Ethics and Law in New Media/The Digital Divide

From Wikiversity

What's that?[edit]

The Digital Divide has been defined in a variety of ways. We can read a simple explanation from Wikipedia: "The digital divide is the gap between those with regular, effective access to digital technologies and those without." The UNDP Report 2001 adds: "The digital divide is a reflection of broader socioeconomical inequalities".

Martikainen and Mäntylä count the five main generation in the IT development:

  • 1st - the great machines
  • 2nd - the minicomputer
  • 3rd - the PC
  • 4th - the local area networks
  • 5th - the Internet

While the development has come a long way, at the each transition the information technology has:

  • Infiltrated from machine rooms to offices and homes;
  • Reached new users, whose needs have quickly begun to guide and dominate the development of the technology;
  • Destroyed and given birth to whole professions and industries;
  • Transformed and shaped organizations and communities, management and power, control and free speech;
  • Shaped both work and leisure;
  • Shaped the foundations of the economy;
  • Split the world more deeply between winners and losers.

While the current digital divide is most clearly seen at the last statement, it has its roots in several of them. And yet, all the factors mentioned above seem to have both inclusive and separative capabilities - which ones get to dominate is largely up to the general choices made by the given society.

Different dimensions[edit]

Physical access[edit]

According to UNDP, in 2001 the OECD countries contained 79% of the world's Internet users. Africa had less international bandwidth than São Paulo in Brazil. Latin America's bandwidth, in turn, was roughly equal to that of Seoul, Republic of Korea. In 2001, 79% of all Internet users lived in OECD countries, which contained only 14% of the world's people. According to the OECD 2001 report, in October 1997, the digital divide in Internet host penetration between Africa and North America was a multiple of 267 - by October 2000, this had grown to a multiple of 540. And even in the developed countries, the disparities exist (remember Manuel Castells talking about the "Fourth World").

On the positive side: in OECD countries excluding the United States the share of Internet users quadrupled from 7% to 28% between 1998 and 2000. The numbers also went from 1.7 million to 9.8 million users in Brazil, from 3.8 million to 16.9 million in China and from 2,500 to 25,000 in Uganda. Yet because they are starting from very low bases, the percentage remains small.

What should also be noted: according to the same UNDP raport, electricity had not yet reached about 2 billion people (1/3 of the world's population) in 2001. It is a good illustration to the fact that while networked society can be a great equalizer and provide new measures, it needs a certain base level of technological and social development - and that base level is not very low.

Legal issues[edit]

The UNDP Report states "In 1998 the 29 OECD countries spent $520 billion on research and development - more than the combined economic output of the world's 30 poorest countries. OECD countries, with 19% of the world's people, also accounted for 91% of the 347,000 new patents issued 1998 (and in the United States, the number of claimed patents went up from 77,000 in 1985 to 169,000 in 1999). And in these countries more than 60% of research and development is now carried out by the private sector, with a correspondingly smaller role for public sector research."

This is a serious problem which has a number of different aspects, most of them being tied to the currently prevalent system of intellectual property (which is developing towards strict regulation and legal obstacles to competition. A lot of the poorer worlds are cut off from accessing the more recent knowledge - when a large share of state-of-the-art scientific knowledge are locked inside expensive journals and paid-subscription online services, even the development of technical infrastructure of developing countries is not enough. It results in them being increasingly left out of the game, further widening the divide. Moreover, due to the dictate of media industry in wealthy counties and related legislative changes, it is often impossible to release content into public use by developing nations even if it is agreed upon (a good example is the "abandonware" - proprietary software which has lost its business value long ago, yet cannot be released to the public due to intellectual property issues involved).


Among other factors, a key issue seems to be the liberalisation of telecommunication markets. In 1998, major changes were made in telecommunication policies in Europe, resulting in more free market, more competition and dropping prices. At the same time, in many developing countries, telecommunication is still centralised and often strictly controlled by the state.

Gender disparity[edit]

In many parts of the world, the new technologies are dominated by male users. According to the UNDP, men make up 86% of users in Ethiopia, 83% in Senegal, 70% in China, 67% in France and 62% in Latin America.

Meanwhile in other places, the gender gap is closing. In Thailand, the share of female users jumped from 35% in 1999 to 49% in 2000. In the United States, women made up 38% of users in 1996 but 51% in 2000. In Brazil, where Internet use has increased rapidly during the recent years, women account for 47% of users.


According to the UNDP report, younger people are more apt to be online. In Australia 18-24-year-olds are five times more likely to be Internet users than those above 55. In Chile 74% of users are under 35; in China that share is 84%. Other countries follow the same pattern - although it is likely that in developed countries, the age reflects more choices and attitudes than necessities and obstacles.


UDNP: In Bulgaria the poorest 65% of the population accounts for only 29% of Internet users. In Chile 89% of Internet users have had tertiary education, in Sri Lanka 65%, and in China 70%. While in many places, this may reflect rather the income level (that more or less correlates to the level of education) than the education as such, the problem becomes much more visible in developing countries when people do not have access even to elementary education needed to make use of the Internet infrastructure.

Rural vs urban[edit]

UNDP: In China the 15 least connected provinces, with 600 million people, have only 4 million Internet users while Shanghai and Beijing, with 27 million people, have 5 million users. In the Dominican Republic 80% of Internet users live in the capital, Santo Domingo. And in Thailand 90% live in urban areas, which contain only 21% of the country's population. Among India's 1.4 million Internet connections, more than 1.3 million are in the five states of Delhi, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Mumbai.

Again, this may grow into a serious problem when left untreated. Even in Estonia, the metaphor of "the first and the second Estonia" is telling enough - while having much wider meaning than that, it also reflects the failures in regional policies during the last decade.

Other issues[edit]

The OECD report mentions significant differences in access across groups from different racial, ethnic and cultural backgrounds, although these differences may be largely related to income and education. Some ethnic groups have achieved relatively greater access to and use of ICTs. Data from the United States show a very large difference in PC and Internet penetration by different ethnic groups. Asian Americans have the highest penetration rates, a little ahead of white citizens. Hispanic and African American citizens have considerably lower access.

Martikainen and Mäntylä describe how even a well-networked (and often outlined as a positive example) society like Finland faces some cultural challenges: "The complexity and difficult use of technology are challenges especially for two groups of people: the elderly and the immigrants. For both groups, the use of new technology and the adjustment to an environment filled with modern information technology can be difficult. The elderly and the foreigners moving to Finland suffer most from the lacking usability of technology due to insufficient education, physical limitations and language problems." Again, this is a complex problem.

Global impact[edit] writes: "Today, Europe and North America no longer call the shots. Emerging market countries of Asia now drive the digital economy. Three billion Asian low-income consumers are entering established markets, creating a new centrifugal force for the world economy. In the vast region of Asia, the spread of wireless networks is stimulating all other dimensions of economic growth. Indeed, in these countries the biggest technological growth is occurring outside big cities. The rural areas are the new battleground for businesses arguing for various technology platforms or for open source versus proprietary models of technology. As broadband networks spread into the countryside, costs drop in all parts of the supply chains. By adjusting their policies to close the Digital Divide, the major IT and telecommunications companies will be forced to innovate in ways that spur growth in the advanced countries as well. This dynamic series of events could be called the Second Digital Revolution."

It may well be that the second wave of the socio-technological changes will be led by Asian countries. However, this also implies that these countries change the previously unbalanced social models (some examples of which can be seen above in the statistics). In their book, Manuel Castells and Pekka Himanen used Finland, the United States and Singapore as representatives of three different paths (somewhat optimistically showing Finland as "The Way"). In his 2004 report, Pekka Himanen is still using similar paths, but now presenting them as possible ways for Finland to develop - but these can be applied to most other countries as well.

  1. the Silicon Valley model - or "leaving the weak behind", the neo-liberal model. Here Himanen addresses seriously the price which has been paid in California (growing inequality and crime rate, the largest prison population in the US etc). As a side note: this has also been the model for Estonia since the regaining of independence in 1991 - and the consequences that put the country to the worst positions in EU with its human development indicators (as revealed by the 2006 Human Development Report) are perhaps the best proof to Himanen's point.
  2. the Singapore model - or "race to the bottom", tax-competition model. Here, the main problem is continuity - after the economy has been rapidly developing for awhile by attracting large corporations with cheap labour force, the development reaches the level where the corporations will move to another "cheap area" due to rising labour costs. Without innovation and expertise, the economy will stall.
  3. the European model - or "the dead hand of passivity", welfare-state model. The main problem here according to Himanen is the threat of stagnation. When people start trying to maintain the industrial-era welfare state without allowing the changes necessary to keep pace with social and technological developments, the result can be the "society of envy", where all initiative will be cut down to maintain a general low profile.

Himanen proposes a fourth way, the scenario propelled by the "community ethics" (or "hacker ethics" as Himanen calls it in his book with the same title (Himanen 2001)). Instead of only reacting to things, the society must be proactive - daring to invent new things and discover new ways.

Building the bridge[edit]

"It is often thought that people gain access to technological innovations - more effective medicine or transportation, the telephone or the Internet - once they have more income. This is true - economic growth creates opportunities for useful innovations to be created and diffused. But the process can also be reversed: investments in technology, like investments in education, can equip people with better tools and make them more productive and prosperous. Technology is a tool, not just a reward, for growth and development." (UNDP 2001).

The opposite of the digital divide can be called the ubiquitous computing, or in a more social sense, the networked society. This means a situation where new technologies are available everywhere and affordable for everybody. These topics will be covered in the next lecture.

The final word of warning comes from Pekka Himanen: "If we carry on with "business as usual", inequality and marginalisation will continue to become aggravated both globally and nationally. During the first phase of the information society, i.e. from the 1960s to the turn of the 21st century, the income gap between the poorest 20 % and the richest 20 % of the world's population doubled and is now approximately 75:1. This development is maintained particularly by the distortions of world trade and the knowledge divide between developing and developed countries, so the situation can be improved considerably only by changing the structures of world trade and by bridging the information divide."


Food for Thought[edit]

  • It has been suggested that restrictive licensing, patents and other legal measures are deepening the divide in global scale. What do you think?
  • Many technologies (e.g. Internet connectivity in general) are ambivalent - they can used to bridge the divides as well as to deepen them. What could be done to stress the positive aspects more and lessen the negative ones?

To Do[edit]

  • Investigate and describe (in your blog) an illustrative case of digital divide in your country
  • Analyse and describe (in your blog) Internet availability in your country. How big is the availability difference for urban and rural regions? Do you consider this a problem?