BUENOS AIRES, Argentina -- José Soriano thinks anyone should be able to access the Internet, not only those who can afford a computer. That is why he created the Peruvian Scientific Net (RCP) in December 1991, just after the creation of the World Wide Web, and gave Web access to half a million Peruvians.
The 43 institutions, universities and companies that formed the RCP based their work on the idea that in a country like Perú, where there were four telephones for every hundred people, mounting a dial-up ISP would not make cyberspace popular.
Soriano came up with a different approach -- he built public Internet booths (much like cybercafes), making Net access cheap.
The first ISP in Latin America, it provided computer training to 50,000 people. In the last seven years, a thousand of these booths, called cabinas públicas, were built all over Perú.
"This led to a very intensive usage of Internet," said José Soriano recently in Buenos Aires, where he arrived for the opening of a community center much like the ones he helped build. The model is also being applied in El Salvador.
"For example, we had a cake-selling business (Tortasperú) running over Internet in 1993, before people started talking about e-commerce, that gave work to 200 women. And we taught the Ashanika Indians to use computers and the Web to save their heritage and make themselves known. Today, 10 percent of what they earn comes from e-commerce," explained Soriano, a former Peruvian journalist, now CEO of the RCP.
"We want to give people the ability to use technology as a means of progress, to make it their own. But you have to do it working with information."
Soriano was introduced to technology as a way to spread information. In 1985, he was an exile in Argentina, working as a journalist. He got fired, and started an electronic newsletter with some colleagues, to provide Latin news for exiled Peruvians. By 1986, the journalists had new jobs, and they thought about closing the newsletter. To their surprise, they found they had about 20,000 readers worldwide.
"I understood then the power of technology, and decided I had to do something with it to help my country," said Soriano. After returning to Perú and founding the RCP, he set to the task of translating technical manuals and software (including versions of Eudora and Mosaic).
"The usual way of distributing technology has been taking a successful model and applying it somewhere else, a cut-and-paste approach. But if you don't have an understanding of where you are applying it, it won't work," Soriano said. "You can't have an engineer teaching an Indian, a maid or a very poor kid how to browse the Net. Their languages are not quite the same, they don't have equal worries and problems."
So the RCP teaches instructors, who in turn show community leaders and volunteers how to use the computers. These leaders are familiar faces in their towns and neighborhoods -- they come from the same culture, so they don't seem alien to those trying to understand technology.
"We want to give people tools and knowledge about how to use them, in a way it makes sense to them. That is the only way people will get near technology, use it for their own good and be self-relying," he said.
"Otherwise, we won't be able to jump in the digital world. Also, this approach is a way to defend the old Internet idea of democratic sharing of information; if we don't learn to use computers for our own benefit, there's no way we will be able to make our voice heard in cyberspace."