From the Digital Divide to Digital Citizenship

Posted on November 9, 2015


(Further to my earlier blogpost A Canadian Election Programme for Digital Citizenship and Social Equity and adapted from a presentation to PPDD 2015 – Partnership for Progress on the Digital Divide…

There seems to be a renewed interest in the “Digital Divide” as an issue for public policy as well as practical intervention. Perhaps linked to the up-coming UN meeting on the 10th anniversary of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) or perhaps because of the saturation of Internet markets in most developed countries, public policy bodies from the UN to the (US) FCC and private companies from Google to Facebook and beyond have been actively discussing how to overcome the Digital Divide (or rather to bring the next x billion online).

While much of the current discussion (as with the previous round of these discussions in the early 2000’s) is concerned with how to ensure that the widest possible numbers of people have some form of physical access to the Internet, now as then, there is rather less concern with whether that newly provided “access” in any way enables the end user to effectively “use” the Internet for anything other than the passive consumption of a specific range of messages (with providers such as Facebook determining which messages those might be).

Not surprisingly after roughly two decades of more or less intensive academic research on the subject the understanding of the DD is now rather more nuanced and multi-layered than earlier with a strong recognition of the connection between such factors as income, age, gender and location and the ability to (or even interest in) “accessing the Internet and thus presumably “bridging the digital divide”. As well there is an emerging understanding that the DD as such is a “moving target” in that there will always be new technologies, improvements in quality and quantity of opportunities for use and so on; and as such, responses to the DD should probably be seen more as a necessarily continuous process than a discreet and one off set of measures or interventions or technology installations.

But given the continuing concern for the DD in a rapidly evolving technology landscape and a somewhat more slowly, but also evolving policy environment, it is perhaps timely to shift the focus and turn the issue around.

When the DD discussion was first introduced the challenge was focused on how to ensure that the widest possible numbers of individuals were able to access the Internet so as to take advantage of the opportunities which were just beginning to emerge. By now, almost twenty years after the initial discussions in these areas, many of those opportunities are quite visible and in fact have been turned into the stuff of economic, social, political and administrative life in modern societies and including in both Developed and large sections of Less Developed countries.

These applications, programs, and activities on and through the Internet have become in many cases completely intertwined to the point of being inextricably at the very core of economic life (e-commerce); of communications and inter-communications and social interaction with friends and family and seamlessly with strangers as well; of political life through on-line activism, information seeking, advocacy and the range of the day to day activities that constitute political life in modern society; and of life as in the context of administrative governance through e-government and on-line form filling, registration, tax paying among others.

What is evident from the above is how commonplace and necessary has become access and use of the Internet for very very large proportions of the population. It has become part of the very substance of their participation as citizens, consumers, voters, social beings in the modern digitally enabled world. Even those without such Internet access are increasingly integrated into the seamless digital environment through the use of the digital by those with whom they do have regular contact whether through trade, cultural interactions or in the domestic/personal sphere.  It is in this time increasingly difficult to not be a part of the digital ecosystem in one respect or another.

Precisely this commonplaceness and necessity I think has had the effect of changing what is the nature and response to those who are not online or digitally enabled in modern society. No longer is it that they are on the other side of some imagined “digital” divide (or abyss), rather they are seen as no longer being members of the social, political and economic community which frames the actions and opportunities of the rest of us—in fact they are outcastes, aliens in the world that the rest of us live in and from which we draw such great advantage.

In the social and political world, we recognize that having access to such collectively sustained and guaranteed advantages (and rights) is that which is at the very core of being a citizen.

One element of the notion of “citizenship” is that it is an “automatic” feature of being born into or being legally accepted within that political jurisdiction, a notion which has considerable resonance both for those currently being defined as “digital natives” or (for the older generation) as “digital immigrants“.

Another element of being a “citizen” is to have certain rights (and obligations) in relation to a political entity (generally a State) while the political entity in turn has certain rights and obligations in relation to the individual as well.  The specific nature of these rights and obligations varies as between political entities. It is also evolving over time initially including (primarily) the right (and responsibility) of participating in the political governance, but also evolving into civil (or civic) rights as for example having the protection of the rule of law. Increasingly this is being extended into a range of “social” rights as for example, those which have come to be associated with the social contract and the range of social and public services which may be available at a national level within this context.

Thus just as a “citizen” now has the right to the protection of the state, the right to certain benefits (alongside certain obligations) and services, the right to participate in the various modes of determining the practice and outcome of governance, so in a digitally enabled citizenship these protections, services, rights to participate would extend into the ubiquitous digital sphere as well. In this then, not only would the right to digitally enabled services be an aspect of the overall right of citizens to services but equally the right to have various of those services in a digitally enabled format would equally be ensured.

To a degree, talking of the “digital citizen” is simply a re-casting of what is already widely accepted in those societies with the widespread use of the digital as the basis for public (and other service) delivery. However, by talking of the “digital citizen” and the rights of the citizen to the full advantages of the digital sphere one shifts the discussion concerning for the example the Digital Divide from one of ad hoc initiatives and voluntaristic programs to becoming an obligatory element in the activities of the modern state. In this of course, it simply reflects the emergent significance of the digital sphere in relation to the activities of the state. It is also a necessary corollary of those jurisdictions such as where digital actions have become a necessary element for active participation in civic life or even as is the case in several jurisdictions where Internet rights (or the Right to the Internet) has become enshrined in the Constitution.

In this approach I am going somewhat beyond and outside the current discussions on “digital citizenship” (as for example presented Karen Mossberger and her colleagues or the “civics” education oriented ““) which focus rather on defining the nature of citizenship in a digital age. Their concerns, as important as they are, focus on how conventional citizenship is supplemented and enabled by the digital. The approach I am suggesting here is one which is based on the notion that the digital, in transforming other aspects of conventional life, is also transforming our civic life.

Thus “digital citizenship” is a newer and evolved form of citizenship and moreover one which is necessary to and appropriate in the digital age/the Information Society. This new form of citizenship has multiple aspects but for our purposes the two most salient elements are that with this new form of citizenship goes certain rights – at a minimum to be able to have access to and to effectively exercise citizenship rights in a digital age; and on the part of the State the obligation to ensure that the citizen is in a position to exercise their digital citizenship in an appropriate and effective way.

Precisely what might be implied by this remains to be teased out but certainly it includes the universal right to Internet access and at a speed and quality sufficient to be an active and effective citizen, equally it implies sufficient digital (and other) literacy to make effective use of this access in support of effective digital citizenship and it includes the assurance of technology designed and linked directly to legal and rights based structures of anti-discrimination associated with disability, age, ethnicity, language and so on so as to ensure that there is no discrimination in the opportunity for use.

In this framework rather, we can look forward to a society where rather than a series of unbridgeable “Digital Divides” with digital “have’s” and “have not’s” the response to which is voluntary and ad hoc, we have “digital citizens” with certain rights guaranteed by the digitally enabled State to ensure digital access and the, training and other pre-requisites sufficient to ensure the opportunity to exercise those rights.

(I have recently presented what I think might be an initial program in support of effective digital citizenship