Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Trip Report: Google and YouTube in Iraq

Earlier this month, a small team from Google and YouTube spent a week in Iraq on a trip arranged by the Department of Defense’s Task Force for Business and Stability Operations (TFBSO). Our goals were to explore opportunities for Google in Iraq, to understand the landscape of Internet access and connectivity in the country during this critical transition period, and to bring top-voted questions from YouTube to Iraqi leaders in a series of interviews. We met with students, private sector companies, NGOs and Iraqi leadership in the Kurdish city of Erbil in the north, and in Baghdad.

Pictures taken by the Google/YouTube team in Iraq: Harry Wingo (Policy), Carrie Farrell (Google.org), Debu Purkayastha (Corp Dev), Olivia Ma (YouTube), Mary Himinkool (Business Development), and Steve Grove (YouTube).

Regardless of your feelings about the Iraq War, it’s immediately evident upon arrival just how completely the country missed the Internet boom during Saddam Hussein’s regime. Internet penetration rates in Iraq are among the lowest in the Middle East—somewhere between one and eight percent. Only 15 percent of Iraqis say they use the web, and the largest percentage of them live in Baghdad. There are no commercial data centers in Iraq and much more fiber connectivity is needed to meet consumer needs. Most connections are via satellite, and those who do have connections pay dearly for it—we heard estimates of up to $150 U.S. dollars per month for a 512kb connection. To incentivize and enable private companies to lay more fiber in Iraq, a complex set of roadblocks must be addressed—from security concerns to regulatory frameworks to licensing structures. As the country is still struggling to form a government more than seven months after its last election, much of this progress has been stalled.

There are signs of progress, however. Mobile penetration has skyrocketed in Iraq in the past seven years, from effectively zero percent in 2003 to over 70% today. And the Iraqi people are highly educated. We met with dozens of computer science students at Salahaddin University in Erbil and at Baghdad University, and though they lack equipment and resources, they’re highly motivated to innovate and believe the web is a critical component of their economy’s future.

Many young people in Iraq and around the world submitted questions in Arabic and English for three interviews we conducted in partnership with Middle Eastern news agency Al Arabiya. Google Translate enabled anyone to vote on their favorite questions regardless of language, and we brought the top five questions to current Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the Prime Minister of the Kurdish Regional Government in Erbil, Dr. Barham Salih, and Iraqi politician and once the interim Prime Minister of Iraq, Ayad Allawi. Here is the television special that Al Arabiya produced showcasing their answers:

The Iraqis we met consistently expressed their desire for increased access to the web and for more access to content and tools in both Kurdish and Arabic. We believe access to information and high-speed connectivity to the cloud will be key to the future of the country. The power of the web to change people’s lives grows the further one gets from Silicon Valley, and we look forward to continuing our work with companies, governments and citizens in Iraq and other countries in transition.

Mary Himinkool, New Business Development, and Olivia Ma, YouTube News & Politics


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