Why I’m Giving Up on the Digital Divide

Posted on April 15, 2015


I’ve spent much of my working life engaging in one way or another with what is generally termed the “Digital Divide” (defined as the “divide between those who have Internet access and those who do not”).

The broad area in which I work and which I have contributed to building – Community Informatics – arguably had its origins and its development framed by the concepts of the “Digital Divide” (DD); and in particular through the Community Informatics challenge to those concerned with the DD to address issues of “effective use” of the Internet as a means to achieve community enablement and empowerment beyond the simple availability of “access”.

However, of late I’ve begun questioning whether the notion of the DD is any longer of value. I’ve begun to wonder whether the continuing visibility and attention being given to the DD even after 20 or so years may in fact be a diversion and distraction from the broader issues of social equity and social justice that energized my own involvement with Community Informatics.

What is interesting of course, is that the DD and “access” discussion which has been around since almost the very beginnings of the public Internet, has now been revived and is becoming a central element in the emerging (and highly controlled) policy framework for Global Internet Governance. Surely everything that could possibly be said and advocated in this area has already been said and repeatedly over many years and with many iterations.

        10. The importance of access to open, secure and stable communication infrastructures around the world was stressed. It is of equal importance that developing countries can fully connect to the internet economy. Delegates underlined the importance to include the need for universal Internet access in the post 2015 agenda.

(DRAFT Chairperson’s Statement GLOBAL CONFERENCE ON CYBERSPACE 2015, the Hague, Netherlands)

The problem in “overcoming the DD” surely isn’t a matter of awareness raising or information sharing as seems to be the only objective and possible outcome for these events. In fact most of these discussions are of the “feel good” form of ritual incantations meant more to indicate a general aura of sympathy for an issue via the the conference, panel, Commission, or whatever than any intention of actually engaging in meaningful action or committing to resource consuming outputs.

Simply repeating the desirability of overcoming the DD for advantaging the rural and the poor, enhancing the position of Less Developed Countries, gender equality, etc. etc. without at the same time tackling how these social objectives will in practice be achieved (moving, as Community Informatics has been arguing for some 20 years from “access” to “effective use”) may give oneself and one’s constituencies the satisfaction of being on the side of the angels, but accomplishes little if anything.

And surely after 20 years of unrelenting rhetorical attacks on the DD it might be time for people of good-will to declare victory and move on, recognizing the DD approach for what it is–a fine “cyber” example of the “welfare dependency model”, where we beneficent and generous (rich and from the global North) folks are going to give those poor and needy people living on the “other side of the Digital Divide” some sort of (pale and poorly equipped) version of the Internet in return for which they will be suitably and demonstrably grateful and in our eternal (figurative or even quite material) debt).

Further having done this, having passed the pre-canned resolution, included the standard paragraph in the outcome document, taken the necessary bow in the direction of social concern—the attitude is clearly “can we now get on to the serious matters at hand” which of course have nothing to do with ensuring that poor people or even those of us who aren’t on one or another of the various Internet gravy trains get a fair shake out of the Internet.

The challenges to overcome the DD have been significantly, even wildly, successful. From a standing start some 20 or so years ago there are now in excess of 3.1 billion individuals able to access (if not “effectively use”) the current Internet. Perhaps of even more importance, issues of Internet access (but again not of use) are being taken up by significant corporate and governmental forces (both national and inter-governmental).

Companies such as Facebook and Google are in the process of launching and implementing innovative infrastructure oriented projects (involving balloons, drones, cabling etc.) to increase those numbers into the next billions. Their intent of course, is not idealistic but rather a clear recognition that they benefit significantly from the “network effect”.  The more people with internet access the better will be their advertising and data/information capture/resale businesses even if those numbers include among the poorest and most remote who equally can be mined for data and micro-revenues both now and for the future. This evidently is sufficient to justify the infrastructure investments that these companies reportedly are undertaking.

Certain governments, notably the US also see extending connectivity as being in their geo-political and economic interests by tying ever wider swathes of humanity into their version of Internet promulgated values such as “Internet Freedom”, providing them and their ideological spin-meisters and spooks an unchecked pipeline into (and out of) the inner thoughts and actions of whoever in the world might be of interest, and in-passing of course, giving a very significant leg up to US dominated e-commerce activities. (An even casual observation of how the US has attempted in the past and is now promoting at full steam the extension of Internet “access” into Cuba as a platform for extending various forms of control errr “Internet Freedoms” into the very heart of its erstwhile enemy, is a very revealing window on the underlying intention of these processes.)

And as well it is hard to a find a country anywhere that hasn’t bought into the meme promoted by the USG, the Internet corporations and the various global commissions and think tanks–that only through the broadest base of Internet (and particularly broadband) connectivity can their citizens progress and become sufficiently “innovative” to survive economically in the 21st century. The effect of this is that country after country having privatized their telecommunications systems have been in the process of creating for the emerging Internet infrastructure, platform and service providers (particularly mobile operators) highly concessionary tax and spectrum costing regimes all in the name of extending access and thus promoting “innovation”.

While certainly there are issues in how (and where) these corporate and government driven anti-DD processes are being deployed (and particularly in such things as Facebook’s zero rating initiatives), it should be recognized that the scale of resources and the direction of much of this investment particularly in broadband and mobile infrastructure is quite consistent with the arguments promoting simple, passive, one way “access” to the Internet (for ensuring the widest possible numbers of potential e-consumers) that has been the agenda for so many DD warriors for decades.

Nothing wrong with all that, but sigh, since we’ve heard it all so many times before what is the point of repeating the bland DD generalities at the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) or the NetMundial Initiative (NMI) one more time…

Hmmm… maybe given the pervasiveness of the rhetoric and sheer numbers of the empty pro forma pronouncements something else might be going on. When the IGF and the NMI take on the DD as priorities could it be that the corporate sector and the Developed Country governments which dominate these forums are trying to fill the Internet policy space and the Internet policy agenda’s of sympathetic governments, civil society and people of good will with an active misdirection—a distraction pointing in one direction while making sure that we don’t look in another.

In fact, given the studied avoidance (and even, it has been rumoured) active suppression of divergent approaches to the discussion of social equity issues in, for example, the IGF it would appear that the Internet policy establishment is hoping to avoid for as long possible addressing the emergent and rather more politically explosive issues concerning social justice on the Internet having to do with how the benefits (and costs) of Internet use are being distributed and mal-apportioned within societies and between nations globally.

There is a clear reluctance to address the critical social and social justice issues emerging out of the enormous transformative drive of the Internet–accelerating income inequality, Internet supported loss of “good jobs”, the mad rush to the bottom in a range of employment areas which are shifting to the global Internet platforms, the loss of health and safety protections in the newly emerging forms of employment contracting, tax dodging by companies such as Google and Apple, growing gaps between Internet haves and have not’s in Developing countries and Developed countries alike. In place of confronting these issues discussions are being directed/re-directed to the endless repetitive discussions of “access” and the DD which in the cold light of day have the clear appearance of being direct supports for and subsidies to the Google, Facebook, and Amazon business models and to the drive for neo-liberal ideological and policy dominance from the US State Department and its allies in the OECD and elsewhere.

So please, can we once and for all drop the DD posturing and either address the real issues of social justice that are emerging in, on and through the Internet or be transparent with the obvious reality that the Internet overlords and their academic, technical community and civil society hirelings want nothing more in their various gatherings and pronouncements, than to get on with the business of figuring out how to make the rich richer and the rest of us grin and bear it while thanking the 1% for the privilege.

BTW, for anyone who is interested, while the DD model of extending Internet access was a poor substitute for really enabling communities with the Internet even in the early days (as multiple failed top down community internet projects can attest) a new model of bottom-up, self-directed, mesh wifi community networking and Internet access is spreading rapidly throughout remote parts of Europe and elsewhere, The basis of this model was pioneered in certain parts of remote and rural Spain where commercial companies refused to go because it was unprofitable. The model links community members to community members, providing a sophisticated but easy to install and maintain technology platform, while putting in place a collaborative/cooperative governance structure. The system has since been evolving towards resolving the DD through grassroots based collaborative and cooperative mesh networks and without either the (welfarist) dependency of most DD programs or the consumer lock-in of the commercial Internet infrastructure developments.