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Digital divide

Updates

21 Dec 2016

From 12-15 December 2016 UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Committee for the Protection of the Diversity of Cultural Expression held its tenth ordinary session. During the session, Committee’s selection of six projects recipients of the International Fund for Cultural Diversity (IFCD) in the framework of the UNESCO 2005 Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions were announced. The Committee adopted the preliminary draft Operational Guidelines on the implementation of the Convention in the digital environment. The draft document requires states to update their respective laws “to protect and promote the diversity of cultural expressions in the digital environment.” The Guidelines recognize the need to address issues such as the digital divide between developed and less developed countries when it comes to the flow of cultural goods and services, digital literacy and access to local cultural content.

20 Dec 2016

SES, a world-leading satellite operator, published the report “E-inclusion: Satellites are the Answer”. The report claims that Internet broadband and speed are increasing, but the digital gap is not necessarily narrowing. Satellites provide borderless connectivity and respond swiftly to evolving situations. SES claims to have completely global network that reaches 99% of the world’s population.

14 Dec 2016

Racial discrimination is an important barrier to broadband access in the United States. This was one of the conclusions of the report entitled “Digital Denied: The Impact of Systemic Racial Discrimination on Home-Internet Adoption”, published by Fress Press, a DC-based public interest group. Income inequalities do play an important role on lack of Internet access, but the study noticed disproportionately low broadband deployment in communities of color. Moreover, in rural areas, “there is even more at play than income disparity, with a consistent digital divide for deployment that is apparently based on race and ethnicity alone.” The report concludes that these marginalized groups often have a high level of demand for internet access, but the high price of service, coupled with structural economic and sociological factors associated with race and ethnicity, pose barriers to internet deployment and adoption.

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The digital divide can be defined as a rift between those who, for technical, political, social, or economic reasons, have access and capabilities to use ICT/Internet, and those who do not. Various views have been put forward about the size and relevance of the digital divide. Digital divide(s) exist at different levels: within countries and between countries, between rural and urban populations, between the old and the young, as well as between men and women.

The OECD refers to the digital divide as ‘the gap between individuals, households, businesses and geographic areas at different socioeconomic levels with regard both to their opportunities to access information and communication technologies (ICTs) and to their use of the Internet for a wide variety of activities’.

 

Digital divides are not independent phenomena. They reflect existing broad socio-economic inequalities in education, healthcare, capital, shelter, employment, clean water, and food. This was clearly stated by the G8 Digital Opportunity Task Force (DOT Force): ‘There is no dichotomy between the “digital divide” and the broader social and economic divides which the development process should address; the digital divide needs to be understood and addressed in the context of these broader divides.’

Is the digital divide widening?

ICT/Internet developments leave the developing world behind at a much faster rate than advances in other fields (e.g. agricultural or medical techniques) and, as the developed world has the necessary tools to successfully use these technological advances, the digital divide appears to be continuously and rapidly widening. This is frequently the view expressed in various highly regarded documents, such as the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Human Development Reports and the ILO Global Employment Reports.

Some opposing views argue that statistics on the digital divide are often misleading and that the digital divide is in fact not widening at all. According to this view, the traditional focus on the number of computers, the number of Internet websites, or the available bandwidth should be replaced with a focus on the broader impact of ICT/Internet on societies in developing countries. Frequently quoted examples are the digital successes of Brazil, India, and China. However, the criteria for assessing the digital divide gaps are also changing and becoming more complex in order to better capture the development realities. Current assessments take into account aspects like ICT readiness and overall ICT impact on society. The World Economic Forum has developed the Networked Readiness Index (NRI) as a new approach in measuring the Internet-level of countries worldwide. It also provides new perspectives on how the digital divide is addressed.

Universal access

In addition to the digital divide, another frequently mentioned concept in the development debate is universal access, i.e., access for all. Although it should be the cornerstone of any digital development policy, differing perceptions and conceptions of the nature and scope of this universal access policy remain. The question of universal access at global level remains largely an open issue, ultimately dependent on the readiness of developed countries to invest in the realisation of this goal.

Unlike universal access at global level, in some countries universal access is a well-developed economic and legal concept. Providing telecommunication access to all citizens has been the basis of US telecommunication policy. The result has been a well-developed system of various policy and financial mechanisms, the purpose of which is to subsidise access costs in remote areas and regions with high connection costs. The subsidy is financed by regions with low connection costs, primarily the big cities. The EU has also taken a  number of concrete steps towards achieving universal access by promoting policies to ensure every citizen has access to basic communication services, including Internet connection, and enacting specific regulations thereof.

Strategies for overcoming the digital divide

The technologically centred development theory, which has dominated policy and academic circles over the past 50 years, argues that development depends on the availability of technology. However, this approach failed in many countries (mainly former socialist countries) where it became obvious that the development of society is a much more complex process. Technology is a necessary but  not self-sufficient precondition for development. Other elements include a regulatory framework, financial support, available human resources, and other sociocultural conditions. Even if all of these ingredients are present, the key challenge remains of how and when they should be used, combined, and interplayed.

Events

Instruments

Resolutions & Declarations

IPU Resolution on the Contribution of new information and communication technologies to good governance, the improvement of parliamentary democracy and the management of globalization (2003)

Other Instruments

Tunis Agenda for the Information Society (WSIS) (2005)

Resources

Articles

Bridging the Digital Divide in the EU (2015)

Publications

Internet Governance Acronym Glossary (2015)
An Introduction to Internet Governance (2014)

Reports

One Internet (2016)
Advancing Digital Societies in Asia (2016)
Internet for All: A Framework for Accelerating Internet Access and Adoption (2016)
A Pre-Feasibility Study on the Asia-Pacific Information Superhighway in the ASEAN Sub-region: Conceptualization, International Traffic & Quality Analysis, Network Topology Design and Implementation Model (2016)
The Digital Economy & Society Index (DESI) 2016 (2016)
State of Connectivity 2015: A Report on Global Internet Access (2016)
Digital Inclusion in Latin America and the Caribbean (2016)
Closing the Coverage Gap: Digital Inclusion in Latin America (2016)
Smartphone Ownership and Internet Usage continues to climb in Emerging Economies (2016)
A New Regulatory Framework for the Digital Ecosystem (2016)
Proliferation of Indian Languages on Internet (2016)
2016 Digital yearbook (2016)
NI Trend Watch 2016 (2015)
Measuring the Information Society 2015 (2015)
The 2015 BCG e-Intensity Index (2015)
UNESCO Science Report: Towards 2030 (2015)
The Mobile Economy - Arab States 2015 (2015)
Women's Rights Online: Translating Access into Empowerment (2015)
Mobile for Development Impact (2015)
The State of Broadband 2015 (2015)
Global Internet Report 2015 (2015)
The Global Information Technology Report 2015: ICTs for Inclusive Growth (2015)
Renewing the Knowledge Societies Vision for Peace and Sustainable Development (2013)
The Relationship between Local Content, Internet Development and Access Prices (2013)
Smart Policies to Close the Digital Divide: Best Practices from Around the World (2012)

Other resources

Action Plan to Close the Digital Gender Gap (2015)

Processes

WSIS Forum 2016 Report

Nearly half of the global population still lacks broadband Internet access, while the importance of the Internet in society has grown. The whole planet should work hand-in-hand to permit everybody to have a fair share of this latest revolution, which would require the support of all relevant stakehold-ers (session 225 on the Global Connect Initiative). Governments not only need to put in place effective policies, but they should also change their per- ception of broadband, recognising it as a core infrastructure that is as important for economic growth and development as the transportation and power infrastructures.

Action Line C6 (Enabling Environment) - Affordable Access for Sustainable Development (session 119) highlighted the need to adopt the right policy and regulations. The affordability of the Internet and related regulations was analysed from the viewpoints of different regions, including West Africa, Latin America, and the Pacific. The session further underlined the importance of collaborations between governments and the industry. Affordability was also highlighted during the WSIS Action Line Facilitators Meeting (session 236) and solutions might be found in enhancing mobile infrastructure.

The digital divide, separating those connected to the Internet and those who lack Internet access, exists between countries and regions, as well as between different groups in society. Action Line C2 (ICT Infrastructure) - Evolving Affordable Broadband Infrastructure for Bringing ICT to All (session 121) indicated some of these divides, including the rural vs urban divide and the divide between developing and developed countries. The challenge of enhancing Internet connectivity in Africa, in particular related to infrastructure and multistakeholder collaboration, was highlighted in WSIS+10 and Beyond: Where do we Stand in Africa? (session 140). Accessibility was also discussed from a human rights perspective.

One particular part of the ‘access’ debate concerns the need for access to information. In Establish an Inclusive, Shared and Open Information Environment, Ensure All Enjoy Information Civilization (session 184), panellists discussed ways to have everyone benefit from communication facilities, including the elderly and disabled persons. Access to knowledge was also addressed in Action Line C3 (Access) - Access to Scientific Knowledge (session 115), which focused on scientific knowledge and the need to break down ‘knowledge monopolies’.

In general, the forum highlighted not only that governments have a responsibility to design effective policies and provide a suitable regulatory environment, but that the Internet industry can also play an important role by designing new business models and crafting innovative ideas. The underlying sentiment was that efforts to increase access and close the digital divide are driven by a wide range of stakeholders who need to create an enabling environment, so that everyone can benefit from the advantages of connectivity. 

IGF 2015 Report

Digital divide was addressed in the context of the Internet economy in a number of workshops. With reference to taxation and developing countries, a panellist in Economics of the Global Internet (WS 207), said that despite the economic benefits of accessing ICTs, this did not mean that taxation was not required, but that a more balanced fiscal policy was needed. In How to Bridge the Global Internet Economy Divide (WS 97), a Google representative anchored the discussion to geographical realities: ‘Both regions have challenges, but slightly different. In Europe it’s about scaling and in Africa it is more about access.’ The main challenge, therefore – as suggested in the main session on Internet Economy and Sustainable Development – was how to narrow the divide and empower developing countries. Additionally, we need to tap in to the potential of the Internet economy as a social and economic equaliser.

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