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14.7: The Global Digital Divide

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  • The global digital divide describes global disparities, primarily between developed and developing countries, in regards to access to computing and information resources such as the Internet and the opportunities derived from such access.[64] As with a smaller unit of analysis, this gap describes an inequality that exists, referencing a global scale.

    The Internet is expanding very quickly, and not all countries—especially developing countries—are able to keep up with the constant changes. The term “digital divide” doesn’t necessarily mean that someone doesn’t have technology; it could mean that there is simply a difference in technology. These differences can refer to, for example, high-quality computers, fast Internet, technical assistance, or telephone services. The difference between all of these is also considered a gap.


    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\) - Internet users in 2012 as a percentage of a country’s population. Source: International Telecommunications Union.[4]


    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\) - Internet users per 100 inhabitants. Source: International Telecommunications Union.[58][59]

    Worldwide Internet users
      2005 2010 2014a
    World population[60] 6.5 billion 6.9 billion 7.2 billion
    Not using the Internet 84% 70% 60%
    Using the Internet 16% 30% 40%
    Users in the developing world 8% 21% 32%
    Users in the developed world 51% 67% 78%
    a Estimate.
    Source: International Telecommunications Union.[61]


    Internet users by region
      2005 2010 2014a
    Africa       2%       10%       19%
    Americas 36% 49% 65%
    Arab States 8% 26% 41%
    Asia and Pacific 9% 23% 32%
    Commonwealth of
    Independent States
    10% 34% 56%
    Europe 46% 67% 75%
    a Estimate.
    Source: International Telecommunications Union.[61]


    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\) - Fixed broadband Internet subscriptions in 2012 as a percentage of a country’s population. Source: International Telecommunications Union.[62]


    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\) - Mobile broadband Internet subscriptions in 2012 as a percentage of a country’s population. Source: International Telecommunications Union.[63]

    Worldwide broadband subscriptions
      2007 2010 2014a
    World population[60] 6.6 billion 6.9 billion 7.2 billion
    Fixed broadband 5% 8% 10%
    Developing world 2% 4% 6%
    Developed world 18% 24% 27%
    Mobile broadband 4% 11% 32%
    Developing world 1% 4% 21%
    Developed world 19% 43% 84%
    a Estimate.
    Source: International Telecommunications Union.[61]


    Broadband subscriptions by region
      Fixed subscriptions:    2007 2010 2014a
    Africa 0.1% 0.2% 0.4%
    Americas 11% 14% 17%
    Arab States 1% 2% 3%
    Asia and Pacific 3% 6% 8%
    Commonwealth of
    Independent States
    2% 8% 14%
    Europe 18% 24% 28%
      Mobile subscriptions:    2007 2010 2014a
    Africa 0.2% 2% 19%
    Americas 6% 23% 59%
    Arab States 0.8% 5% 25%
    Asia and Pacific 3% 7% 23%
    Commonwealth of
    Independent States
    0.2% 22% 49%
    Europe 15% 29% 64%
    a Estimate.
    Source: International Telecommunications Union.[61]

    Thhe Global Digital Divide versus the Digital Divide

    The global digital divide is a special case of the digital divide, the focus is set on the fact that “Internet has developed unevenly throughout the world” [28]:681 causing some countries to fall behind in technology, education, labor, democracy, and tourism. The concept of the digital divide was originally popularized in regard to the disparity in Internet access between rural and urban areas of the United States of America; the global digital divide mirrors this disparity on an international scale.

    The global digital divide also contributes to the inequality of access to goods and services available through technology. Computers and the Internet provide users with improved education, which can lead to higher wages; the people living in nations with limited access are therefore disadvantaged.[65] This global divide is often characterized as falling along what is sometimes called the north-south divide of “northern” wealthier nations and “southern” poorer ones.

    Obstacles to Overcoming the Global Digital Divide

    Some people argue that basic necessities need to be considered before achieving digital inclusion, such as an ample food supply and quality health care. Minimizing the global digital divide requires considering and addressing the following types of access:

    Physical Access

    Involves, “the distribution of ICT devices per capita…and land lines per thousands”.[29]:306 Individuals need to obtain access to computers, landlines, and networks in order to access the Internet. This access barrier is also addressed in Article 21 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities by the United Nations.

    Financial Access

    The cost of ICT devices, traffic, applications, technician and educator training, software, maintenance and infrastructures require ongoing financial means.[32]

    Socio-demographic Access

    Empirical tests have identified that several socio-demographic characteristics foster or limit ICT access and usage. Among different countries, educational levels and income are the most powerful explanatory variables, with age being a third one.[32][35] Others, like gender, don’t seem to have much of an independent effect.[33]

    Cognitive Access

    In order to use computer technology, a certain level of information literacy is needed. Further challenges include information overload and the ability to find and use reliable information.

    Design Access

    Computers need to be accessible to individuals with different learning and physical abilities including complying with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act as amended by the Workforce Investment Act of 1998 in the United States.[66]

    Institutional Access

    In illustrating institutional access, Wilson states “the numbers of users are greatly affected by whether access is offered only through individual homes or whether it is offered through schools, community centers, religious institutions, cybercafés, or post offices, especially in poor countries where computer access at work or home is highly limited”.[29]:303

    Political Access

    Guillen & Suarez argue that that “democratic political regimes enable a faster growth of the Internet than authoritarian or totalitarian regimes”.[28]:687 The Internet is considered a form of e-democracy and attempting to control what citizens can or cannot view is in contradiction to this. Recently situations in Iran and China have denied people the ability to access certain website and disseminate information. Iran has also prohibited the use of high-speed Internet in the country and has removed many satellite dishes in order to prevent the influence of western culture, such as music and television.[67]

    Cultural Access

    Many experts claim that bridging the digital divide is not sufficient and that the images and language needed to be conveyed in a language and images that can be read across different cultural lines.[30]


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