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.
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.