Google’s Iraq Tour of Duty

Earlier this month Google and YouTube toured Iraq for a week, on a trip led by the Department of Defense’s Task Force for Business and Stability Operations. The group went to Baghdad and to the Kurdish city of Erbil in the north, where it met with members of the private sector, students, NGOs, and politicians. It reported on the trip yesterday.

It’s “immediately evident upon arrivial just how completely the country missed the Internet boom during Saddam Hussein’s regime,” write the post authors, Mary Himinkool and Olivia Ma. Internet penetration rates there are as low as 1%, maybe as high as 8%–either way, one of the lowest rates in the Middle East. Just 15% of Iraqis say they use the Internet at all; most of those are in Baghdad; and they may be paying something like $150 a month for a 512kb connection.

A highlight–and one of the major purposes–of the Google/YouTube visit was an experiment in digitally-assisted government transparency. The team solicited questions from Iraqis and others, enabled anyone to vote up the questions online, and then brought the top five to Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Kurdish leader Dr. Barham Salih, and Iraqi politician Ayad Allawi. The Google group then teamed up with the news agency Al Arabiya to conduct and broadcast the interview.

The team emerged optimistic over some “signs of progress,” including mobile penetration that has risen to about 70% from almost zero seven years ago. The Iraqi computer science students the Google team met with thoroughly impressed them: “Though they lack equipment and resources, they’re highly motivated to innovate,” write Himinkool and Ma.DZ