(By Kolawole Talabi)

 “Despite the plethora of benefits which the internet has created, circumstances have birthed a new type of social grouping: the e-haves and, the e-have-nots. The separation in status between the two groups is generally called a digital divide. Thus, a technology originally meant to reduce ‘distances’ has now greatly magnified them.

The advent of the information age in the mid-21st century promised to flatten the whole world in such a manner that no physicality could claim ‘invisibility’ due to the limiting barriers of space and time. And true to that promise, the internet opened up the planet in more ways than one can name. Since its launch in the early 90s, the World Wide Web has significantly reduced ‘distances’ among people and between places.

   Admittedly, the internet has assumed the role of a bridge-builder between individuals and the institutions they interact with. In sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia, the mobile revolution has created new possibilities in wireless telephony and data services usually in places which had hitherto lacked fixed telecommunications infrastructure. Nowadays, rural dwellers in some of the world’s remotest outposts are easily reachable through seamless mobile networks provided by service operators at a fraction of the cost which their urban counterparts were charged for utilising telephone lines just a decade ago.

   In addition, new technologies are constantly being rolled out to meet an ever-increasing demand for the mobile internet even as social networking gained global appeal. From coastal China to the interior of India, a fairly huge proportion of the population of the largest urban agglomerations in these two high population countries are using the internet to achieve connectivity that is positively impacting their data-driven livelihoods and lifestyles.

  Despite the plethora of benefits which the internet has created, circumstances have birthed a new type of social grouping: the e-haves and, the e-have-nots. The separation in status between the two groups is generally called a digital divide. Thus, a technology originally meant to reduce ‘distances’ has now greatly magnified them. However, a will always finds a way. Inclusiveness is the answer to the challenges of what may be described as ‘internet injustice’. The subsequent paragraphs will show how this is achievable within the framework of the post-2015 development agenda.

  The digital divide can be viewed from two angles: intra- and internationally. The former mainly entails gaps in access to information and communication technologies between members of a common socialisation due to income inequalities. The term ‘access’ used herein refers to opportunity for use, i.e. right to entry. In this case, uneven growth in varied geopolitical settings has led to marked variances in socio-economic mobility between rural citizens and their urban counterparts. This situation certainly applies to many postcolonial societies where administrative coupled with agglomerative forces favour towns over farms as the dominant recipient of investable reserves. Yet this kind of gap is not limited to poor countries. A 2013 survey on the percentage of individuals using the internet by the International Telecommunication Union reveals that there are still huge pockets of underserved populations in the United States which was estimated at almost 20 per cent—60 million people approximately. Minorities such as new immigrants, refugees, the unemployed, the elderly and the disabled mainly account for the fraction of the unconnected. It follows, therefore, that affordability rather than availability and; secondly, content rather than context play the greater role in determining the level of access to the internet in some advanced economies.

  On the other hand, the latter mostly explains a gulf in the use of information and communication technologies amongst countries due to developmental disparities. The term ‘use’ used herein refers to exploitation for gain, i.e. a means to an end. While advanced nations are deploying currently available technical resources in the emerging global knowledge economy for space-based applications and other high-tech purposes such as tele-surgery, precision agriculture, cloud computing and e-government, the least developed countries are still struggling with the teething troubles arising from their nascent embrace of the essentiality of the electronic epoch. The corollary to this complex concept is that access does not necessarily translate to use. A country may experience limitations in providing access to a considerable proportion of its population yet may still be able to use the internet for beneficial purposes than another country having greater access. This rationalises why an economic powerhouse such as Russia with a nominal gross domestic product in excess of $2 trillion (US dollars) still has roughly half of its citizens who are non-internet users whereas Malaysia despite its status as an industrialising country has attained 65 per cent connectivity, one of the highest in the Asia-Pacific region. Nonetheless, Russia has been able to capitalise on its intensive information infrastructure for cutting-edge scientific and technological breakthroughs as evidenced by its successful outer space programmes than has Malaysia.

  There is no denying the fact that the relative unevenness in the quality of life enjoyed by people within and between societies unfairly concentrates the benefits of the internet on a select few to the detriment of the overwhelming majority, thereby reinforcing already existing social imbalances. As always, the consequences of ‘internet injustice’ do not occur in a vacuum: It affects real persons―mostly households at the base of the pyramid who are economically marginalised. Accordingly, it is critically necessary that measures be proposed to objectively outline the identities and interests of these disadvantaged populations before solutions are proffered. In view of this, it is pertinent to state that solutions which would adequately address these multifarious challenges must be responsive to change because demographics and technologies are always in a flux. Hence the subsequent bridging of the gaps in the current digital society is consequent upon the articulation of doable proposals that initiate a mutually beneficial interplay between the divergent elements of today’s fast-evolving internet society.

   Firstly, consumers, producers and regulators are the backbone of any industrial establishment. Hence their impact cannot be overemphasised. Consumers include users and non-users (since non-users are potential users) while producers are basically operators and manufacturers. In the light of this classification, these players should be considered as equal partners in the pursuit of equitable access and use for all. The tendency to designate regulators as entities with inviolable powers for decision-making is not only reproachable, but also, unsustainable. Legal frameworks should unequivocally spell out the rights and responsibilities of all stakeholders, and; such laws should not empower one player more than it does the rest.

• To be continued.

• Talabi wrote from Ibadan.

“Opinion pieces of this sort published on RISE Networks are those of the original authors and do not in anyway represent the thoughts, beliefs and ideas of RISE Networks.”