The Digital Divide is the digital gap between those individuals who have the opportunity to access the Internet and those who don’t. As a matter of fact, those who miss the chance to benefit from the use of the web may suffer from the socio-economic repercussions, as well as from the cultural ones. Regardless of which and how many types of digital divide can be identified, its effect is anyway negative for those who are subjected to it. Therefore, the scope of this article is to understand this phenomenon and how to reduce it.
DIGITAL DIVIDE: WHO IS SUBJECTED TO THE DIGITAL EXLUSION
As a general reference, the individuals who are excluded from the Internet access belong to the weakest sections of the population. Particularly, these people are subjected to severe social disparities, especially regarding both the access and the use of technologies. Since the very early stages of the digital society, this inequality originated a broad discrimination of human rights on the Internet environment. This is the reason why the digital divide has a dual nature, which can be defined as both socio-economic and cultural.
Among the categories of individuals who are threatened by the digital divide, the most affected ones may be:
Social disparity and digital gap
The idea of a new form of social disparity based on the lack of Internet access was conceived as early as the mid-90s. Particularly, on the 29th of May 1996, Al Gore used for the first time the expression “digital divide” to indicate the existing gap between the “Information Haves” and the “Have Nots”, in relation to the K-12 educational program. Since then, the trends and evolutions of the digital gap were used to monitor the several factors affecting the free access to the Internet, as well as the socio-demographic, the economic and institutional ones.
There are two main theories regarding the social disparity and the digital gap. The first one suggests the progressive elimination of the digital gap through the levelling of the competences among the individuals; the second theory focuses on the reduction of the technological barriers to facilitate the access of the individuals to the web.
The types of cultural gap in the Internet era
It is possible to identify 3 types of digital gap, as follows:
The global digital gap depends on the spending power of the individuals, as this factor influences the degree of their access to both the Internet and the ICT technologies. Hence, it is necessary to assess both the quality and the method of the access within each context.
Nowadays, there is still a strong degree of global digital divide, especially considering that more than half of the broadband connections of the world is held from China, USA and Japan. Contextually, at national and international level, there are diverse degrees of digital awareness. Therefore, the digital divide can be strictly linked to the concept of knowledge divide.
The second-level digital gap, instead, is related to the web content creators, the so-called prosumers, who are the ones who create the user generated contents. The percentage of the users who participate to the creation of memes, wikis and others is limited compared to the total number of Internet users. Generally, if the users possess a high education level and a conspicuous degree of spending power, they are more encouraged to take part to the creation of contents.
The analysis of the digital gap is mostly based on insufficient computer competences to undertake even the basic virtual interactions on the Internet. Probably, this is also linked to the lack of the infrastructures and technologies necessary to guarantee them an effective web surfing.
Recently, the jurisprudence has acknowledged the existence of a “damage caused by the digital divide”; this phenomenon may be caused by an external party who violates the right of another individual to access the web. As a consequence, the individual is prevented from exercising his/her rights on the Internet. This type of offense may be classified as a damage to a human being, because it implies the lack of digital inclusion.
The digital divide in Italy
In concrete terms, the infrastructure digital divide is related to the fact that Italians are not covered by an adequate internet connection. Instead, as regard the cultural digital divide, is linked to the fact that some Italians decide not to have an internet subscription. It is clear that both create a detrimental situation.
In Italy the first level of digital divide, i.e. the lack of the broadband, can be related to a low percentage of the population. Differently, the second level of digital divide, i.e. the insufficient presence of ultra-fast broadband coverage, affect between the 20% and the 40% of the population. In the near future the third level of digital divide will be analysed more in detail, as the lack of optical fibre only affects less than the 20% of the total population.
The causes of the digital divide
The access to the digital and ICT technologies is a prerogative that is linked to geographical and geopolitical factors, but also to the age and gender, the earnings and the level of education. Some recent studies have highlighted the fact that the higher is the income and the degree of the education of the individuals the better is the access level of the Internet. Similarly, it has been proofed that those people who live in the well-developed urban centres can count on a better technology access than the individuals living in rural areas.
Furthermore, it has been found that there is a link between the gender gap and the digital divide. However, even though the digital professions are still considered as male-oriented, there seems to be no real gender gap in terms of the opportunities to access the digital technologies. In fact, considering equal income and educational levels, women seem to have a better attitude than man to take advantage of both the educational and work-related opportunities that are sourced from the ICT.
WHY IS IT IMPORTANT TO REDUCE THE DIGITAL DIVIDE?
Internet Governance is “the development and the application made by governments, the private sector and civil society, in their respective roles, of shared principles, norms, rules, decision-making procedures and programmes that determine the evolution and use of the Internet”.
The consequence of the enormous potential offered by the Internet is the need of guaranteeing free access to the web to the whole population, mainly through the adoption of suitable public policies. Indeed, the United Nations Human Rights Council has explicitly declared that Internet is a fundamental human right, “a force in the acceleration of progress towards the development in its various forms”. Each country has the obligation to facilitate the freedom of speech also by Internet, as it is an essential tool to realise a set of human rights, given that it grants an easy access to information and that it simplifies the participation of all citizens to the realisation of democratic societies.
The digital equality is a very important matter in the today’s society, but governments have not yed decided whether to institutionalize the right of accessing the Internet, within a legal system that would to truly take into account the new digital technologies. Thanks to the rise of the Information Societies, it has been observed a development in terms of opportunities offered by digital technologies. However, the potential risk is to limit their use in favour of a privileged group of individuals. This new form of social inequality linked to the new technologies is a serious factor of cultural discrimination and prevents many individuals from accessing both information and communication technologies.
The digital divide conceived as a common good
To consider the Internet as a common good it is necessary to make sure that all the individuals have a free and equal access to it. This process is therefore considered as a duty that belongs to any party who deals with Internet Governance. Based on all the above, Internet access must be guaranteed to everyone and under the same conditions, regardless of their use.
Regarding the net neutrality, it impacts on the relational, economic and educational sphere of individuals, but also on the community. Social networks and digital technologies are acknowledged to have the power to multiply people’s social capital. Contextually, any barrier to internet access may exclude the individual from intertwining relationships, exploiting network effects and therefore it may become a source of social discrimination.
With regard to the education and the effects of the digital divide among young people, 70% of teachers today assign to their pupils homework requiring broadband access and use. One of out two children is unable to finish his/her homework due to the lack of a valid internet connection. This shows the school’s inability to prepare future workers for the real needs of the market.
HOW TO REDUCE THE DIGITAL DIVIDE
The expression digital divide is often replaced by terms such as digital accessibility, digital skills or media literacy. Indeed, today the digital divide is not only considered as the digital gap related to the lack of access to ICT technologies, but also as the phenomenon linked to mobile connectivity, which is exploited by almost 95% of the global population.
Truthfully, many other factors should be considered, such as speed and bandwidth, individual digital skills, networked activities, and so on. Replacing the concept of digital divide with that of digital inclusion is useful to understand that digital inclusion refers to all those activities that ensure access and use of ICT technologies and means to all individuals and communities. Particularly, the most important activities relate to:
Eliminating the digital divide is the goal of many international organisations and associations dealing with internet governance all over the world. Here are the four principles recognised as possible solutions to the digital divide: economic equality, social mobility, economic growth and democratic organization.
Equal access to the internet goes hand in hand with equal economic and social conditions that countries must ensure for their citizens. It is important to provide the younger generations with adequate digital education in order to raise good digital citizens and improve the media literacy of all sections of the population, especially vulnerable minorities.