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Digital Divide

"We have entered the knowledge society and everyone must have access to participate. The internet is the most powerful potential source of enlightenment ever created. Governments must regard it as basic infrastructure, just like roads, waste and water." Dr Hamadoun Toure, Secretary-General, International Telecommunication Union

The Digital Divide refers to the inequalities between people who have access to and the resources to use modern information and communication technology (ICT), such as desktop computers and the Internet, and people who do not. This includes those who have, and those who do not have, the necessary skills, knowledge and abilities to use ICT to advance their knowledge and achieve their desired objectives. The divide exists between economic classes, between those living in urban and those living in rural areas, and between those who are educated and those who are not; and on a global scale, between industrial and so-called 'developing' countries.

There are many possible explanations for the divide, for example gender, age, education, income, race, and location, as well as to political, religious or cultural factors (including politicians and clerkics' fear of the public having unfettered access to the Internet). These days people can connect to the Internet via a desktop computer, laptop, cell phone, iPod or other MP3 player, Xbox or Play Station, electronic book reader, or tablet such as iPad. Once an individual has access, and can decipher, understand and use the information that is available, that individual is capable of becoming a 'digital citizen'.

Growing Knowledge Divide

With internet cafes popping up in ever more remote towns and villages, and barriers due to gender, age, etc. reducing in many countries, the digital divide appears to be shifting from a gap in access/connectivity to a 'knowledge divide'. In the Rich World there is the gap between those who have the skills and understanding to interact with the technology and those who are effectively passive consumers of it. Technologies like Facebook, Youtube, Twitter and Blogs enable users to create content online without having to understand much about the technology. Many users do little more than post photos and status updates on their Facebook page and do not interact to any degree with the technology. And in the Poor World, the gap is with those who lack the education or perhaps the language skills to use ICT. (In 2010, just 10 languages accounted for 82% of internet users, with English and Chinese speakers alone making up over 50%.)

Why Closing the Digital Divide is Important

Here are some of the main arguments for closing the digital divide:

Economic equality: access to the Internet is a basic component of civil life that some developed countries aim to guarantee for their citizens (see below). Vital information relevant to people's careers, lifestyles, safety, etc. are increasingly provided via the Internet. Even social welfare services are sometimes administered and offered electronically.

Social mobility: computers and computer networks are playing an increasingly important role in people’s learning, professional work and career development. Education should therefore cover computing and use of the Internet.

Democracy: the use of the Internet can lead to a healthier democracy, increased public participation in elections and decision making processes.

Economic growth: the development and active use of information infrastructure offers a shortcut to economic growth for less developed nations. Information technologies tend to be associated with productivity improvements and may give industries a competitive advantage.

See the Open Net Initiative for more information on these issues.

Internet Access as a Right

As long ago as 2000, the parliament in Estonia passed a law declaring Internet access a fundamental human right of its citizenry: the Internet, the government argued, was essential for life in the 21st century. And today a growing number of other countries have followed suit (eg France, Spain, Finland & Greece).

In November 2005, the World Summit on the Information Society called upon the UN General Assembly to declare 17 May as 'World Information Society Day' to focus on the importance of ICT and the wide range of issues related to the Information Society. The following year the UN decided to combine 'World Information Society Day' and 'World Telecommunication Day' to help raise awareness of the possibilities that the use of the Internet and other ICT can bring to societies and economies, as well as of ways to bridge the digital divide.

We should not conclude this section without a caveat: access to the internet is not without its dangers, especially for the naive or unwary. There is justified concern about infringements of privacy and the dangers of fraud, and also the ease of access to violent, inflammatory or sexually explicit material -- not to mention virulent viruses that destroy information on computers and even damage equipment. That said, the Internet represents an amazing power for good in the world by giving people direct access to information and opinion on all manner of things and in the process encouraging creativity and serendipitous discovery (chance findings). And the more frequently people make use of the technology, the more opportunities they have to connect with others and enhance their skills and knowledge base, and who knows where they will end up? These days, the sky's the limit!

The above note uses material taken from Wikipedia, Webopedia, the BBC, and Internet World Stats.