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Inequity.com: the digital divide*

The World Guide

The digital divide is related to illiteracy levels in underdeveloped countries, but it is also one of the US's 'dirty little secrets'. Carvin reminds us that a functional illiteracy exists in his country. Millions of youth and adults - 44 million, one out of four in 1993 -have serious difficulties in filling out forms, following written instructions or even reading a newspaper

The term 'digital divide' refers to the growing gap between those who can use new information and communication tools, such as the internet, and those who cannot. The gap is not just between North and South, but also within countries and communities and is seen by some as one of the most complex civil-rights challenges of the millennium.

The growing global divide following the revolutionary advent of the internet is caused by a lack of equal opportunities in accessing information, knowledge and education. In July 2000, ABC News noted that one in 20 people on the planet were connected to the internet. The US is home to more than 60 per cent of web users, despite representing only 5 per cent of the world's population. Meanwhile, Africa has barely 14 million telephone lines, less than Manhattan or Tokyo.

The overwhelming growth of the internet during the last few years was shown in a July 2000 study made by B.H. Murray and A. Moor from Cyveillance, a company that supplies electronic business information. At that time there were 2.1 billion websites, with a daily growth rate of 7.3 million sites. More recently, the search engine Google recorded the existence of more than 4.2 billion sites.

Inequity in internet access is not confined to countries with uneven economic characteristics, but is also within areas of similar economic development, like Europe and the US, and even between residents of the same country, due to differences arising from income, ethnic origin, education or age.

Unfair costs

The growth of the digital divide has caused great concern among international organizations, non-governmental organizations and also corporations, since Southern countries - with few resources to benefit economically from the new ICTs - may fall even further behind in the information revolution.

A study by the World Intellectual Property Organization
(WIPO), an intergovernmental agency which administers treaties protecting human creations, published on January 2003 by Revista del Sur magazine (www.redtercermundo.org.uy/revista_del_sur/) concluded that the global intellectual property system could be used to reduce the digital divide between industrialized and technologically developing countries. Data cited in the study illustrated the size of the divide: the cost of accessing telecommunications infrastructures varies between countries and regions, although the usually higher prices in developing world countries puts them at a disadvantage regarding the speed and growth of electronic commerce. For example, the monthly connection charge to the internet in Nepal amounts to 278 per cent of the population's average monthly income; in Sri Lanka it equals 60 per cent; in the US it hardly reaches 1.2 per cent.

The Geneva Summit

On June 18, 2003, at the conference 'The Net World Order: Bridging the Global Digital Divide', United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan addressed business leaders on the role of industry in bridging the divide. This paved the way for the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), held in Geneva in December, 2003. The 'Declaration of Principles' of the WSIS, 'Building the Information Society: A Global Challenge in the New Millennium', had three parts:
1) Our common vision of the information society
2) An information society for all: key principles
3) Towards an information society for all based on shared knowledge.

After a series of considerations, which include references to articles 19 and 29 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (on freedom of speech and the rights of individuals towards the community), paragraph 10 under the first heading states:

'We are… fully aware that the benefits of the information technology revolution are today unevenly distributed between the developed and developing countries and within societies. We are fully committed to turning this digital divide into a digital opportunity for all, particularly for those who risk being left behind and being further marginalized.' Paragraph 17 says: 'We recognize that building an inclusive Information Society requires new forms of solidarity, partnership and cooperation among governments and other stakeholders, ie the private sector, civil society and international organizations. Realizing that the ambitious goal of this Declaration - bridging the digital divide and ensuring harmonious, fair and equitable development for all - will require strong commitment by all stakeholders, we call for digital solidarity, both at national and international levels.'

The second meeting of the WSIS will take place in Tunis on December 2005.

Big fish on the net

Appealing to corporate leaders seems to be the main way of addressing the issue at present. Leaders from the Group of Eight most industrialized countries in the world
(G-8) set up a Digital Opportunity Task Force (DOT Force) in 2000 to find ways of bridging the divide between technologically developed and underdeveloped countries (www.dotforce.org). One of the DOT Force's goals is to foster the development of a communications infrastructure in Southern countries, incorporating them to the economic revolution caused by the internet. The Task Force brought together governments from around the world with the leading lights in information technology, media, communications and entertainment from many different parts of the world.

But there are also many critics who hold that globalization - understood within a context of the cultural effects of communications technology - simply reinforces and expands the colonization of the Southern countries by the North, while increasing the divide between the rich and the poor. They also feel that, although information technology is conducive to economic prosperity, it fails to foster social equity. There are a number of interest groups which maintain that the efforts to bridge the digital divide respond to commercial and marketing interests rather than the purported equal distribution of the benefits of technology, thus conditioning internet content.

The subordination of cultural and social interests by corporate interests is evident in the March 2004 conflict between Microsoft and the European Commission.
According to the Commission, Microsoft has not given enough information to the competition about its Windows operating system and has hindered the incorporation of competing audiovisual software into its system. Both Microsoft and the EC have tried unsuccessfully to reach an agreement and, according to various sources, negotiations continue. Press reports noted that the Commission's draft decision demands that Microsoft shares information with its rivals and offers computer manufacturers a more user-friendly version of Windows.

Digital opportunity vs Pokemon

According to a magazine article written by Andy Carvin
(www.infotoday.com/MMSchools/Jan00/carvin.htm) the digital divide is one of the most serious civil-rights challenges of the new millennium. Carvin belongs to the Benton Foundation (a Washington DC-based organization which promotes awareness of the digital divide). He is also co-editor of the Digital Opportunity Channel (wwwdigitalopportunity.org), an internet gateway focused on the use of information technologies for sustainable development. One of the main objectives is to see that the internet's power to mobilize and distribute alternative ideas does not vanish due to a lack of resources or massive marketing by corporate campaigns. According to Carvin, the digital divide is a five piece puzzle: access, contents, literacy, education and community.

1.Access: The internet has sufficient potential to bring its users new capacities and perspectives. Not having this technology means being relegated to the fringes of public life.

2. Content: Until the internet has content with real value for all its potential users, it will remain a place for an elite. If most of what we find on the Net is online shopping, pornography, or Pokemon trade clubs, one could assume that having access or no access to the internet was not so important. Although the World Wide Web is a place with great variety, it pales in comparison when confronted to the rich cultural diversity of real-world humanity.

3. Literacy: The digital divide is related to illiteracy levels in underdeveloped countries, but it is also one of the US's 'dirty little secrets'. Carvin reminds us that a functional illiteracy exists in his country. Millions of youth and adults - 44 million, one out of four in 1993 -have serious difficulties in filling out forms, following written instructions or even reading a newspaper. Another important parameter to consider when it comes to internet use is computer literacy and its significance.

4. Education: Internet school access lacks meaning if teachers are not trained to benefit from the technology. Carvin argues that teachers who use interaction as a teaching tool are more inclined to use the internet. However, obsolete teaching practices are not interested in interaction in the classrooms, excluding the Net from schools.

5. Community: The digital divide is related to whether or not we foster internet use in the community. Public spaces/forums are needed in the internet in order for people to get together without being overwhelmed by advertisers. If individuals are not able to build meaningful ties online, it is difficult for them to be attracted to the Net.

*Published in The World Guide





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