The Direction of Digital Equality
By Sonia Jorge
In today’s digital world, access is power. Internet access opens up a new world of information and opportunities, and has become such an integral part of our lives that it has been said that to be offline today is to be silenced. Today, close to half the world remains offline, unable to access the information and opportunities that come with an Internet connection. Their voices are silenced in the digital world and as a result, their voices are also missing from social, political and economic discourse offline.
Connectivity has become so indispensable to modern life that in 2015, the United Nations set a new global goal as part of the new Sustainable Development Goals: universal, affordable Internet access for all by the year 2020. This ambitious goal, together with the goal to enhance the use of ICT for women’s economic empowerment, underscores the importance of Internet access to global development and empowerment, but the reality is that we still have a long way to go in order to achieve this goal.
As the digital revolution marches forward, with increasing hype around all the possibilities and potentials, billions are being left behind. This digital divide falls along gender and income lines—women and the poor comprise the majority of those offline today. These populations are often already marginalized offline and, as a result, arguably stand the most to benefit from the opportunities associated with online access; instead, they are now seeing these offline inequalities replicated online.
The World Economic Forum has warned that growing global inequality is one of the major threats facing our world today. While Internet access has the power to upend this balance of power, today’s digital exclusion is instead reinforcing existing patterns of privilege and discrimination.
Our failure to address barriers to access and enable connectivity for these groups risks not only exacerbating existing inequalities, but also stunting global economic growth and undermining progress toward development goals. Women, in particular, feel the impact of this digital divide. As I mentioned earlier, over half of today’s offline population are women—this means that more than 2 billion women globally are not connected, unable to access health, educational, and other resources and information available online. Web Foundation research has found that women in poor, urban areas are up to 50% less likely to be online than men in the same communities and what’s worse is that recent research from the ITU and GSMA shows that the digital gender gap is actually growing wider.
The barriers to access faced by women and other marginalized populations are many and varied. Affordability remains one of the major obstacles to access, particularly for women, who, on an average, earn lower salaries than men. In the developing world, just IGB of mobile data can easily cost upwards of 20%of average income. For women and others earning lower salaries, the actual cost is much higher. Driving prices down to a level at which access becomes affordable even for these populations will be critical to expand access, bolster the digital economy, and advance global development.
Improving access to and availability of digital skills training for today’s offline populations and—women and girls in particular—is also critical. Our research shows that lack of digital skills and know-how was a top barrier to access for women. Incorporating digital skills training into primary and secondary school curricula and offering more opportunities for women and girls and other under-served populations to learn these skills can both go a long way towards tackling this issue and empowering more to come online.
Without efforts to enable opportunities for access and use that focus specifically on women and other offline populations, we risk entrenching these inequalities and contributing to a more unbalanced and unequal world. Making a quality Internet connection more affordable for all must be a top priority. At A4AI, we are working to influence the policy needed to drive Internet costs down to a ‘1 for 2’ target, where 1GB of prepaid mobile data is available for 2% or less of average monthly income, and to secure meaningful connectivity, where everyone has a quality connection enabling meaningful use.
As we take these efforts forward, it is also important to consider—and address, where possible—the range of cultural and social issues that are preventing people from accessing and using the Internet. In addition to the challenges of affordability and digital skills, women face out-dated gender norms that keep them from using the Internet or an ICT device. Worryingly, we are also seeing a growing trend of people being digitally excluded for social and political reasons. Increasing numbers of Internet shutdowns across the globe have contributed to this exclusion. These moves to silence critical discussion don’t just have a chilling effect on rights to free speech and expression, they also have serious economic consequences: the Brooking Institute has estimated that the Internet shutdown between 2015-16 cost $2.4 billion in economic losses.
For these reasons and many more, it is critical that our work to expand access and use of the Internet is grounded in a digital rights perspective, and considers all the dimensions of both digital and offline rights.
The fight for digital rights must continue—and perhaps becomes even more critical—once people are online. As more and more of our daily lives move online, we each leave a massive data trail in our wake. Most of us do not know what digital traces we are creating, who have collected them or what they will be used for. Companies rely on this data to personalize services and target ads that will be most relevant to users, but this collection of data can also lead to unintended consequences when we are profiled in ways that are detrimental to our interests, or when governments around the world take advantage of our digital trails to extend the state surveillance apparatus to unprecedented levels.
We have a right to know what is collected about us and what it will be used for. And we have a right to transparent explanations of how our personal data is processed, sold, and used to make decisions for and about us. All of us—government and public sector policymakers, tech companies and service providers, activists and civil society—must come together to develop policy and regulatory frameworks that protect us online, and which put a fair level of control back into the hands of the people.
It is up to us to ensure that the digital revolution becomes a movement that empowers all. Failure to act means leaving billions behind; it means eroding consumer trust—a core foundation upon which the digital economy is built. In turn, this inaction threatens to stunt progress and undermine achievement of the global Sustainable Development Goals.
At the Web Foundation and Alliance for Affordable Internet, we are working to tackle this challenge head on. We’re fighting for digital equality: a world where everyone—no matter your gender, no matter your income or your location—can benefit equally from the Internet, and use it to improve their lives. For us, this means working not only to expand affordable and meaningful access to everyone, everywhere, but also to ensure that the Internet remains truly open so that once people come online, they have the opportunity to access and use the information and tools needed to participate fully in civic life.
To achieve these goals, we need to turn our knowledge into action. We know the issues, and we have a pretty good idea of what we must do to overcome these barriers to access, to enable power, accountability and opportunity for all. But we must do more. We must go beyond what we’ve done to date, to continue pushing the needle in the direction of digital equality, and to ensure that we continue to invest in long-term efforts that solve these issues and ensure that the impact of the digital revolution is as great and positive as it can be.
Sonia Jorge is an Executive Director with the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI), and Head of Digital Inclusion Programmes at the Web Foundation.