The digital divide – between the world’s rich and poor nations —remains staggeringly wide.
For over 2.7 billion people, many of them living in developing and least developed countries (LDCs), meaningful connectivity remains elusive, according to a UN report released during the 17th Internet Governance Forum in Addis Ababa, last month.
“Bridging the gap will be a catalyst for advancing an open, free, secure and inclusive Internet, and achieving the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) “
Africa is one of the regions which is the least connected, with 60 per cent of the population offline, due to a combination of lack of access, affordability and skills training.
Africa’s burgeoning youth population, however, holds the key to transforming the region’s digital future. There is immense potential in empowering youth to thrive in a digital economy and leapfrogging technologies, says the UN.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres says. “With the right policies in place, digital technology can give an unprecedented boost to sustainable development, particularly for the poorest countries”.
This calls for more connectivity; and less digital fragmentation. More bridges across digital divides; and fewer barriers. Greater autonomy for ordinary people; less abuse and disinformation, he declared.
While COVID-19 accelerated digital transformation in some sectors like health and education, it also exacerbated various forms of digital inequality, running deep along social and economic lines, says the UN report.
Globally, more men use the Internet (at 62 per cent compared with 57 per cent of women). And in nearly all countries where data are available, rates of Internet use are higher for those with more education.
Besides the digital divide– between the world’s “haves and have-nots”– there is also a marked increase in “gender divide”. In Africa, only 21 % of women have access to the Internet. The gender divide starts early as Internet use is four times greater for boys than for girls.
Emma Gibson, the Campaign Lead, Universal Digital Rights, for Equality Now, told IPS challenges in our digital society, including unequal access to digital technology and platforms, online gender-based and sexual violence, internet shutdowns, and AI and algorithmic biases, profoundly affected those with the least power and privilege.
“Women, children, and people in other groups facing discrimination are all disproportionately impacted”, she said.
“Widespread patriarchy and misogyny found in the physical world are being replicated, exacerbated, and facilitated in the digital realm, with violence against women and children perpetrated online on a huge scale”.
Offenders are rarely held to account, and this is unsurprising considering that there is currently no universal standard for ending online sexual exploitation and abuse.
“From the explosion in online violence towards women and girls to the threats posed by internet shutdowns, it is clear that there is an urgent need to bring in a new global agreement to protect our human rights in the digital world”.
“All of us have a right to safety, freedom, and dignity in the digital space, and the Internet needs to work in our interests, not against them”, declared Gibson.
The increase in Internet use has also paved the way for the proliferation of its dark side, with the rampant spread of misinformation, disinformation and hate speech, the regular occurrence of data breaches, and an increase in cybercrimes, according to the UN.
“Access Now and the #KeepItOn coalition documented 182 Internet shutdowns in 34 countries in 2021, an increase from 159 shutdowns recorded in 29 countries in 2020, demonstrating the power governments have in controlling information in the digital space.”
The theme of Addis Ababa Forum, “Resilient Internet for a Shared Sustainable and Common Future”, called for collective actions and a shared responsibility to connect all people and safeguard human rights; avoid Internet fragmentation; govern data and protect privacy; enable safety, security and accountability; and address advanced digital technologies.
“The Internet is the platform that will accelerate progress towards the SDGs. Our collective task is to unleash the power and potential of a resilient Internet for our shared sustainable and common future,” said Li Junhua, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, during the Internet Governance Forum.
Gibson of Equality Now said in developing solutions, it is important to acknowledge the continuum of injustices, power imbalances, and gendered violence that predate technology and which manifest and multiply online.
The root causes of these need to be addressed when developing and implementing policies to ensure universal, secure, and safe access for all.
“A human-centered and resilient digital future not only includes ensuring affordable access but meaningful and secure access to digital technologies.”
“We need a universal approach to defining, upholding, and advancing digital rights so that everyone has universal equality of safety, freedom, and dignity in our digital future,” she noted.
IPS UN BUREAU REPORT