More Iraqis become tech-savvy as younger generation get mobile
Young men smoking sheesha pose for a picture at the Facebook Cafe in Baghdad. The picture is uploaded on to the cafe's Facebook page for the rest of the world to see and "like".
The cafe, although in no way affiliated to Facebook, marks the popularity of the social network in Iraq, one of its fastest growing markets. Ten years ago, amid the start of United States-led invasion, the average Iraqi did not own a mobile phone, had no internet and no satellite channels. A decade on, mobile penetration is at 83 per cent. Internet penetration, while still low, is growing and satellite channels number in their hundreds.
According to a report from BuddeComm, the telecommunications sector is one of the country's most dynamic. Rebuilding efforts have focused largely on improving network access and heavier government investment in infrastructure has brought about an open and competitive telecoms market in Iraq. It estimates there are 3.3 million internet users in the country, about 10 per cent of the population, up from 5 per cent in 2011. These are users that access the internet from cafes, schools, universities, work and home. Broadband penetration is still below 1 per cent and PC penetration is at 23 per cent.
Yahsat subsidiary Yahclick launched its satellite broadband offerings in December and is already seeing growth rates of 70 to 80 per cent per month. The appetite for the internet among Iraqis seems insatiable.
"What we're seeing is already helping the economy," said Shawket Ahmed, the chairman of Yahclick.
"The entire country is covered and that's really helping to boost economic activity and enable social development."
Politicians have taken to Facebook and Twitter to communicate directly with the people.
Nouri Al Maliki, the prime minister, has his own official YouTube channel. Religious and sectarian leaders have their own websites, posting their ideologies and messages to followers.
According to Alexa, a Web analytics company, Facebook is now the most visited website in Iraq, followed by YouTube and Google. Almost 10 per cent of the population is now on Facebook, which has both Arabic and Kurdish language capabilities.x
"Most Iraqis use Facebook. Even if they can't use the internet very well, they know how to use Facebook," said Tareq Al Omairiwho is pursuing a master's in microbiology.
"Before, some people used to see the internet as a bad thing. Now it is seen as a tool. Even extremists use the internet for their own purposes and to spread ideas."
Internet cafes are filled with young men playing online games or chatting with friends and families in other countries via Skype. Some befriend girls on social networks and "date" them online, away from the eyes of social taboos.
Facebook in particular has been noted for enabling marriages but it has a dark side, too, according to one lawyer based in Erbil.
"Facebook has made extramarital relations much easier and technology has exacerbated the problem," he says.
"An increasing number of women are being blackmailed by their lovers who threaten to expose indecent images and videos of them. This sort of thing didn't happen before."
The Iraqi government is one of the few in the region that does not filter the Web, enabling easy access to violent and pornographic content. Out of the top 20 most-visited websites, adult content features frequently.
A young, largely unemployed population is turning to the internet to sidestep religious and social conservatism.
Iraqis now have access to the outside world and to ideas that lie both within and beyond their borders. While the internet can enable ease of doing business and improve the economy, the effect in Iraq so far seems to be more societal.
"The internet has reached a level where we cannot live without it," says Mr Al Omairi.
"It is essential and a way of life now."
Updated: March 17, 2013 04:00 AM