local and urban jobs in the old-fashioned way: through family networks, word of mouth, or via flyers posted on the electricity poles that dot the villages.” On the other hand, mobile phones and electronic equipment like DVD players and new televisions were all over the rural market, across age-groups and economic classes. Instant messaging was as common as it might be anywhere else – people routinely chatted on their phones with family members living in bigger cities.

Often, these people fall between the cracks of internet-use surveys. For instance, the China Internet Network Information Center surveys often ask people whether they use the internet. And if they don’t, they would check a “No need/no interest” option when asked why they do not go online. But the same people might frequently use QQ, the popular chat software, to speak with their family members living in larger urban centres. The very meaning of going online was different to them. To chat and be in touch with family did not fit under the distinct ‘task’ of going online for them, especially since the software came preloaded on their phones. In a way, they are always online. Like most users anywhere, they relate to the internet as just a medium, not a commodity. Even the China Internet Network Information Center survey notes that the internet has developed from being an “extensive” web to a “deep” network. Given how deeply the internet is tied to people’s lives, it is the survey that often asks the wrong question. If there is an arc to be drawn from the telegraph era to the internet age, it is that there is more agency in the hands of the end-user. In this context, questions around access to the internet need to consider the various ways in which people might be embedded in the medium without being aware of its presence.

Closely tied with access is the murkier question of what people do with the access. Instant messaging remains the most popular reason for internet use (QQ has handled more than 200 million users online at the same time), regardless of whether a user is labeled rural or urban. This was followed by online searches, news, music, blogs, video, gaming, shopping, and email. Looked at another way, people used the internet for the same reason that they used the telegraph, radio, telephone and television – to be in touch, to be informed and to be entertained.

But that’s not how policy often works. The state’s intent for offering internet is often tied to people’s livelihoods. For instance, China’s 11th Five-Year Plan had planned to “integrate agriculture-related information resources” and “strengthen the rural economic information application system construction”. This was part of their building of a ‘Harmonious Society’, one where there was a balance in development across regions and classes. Another older platform, the Beijing Rural Management Information Project, was launched in 2000 to connect government agencies across different levels, from village to town, city to county. The intention was to have better governance, especially in rural areas. Government-led initiatives to set up internet kiosks in China are led by desires like making farmers aware of new agricultural technology and market prices for their crop. While the intent may appear noble, it is also sometimes flawed.

Despite the massive investments, Oreglia found that “farmers insisted on negotiating the sale of their crops with itinerant buyers on the spot.” They rarely visited a rural information centre. And if they did, it was often to break away from the daily routine of work. Most had mobile phones to be in touch with their families. Improvement in work – better market prices, efficient farming technology – was important, of course. But it was best negotiated by coming face-to-face with another individual. The tele-centres need money to run, and they are often subsidised by government funding at the start. But they cannot become financially independent if they don’t get used for the purpose they were set up, leave alone having a profit model.

Ambitious policies to deliver the internet exist across the country. But they are often trumped by unquantified messy networks driven by rural populations and their migrant family members living in urban centres who comfortably navigate cyberspace in ways they see fit for their needs.

This brings us to the third question – who drives access and use? Internet access policy often embraces a top-down viewpoint of the state or the urban elite. Providing access to information technology starts to become a deliverable in itself with the end goal of economic development. From this vantage point, the rural user is seen as someone lesser than the urban user. The typically urban policymaker becomes the provider; and the rural citizen, the voiceless recipient.

But often in rural regions of China, it is the migrant worker and her family who bridge the digital gap in their own way. A migrant family member working in a major urban centre like Beijing might become savvy with various technologies and web applications to use on tablets and mobile phones. They share not only devices, but also what they know when they visit their families. The life of the internet and its attendant technology often acquires meaning as a medium to maintain family connections and also as a new platform to continue past habits – watching soap operas, playing games, contacting teachers at their children’s schools, QQ-ing with their relative in a city. More often than not, there’s a disconnect between top-down livelihood-driven technology policy and bottom-up need-driven internet use. As Oreglia summarizes, “A computer becomes what migrants use it for, not what its designers and marketers planned and sold it for.”

To form a more meaningful broadband policy, one has to dismantle assumptions revolving around utility: what does ‘using’ the internet mean? What is the internet used for? Who drives the policy?  Like the telegraph, the internet is a pipe of communication; people decide how they want to use it. In that sense, internet access continues to be what Morse was working on in the mid-18th century – a tool to get people together and a way to annihilate time and distance.

(Venkat Srinivasan is a writer based in San Francisco. His work has appeared in The Caravan, Nautilus, Aeon Magazine and Guernica Magazine.)

(Elisa Oreglia is a research fellow at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. She studies new media use in Asia.), February 2015