The digital divide – where are we now?

From a purely observational standpoint, it might seem like humanity has now bridged the digital divide. Wherever you go in today’s world you are sure to see someone scrolling through pages on their smartphone or doing something in daily life that requires an internet connection.

That’s what the digital divide used to refer to: the gulf between those people who were online versus those who were not. So, with over four billion people on the planet connected to the Internet and billions of connected devices, is the digital divide being conquered?

More technologies, divides remain

Technology has advanced incredibly rapidly in the two decades since the term digital divide was coined. Mobile and cellular devices are now commonplace, mobile broadband changed the way we work and play forever, but we have not yet overcome the notion of a digital divide.

There are still geographical differences because access to technology is better in more developed economies, while there are also sociological differences in Internet use. For example, around 58 percent of Americans in rural communities use the Internet daily, compared with over 80 percent in urban and suburban areas.

The World Economic Forum has observed that polarization of societies and growth in income divides can be attributed to the growth of technology and a digital divide. In more developed countries, blue collar jobs are being replaced by technology, creating a digital gap that did not exist before. Technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) could cause divides to deepen further still, fueling the innovation/job creation vs replacing human workers argument that has always been at the center of AI.

New technologies, new digital divides?

Ever-increasing penetration of devices and continuing emergence of new digital technologies could lead to new digital divides. According to a study by Common Sense Media, in American families, the digital divide traditionally referred to the gap between rich and poor students, which created widening gaps in academic achievement. Computer and device proliferation has however changed that, with nearly 75 percent of U.S. families with lower salaries today having access to high-speed connectivity, up from 46 percent in 2013.

What has changed now is the way media is used, with lower-income parents putting their children in front of screens for nearly twice as long each day as richer parents. The report suggested that lower-income families use mobile devices effectively as babysitters. According to Kevin Clark at the Center for Digital Media, Innovation and Diversity at George Mason University, this trend has created something new: "It's not a technology divide, it's a content divide. And it's a divide in how the technology is being used." The impact of this content divide is yet to be fully seen.

Another new digital divide is in security. The Internet Society Global Internet Report 2017 suggests that cyber threats are creating security “haves” and “have nots”: fundamentally, technology users who have skills and resources to sufficiently protect their digital lives, versus those who do not. This makes the latter much more likely to be a victim of cybercrime. Technology users in developed nations with higher disposable incomes can afford more security applications and solutions, such as a small monthly payment for a VPN to secure activity when using public Wi-Fi. However, that small monthly payment becomes relatively much more to someone in a less developed country.

Internet access – a human right?

The continuing existence of a digital divide fuels the UN’s attempts to classify Internet access as a fundamental human right. A 2016 resolution by the UN Human Rights Council stated its condemnation for countries that take away or disrupt citizens’ Internet access. The view of the UN was that Internet access gives citizens “vast opportunities for affordable and inclusive education globally,” and in line with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, technology offers the “great potential to accelerate human progress.” U.S. President Barack Obama stated his belief that “today, high-speed broadband is not a luxury, it’s a necessity.”

Despite these setbacks, there are positive signs that the digital divide will continue to close given the continuing proliferation of technology and connectivity and the younger generation’s familiarity with technology. According to the ITU’s Facts and Figures 2017, 71 percent of 15 to 24-year olds are using the Internet versus 48 percent of people in total. Ultimately as societies, we need to find new economic benefits to eliminate the traditional digital divide once and for all, while also keeping an eye on new gaps that occur.

Discover how the Orange Group is leveraging digital technologies in emerging markets to improve socio-economic development and fight the digital divide, and the philanthropic activities of the Orange Foundation.

Steve Harris

I’ve been writing about technology for around 15 years and today focus mainly on all things telecoms - next generation networks, mobile, cloud computing and plenty more. For Futurity Media I am based in the Asia-Pacific region and keep a close eye on all things tech happening in that exciting part of the world.