“Our social tools are not an improvement to modern society,
They pose a challenge to it.”
― Clay Shirky
India is a country which has third largest population of internet users around 76 million. But the different angle shows that this population is actually only 12.6% of the total Indian population leaving behind 87% of the population without internet. This gap is what is called as “Digital Divide”. In this paper, we have tried to see how digital divide is a field which needs attention of the lawmakers.
We started through seeing what digital divide is and how it is harmful for the society. Then we see how this social inequality is widening the gap between the communities. A reference has been made to Right to Education Act, 2005 to show how the law has helped in curbing the literacy gap. We then focus what are the social and technical hindrances in bridging this and how law can work here. Then this paper moves on to what are International treaties and UN conventions in this regard. Finally we concluded by saying that we need to frame law regarding this if it needs to develop in full sense.
“When I took office, only high energy physicists had ever heard of what is called the Worldwide Web. Now even my cat has its own page.” — President Bill Clinton
These words of former President of USA in the year 1996 shows the relevance of Internet in popular culture. How internet has peeped into the life of people and has now become a part of their life. Today Internet has gone far from just being a luxury but has intermingled with the life of people and has grown into a present day need. Anything to almost everything can be done with the help of internet whether it is business, education, communication or leisure activities. Though its early birth, it has made an unbeatable place for itself in every sector. But the question which arises here is how many actually use the internet or how many have the access to the internet?
Statistical data shows that the though internet is a global phenomenon but it itself is not global. Only around 38% of the total world’s population has the access to internet. Internet accessibility rate varies from 16% (Africa) to 78% (North America). Many countries witnesses this rate as low as in single digit only like Congo (1.7%), Ethiopian (1.5%), Myanmar (1.1%) and on the other hand countries like Iceland, Norway, Sweden experience 99% internet usage rate. Taking a glance at Indian scenario may appear very successful at the face of it as India is the third largest user of internet just after China and USA. But a closer look reveals the gloomy picture with only 14% of the total population having access to the internet leaving more than 80% of the population without internet in the third largest internet user country. According to the census reports only 3% of household has an internet connection and which remained as low as 0.4% in rural areas. This is what we call “Digital Divide”. It is the gap between the groups on the accessibility of internet. One group has the access to the internet while the other is far away from it. Digital divide is assessed in terms of ease of access, ability to use and quality of content. If we compare these two groups in any field either development, democracy, peace, security, innovation or status, we find the difference which exist. This is just an another type of social division of society that the society is witnessing in the so said ‘Global advanced age’.
Digital divide has two aspects: technical and social. Technical access refers to the availability of the infrastructure, hardware and software for ICTs and Social access refers to the skills required to use the technical resources. It is a phenomenon which bifurcate the society, a gap is created not only in terms of accessibility but also in terms of understanding, social status, economically, employment and in advancement. Digital Divide is a complex havoc for this generation either accepted or not. The non-user group remain neglected by the society, they are not able to keep in pace with the common culture of the outer world and lag behind in advancements. They lack the communication and the bonding with the outer world and hence face the problem of technological backwardness. It indicates that a big difference between two groups increasing rapidly in terms of knowledge accessibility which includes all the technology and innovations. Thus it means gap between people benefit from information and communication technology (ITC). While the user community dominates much of the resources, technology and power, the non-users are ultimately the sufferers. The poorer nations are unable to afford the initial startup cost to be able to invest into technology to allow their nation to be able to have and maintain internet access. It means that the richer grows while the poor remain depressed. So it varies from country to country thus called Global Digital Divide. The schools are unable to teach IT skills and with a lack of IT skills people from these countries are unable to compete at an international level. In a country like India it has become an obstacle in the progress of the country since estimated 80 million population of Indian tribal communities lack access to any mainstream media outlets. So they often deprived of socio-economic development, as their grievances about government neglect and economic exploitation remain unvoiced. In addition, certain factions (such as the Maoist insurgency) can exploit their frustration and isolation to violent ends.
It was concluded in a study that people who don’t have any access to the Internet are increasingly cut off from job opportunities, educational resources, health-care information, social networks, even government services. Thus, this gap in digital sector is affecting the social integration and this social inequality is acting as an accelerator for other social inequalities.
Why we need a law to curb Digital Divide
Digital divide is a type of social division where the society is bifurcated. It creates inequality in the society where the neglected one is at a loss. We need some powerful thing to bridge this gap and law provides the authority as well as sanction. We need law to regulate the access and to provide access to the marginalized sections just as we have done in other sectors like gender socialization and education sector.
Law have help the society to cub the differences by creating a compulsion over the citizens as well as the government. We have seen this in education sector to fight illiteracy and bridge the gap of education Right to Education Act, 2009 was passed in India and Right to Education was made a fundamental right (Article 21A). The result of this was the uprise in the literacy rate to 74% and has achieved almost 100% access to school at primary level. The Ministry of Human Resource Development, in a press statement said, “The number of out of school children in the age group of 6 to 14 has come down to 3 million in 2012. It was 8 million in 2009.” It also added that “Net enrolment ratio at the primary level has been achieved at 99.8%. It has also led to gender parity index at primary level of one. Law has the power of enforcing itself through various agencies and when a law is made, it is generally seen that, if executed in a better manner, it has the strength of complete change.
A law regarding digital divide will make a compulsion on the enforcing authorities to take steps to bridge this divide rather than just the fake politically motivated policies of the ruling party. It will provide a framework within which the agencies will work and will give guidelines and direction to the work.
Problems in addressing Digital Divide
Though digital divide itself is a big problem to answer but it cannot be taken in isolation. It requires other issues to be addressed first to tackle it effectively. Technical and social challenges first need to be addressed. Social challenges include digital literacy, education and language barrier whereas technical challenge is regarding the infrastructure. Without anyone of these, there would be no fruitful results. This will only result in an ostensible relief and it will only be temporary. This would be a futile activity with only fruitless efforts and dumping of capital. For example distributing of free laptops will not solve the problem as seen in many parts of UP where people were selling their government distributed laptops for almost free. Though the children were provided with the technical support but the know-how of laptop was not there.
These factors should be taken into account. Digital literacy is very important in curbing digital divide. The technical know- how of how to use a technical object. It is necessary for not only operating the ICT device but also how to use it in daily life and to prevent any harm from it. If you just buy the computer and don’t guide them on the computer, of course it’s going to be misused. While Digital literacy empowers a man to use the technology, literacy empowers a man to understand and know the consequences of using the technology. Education is too important in curbing digital divide because the purpose is not just giving access to internet but to empower them to use that. While a native may be well verse in his vernacular language but not in English or any other global language, then also, there will be problem in internet access as internet is mainly English language dominated with 55% of the total contents are in English and only 8 languages are there which have data content above 2%. In such a situation, one who does not know those languages no matter how intellectual and educated he may be but he is cut off from the internet. The situation is same in rural areas where traditional knowledge is given and in this they somewhere lack behind in today’s world.
Another challenge in this is that of infrastructure. The availability of electricity is a primary concern. The areas where there is no electricity how could any electrical device be operated there. According to census of India there are only 50% rural areas that use electricity and the other areas still relying on traditional ways.
It is not going to make any headway in bridging the digital divide unless telecom infrastructure was improved and the money was found to do that. “In the Indian context, bridging the digital divide essentially means bridging the teledensity divide between rural and urban areas,” said R R N Prasad, a member of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI). The actual challenge is rather social rather than technical.
Reasons to curb Digital Divide
As the United Nation’s “Statement on Universal Access to Basic Communication and Information Services” in April 1997 observed: “We are profoundly concerned at the deepening mal-distribution of access, resources and opportunities in the information and communication field. The information technology gap and related inequities between industrialized and developing nations are widening: a new type of poverty – information poverty – looms. Most developing countries, especially the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) are not sharing in the communication revolution.”
The UN’s “Statement on Universal Access to Basic Communication and Information Services” pointed out the following reasons for the digital divide in the world:
• Lack of affordable access to core information resources, cutting-edge technology and to sophisticated telecommunication systems and infrastructure;
• Lack of the capacity to build, operate, manage, and service the technologies involved;
• Absence of policies that promote equitable public participation in the information society as both producers and consumers of information and knowledge; and
• Absence of a work force trained to develop, maintain and provide the value-added products and services required by the information economy.
UN Conventions on Digital Divide
“The digital divide is the current disparity in the access to digital communications between developed and developing countries and it requires the joint effort of the entire international community. The digital divide is considered a form of discrimination dividing the rich and the poor, both within and among nations, on the basis of access, or lack of access, to the new information technology. It is an updated version of an older gap that has always existed between the information rich and the information poor. The term digital divide underlines the reality that not only individuals and groups but also nations must have access to the new technology in order to share in the promised benefits of globalization and not fall behind other nations”, words of Archbishop John P. Foley before the WSIS and also in a Vatican document, Ethics in the Internet.
“In Asia and the Pacific, what we call the ‘digital divide’ is in fact an income divide, a gender divide, an education divide and a knowledge divide,” these are the words said by UN on digital divide during the first interactive information superhighway to help bridge digital divide. In 1986, the declaration on the right to development was adopted by UN General Assembly which states that right to development is an inalienable human right, which means that every has the right to participate in, contribute to, and enjoy economic, social, cultural and political development.
Since Freedom of expression and opinion is one of the important fundamental human rights, that states have a responsibility to ensure that Internet access is broadly available, and that states may not unreasonably restrict an individual’s access to the Internet. Internet access is recognized as a right by the laws of several countries. On the same issue world summit on the information society (WSIS) initiated from 2003 by United Nations which led to establishment of World Information Society Day on 17 may. One of chief aims of WSIS 2003 was to bridge the so-called global digital divide. United Nations General Assembly related this Summit to the United Nations Millennium Declaration to implement ICT to facilitate achieving Millennium Development Goals. In toto 175 countries took part in that summit & a Plan of Action sets out a goal of bringing 50 percent of the world’s population online by 2015.
Just before the second phase of this summit which took place in Tunis, Tunisia in 2005, Association for Progressive Communications (APC which is an international network of civil society organizations—whose goal is to empower and support groups and individuals working for peace, human rights, development and protection of the environment, through the strategic use of ICTs, including the internet) emerged out with its stand. APC has proposed a set of recommendations with regard to internet governance ahead of the WSIS in Tunis in each of the following five areas:
- The establishment of an Internet Governance Forum.
- The transformation of ICANN into a global body with full authority over DNS management, and an appropriate form of accountability to its stakeholders in government, private sector, and civil society;
- The initiation of a multi-stakeholder convention on internet governance and universal human rights that will codify the basic rights applicable to the internet, which will be legally binding in international law with particular emphasis on clauses in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights directly relevant to the internet, such as the rights to freedom of expression, association, and privacy.
- Ensuring internet access is universal and affordable. APC argued: “The internet is a global public space that should be open and accessible to all on a non-discriminatory basis. The internet, therefore, must be seen as a global public infrastructure. In this regard we recognize the internet to be a global public good related to the concept of the common heritage of humanity and access to it is in the public interest, and must be provided as a global public commitment to equality”.
- Measures to promote capacity building in “developing” countries with regard to increasing “developing” country participation in global public policy forums on internet governance.
The words of Ban Ki-Moon current UN Secretary General, “we must do more to close the digital divide and ensure that all people have access to transformational information and communications technology. The digital revolution must be inclusive and serve as an instrument to promote equality” during World Summit on the Information Society Forum 2013 (WSIS 2013). He focused more on the Millennium Development Goals 2015-“Your efforts are especially important as we accelerate efforts to achieve the Millennium Development Goals by the quickly-approaching 2015 deadline, and as we strive to define an ambitious and inspiring post-2015 development agenda. The ability to process data in new ways, in great volume, in real time, can help us to significantly improve policy-making, early warning and much else. I count on you to identify ways to shape technological progress so that we may promote sustainable development, the overarching global challenge of our time.”
It should not be much shocking if said that digital divide is an obstacle for approaching millennium development goal as it clearly reflects from the words of Kofi Annan, former UN Secretary-General that “To achieve the MDGs, we must harness the potential of ICTs.” The UN specialized agency for ICTs, International Telecommunications Union (ITU) plays a critical role in fostering equitable access to the modern technologies that can transform people’s lives and help break the vicious cycle of poverty and isolation. ITU set some development goals in WSIS 2005 and in the World Telecommunication Development Conference in Doha in 2006, prioritize equitable access, not just across countries, but within communities, with special focus on gender issues, youth access, the disabled, indigenous communities and very remote populations.
To further harness the power of public-private partnership, ITU launched Connect the World, an innovative development initiative founded on building multi-stakeholder synergies between private companies, governments and development agencies. To build on the momentum generated by this new focus ITU recently initiated the ITU Connect events, the first of which welcomed over 1,000 top-level delegates and raised an unprecedented US$ 55 billion in investment commitments targeting intra-regional connectivity. Held in Kigali, Rwanda, ITU Connect Africa saw commitments to interconnect all African capitals and major cities with ICT broadband infrastructure and strengthen connectivity to the rest of the world by 2012, and to extend broadband and ICT services to all African villages by 2015.
So the overall intent of the World Summit on the Information Society was to bring about a feasible way to eliminate the ever-gaping digital divide. Members of the international community have recognized that an end to the divide must be sought in order to bring about equal information opportunities to the citizens of the less developed countries. To achieve the same targets some efforts were taken by countries for e.g. the Simputer (low-cost alternative to personal computers) movement in India but it was a complete failure.
Archbishop Foley ended his statement by stating, “It is our responsibility to fill these gaps of humanity and solidarity for the benefit of millions of people and for the next generation.” It is the responsibility of the countries of the international community to implement plans they made at the Summit to make information more accessible to all nations.
In an interview with Nitin Desai, who was the special advisor to the United Nations Secretary General and led the Geneva WSIS by The Financial Express after summit, Desai Quoted that, “Our main goal is to find ways for developing countries to gain better access to the Internet and information and communication technologies (ICTs), helping them improve their life standards right from their knowledge base to their work culture, and spread awareness about diseases and other crucial issues. This will aim to bridge the huge communication technology and infrastructure gap existing currently in the world. This will include connecting villages, community access points, schools and universities, research centers, libraries, health centers and hospitals, and local and central government departments. Besides looking at the first two years of implementation of the Plan of Action after the Geneva summit, the Tunis episode will seek to encourage the development of content meant to empower the nations.”
Since 2003 almost 11 years has passed now but what we achieved is nothing for Digital Divide except VSOs (voluntary services overseas) which can’t really help much for this serious threat to society. We though appreciate government for not taking this matter petty but we should have provided any law over this matter by government as we have seen how severe this matter is.
On First Day of the Tenth Session of Fourteenth Lok Sabha (No. 1, Vol. XXV) on 23/02/2007 when both house assembled together during Hon’ble President’s speech he talked about Digital Divide as “Our Information Technology sector continues to develop and remain globally competitive. The year 2007 will be the Year of Broadband. We are committed to bridging the digital divide by providing broadband coverage throughout the country.” Since then 7 years has passed but these words are still on papers.
To bridge this digital divide, and to bring the benefit of revolutionary intertechnology to people living in these areas, Department of Posts has introduced epost. The epost was initially launched in 5 States on experimental basis. In the wake of the experience gained, a tie up has been established with National Informatics Centre (NIC) who have developed the software, and the service is being launched on national basis, epost post is a service under which printed or even handwritten messages of customers are scanned and transmitted as email through internet. At the destination offices, these messages are printed, enveloped and delivered through postmen like other letters at the postal addresses. For this purpose, epost centers have been set up in the Post Offices, covering all the districts and towns. These epost centers are equipped with internet connection, computers, printers and other necessary equipment. However, epost service is not limited to the epost centers. It can be availed of from any Post Office. Irrespective of whether a customer is in a metropolis or in a remote village, he can send and receive epost messages. The messages booked at Post Offices which are not the epost centers, are sent to epost centers for scanning and dispatch. Similarly messages received at epost centers for areas beyond their delivery jurisdiction are printed and sent to concerned Post Offices for delivery.
Shubhranshu Choudhary, who won this year’s Digital Freedom Award and who is behind CGNET SWARA which is helping to curb Digital Divide. CGNET SWERA is a voice-based portal, freely accessible via mobile phone that allows anyone to report and listen to stories of local interest. There are some 100 million people in India for whom mainstream methods of communicating news don’t work, whether due to language barriers, low levels of literacy or lack of access to internet and newspapers among other things so this type of service is really helping citizens of Chattisgarh for being aware of day to day’s activities in their domestic language.
At last, now we are going to conclude that digital divide has become a severe factor in the development of world as a whole so many steps are needed to curb this social phenomenon. As we are living in the 21st century , world of modernization and technical revolution which projected the concept of human right and freedom for everyone and internet access became basic right. Since we came across so many legislation in field of education and equality in the same sense we also need a legislation in case of digital divide because with this improvement hopefully we will be able to achieve all our goals including millennium development goals 2015. According to many survey we are informed about increasing access to ITC all across the country but it is nothing but the increasing difference of the accessibility between the ITC accessible group and its opposite group. Very sure ITC is doing a really nice job in this field but it is hampering us in other way. UN is also appreciable in this regards but at last it is we people who are solely responsible for this indifference.
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