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Growing the Internet 29 January 2015

The Digital Divide is not Binary

Michael Kende
By Michael KendeSenior Fellow and Visiting Lecturer, Graduate Institute, Geneva

Economic growth and social inclusion, critical issues for many countries, will be promoted by bringing the four-plus billion non-Internet users around the world online. The common view of this digital divide is that it separates the Internet ‘haves’ from the ‘have-nots’; dividing those who are online from those who would like to get online, but are prevented based on the availability or affordability of access.

When It Comes to Solving the Digital Divide, We’re Missing Something

This binary view of the digital divide is fostered by a positive feedback loop – the ‘haves’ understandably assume everyone wants to join them, while those who face barriers in getting online understandably push for access. However, as shown in the first annual Internet Society Global Internet Report, there is an overlooked divide within the ‘have-nots’, between those who are interested to get online, and those who are not.

The graph below shows the population of each country, represented by a horizontal bar divided into three groups of citizens. First, the proportion of the population who are online, represented by the dark blue section on the left of each country’s bar. Second, those not online who indicate in surveys that they do not have online access or cannot afford access, represented by the lighter blue section on the right. Finally, those not online who state that they are not interested in going online, represented by the lightest blue section in the middle of each bar. 

As shown in the graph, in the countries surveyed, more non-Internet users indicate that they are not online because of a lack of interest, understanding or time, rather than the affordability or availability of access. This holds true even in countries towards the bottom such as Colombia, where the affordability (represented in the figure by the green dot indicating the subscription price as a proportion of average income) is highest of all the countries surveyed.

While Getting Access is Key, It’s Only Half the Battle

These results suggest a nuanced approach to the digital divide, one that focuses not just on providing affordable and universal access to the Internet, but also on increasing interest in the use of the resulting access. In fact, we have seen that as the infrastructure necessary for Internet access is becoming more available in developing countries, efforts to close the digital divide have increasingly focused on promoting local content to develop interest in using the Internet and drive uptake.

However, it is not enough to ensure that content is relevant – for starters, in the right language – but it must also be accessible. Most, if not all, developing countries have local content, however, it is often located in Europe or the United States where hosting services are less expensive. In an Internet Society paper released last week, we show that hosting content abroad not only makes it more expensive and slower to access that content, it discourages the creation of new content.

We Need to Think Bigger

Policymakers must take a broad approach to bridge the digital divide – ensuring not just that affordable access is available, but also that there is demand that leads to adoption and usage. Only in this way will the full economic and social impact of the Internet be felt by all.

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Disclaimer: Viewpoints expressed in this post are those of the author and may or may not reflect official Internet Society positions.

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