To the average McGill student, internet access is a given. We have wifi in our residences, in our apartments, on our campus. When we don’t have access to wifi, we complain, and proceed to use our data. I once went to a café to do my readings, only to find out that they didn’t have internet access, and I was admittedly shocked. Even so, this café had chosen to not have wifi, because they wanted their customers to “disconnect.” It was a statement, a choice; not a necessity.
What does not cross our minds is that we are in the minority – there are approximately 2.7 million people online globally, and yet 7 billion people on this earth (1). This is called the global digital divide. In Canada, 81.9% of the population has access to the internet (2). In Bangladesh, only 5% of households have internet access (3). When the two are compared, the divide is clear.
Why is this a problem? Primarily, because it is important to a country’s development to have access to the internet (4). In other words, increased internet access is said to promote economic growth. It helps develop local businesses and increases their efficiency; it helps the average citizen find a job, in giving them access to job searching websites (as well as allowing businesses to post new jobs); and is said to increase overall productivity, which can lead to increased real wages (5). This increase in wages then can allow the country as a whole to prosper. It also fosters growth in the education system, providing more opportunities for children (6). Finally, many have suggested that there is an association between internet access and democracy (7). This was somewhat evident during the Arab Spring, when activists used social media (8) to organize protests and gatherings against their autocratic governments, ultimately leading to an overthrow in many countries (9).
This is evidently an important development issue, and we must find a solution. One of the main reasons for the digital divide is the issue of affordability. Recent growth in global broadband “has slowed sharply and prices for fixed-line connections have even increased in the world’s least-developed countries.” (10). To remedy this, it would be beneficial to increase the number of areas with public access to the internet, such as schools, libraries or community centres (11). However, in order to fix this problem, it is also important to understand exactly who this problem is impacting. The digital divide between developed and developing countries is very well addressed by scholars and development policy analysts; less so is the divide within developing countries themselves. Women are consistently falling behind in their use of the internet (12). In 2013, International Telecommunications Union found a gender gap of approximately 200 million people worldwide (13). In developing countries, an average of 16% fewer women than men used the internet. In Sub-Saharan Africa, women access the internet at a rate of 40% less than men (14). This is said to be due to the high cost of the internet (again relating back to affordability) and a lack of skills (15). Therefore, in order to truly address the divide, it is necessary to apply solutions that take a gendered lens into account. For example, opening internet cafes might look like a feasible and effective solution if we are simply looking at the “affordability” factor. However, this does not take into account that in certain countries, internet cafes are often male-dominated and might not be environments women are comfortable frequenting (16).
The international digital divide is a very real problem within global affairs today. It is important to recognize the importance of this issue, as well as come together to find solutions that work for all those impacted by this divide.