Information and communication technologies (ICTs) have permeated practically all aspects of life. Just a decade ago, in some parts of the globe, prioritizing access to ICTs was considered a luxury. Today, it is widely acknowledged that investing in affordable, universal and unconditional access to ICTs is necessary to drive progress on global priorities, in particular, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
It naturally follows that various assumptions, theories, hopes and even frustrations are part and parcel of this “digitalization” takeoff. Various successes and failures of the transformative potential of ICTs have shown that the technologies themselves are neither positive, negative nor necessarily neutral. Instead, new technologies are yet another manifestation of the fact that political, civic, economic and social empowerment are foundational building blocks, whether for the Global Goals or for hyperlocal visions and expectations of prosperity.
ICTs are advancing at a dizzying pace, but access to the Internet, particularly through the World Wide Web, is perhaps the most critical element for unlocking the potential of new technologies. The SDGs rightfully acknowledged the vital role that ICTs can play in their achievement. SDG 9, target C, in particular, calls for universal access to ICTs, especially in least developed countries, by 2020—a matter of months from now. It is expected that half of the world’s population will be online in 2019 (initially estimated for 2017).1 Of the approximately 3.9 billion people who remain offline, an overwhelming majority reside in the Global South and 2 billion are women. Nine out of ten youth who are offline live in Africa or Asia and the Pacific.2
At the current rate of progress towards SDG 9, target C, only 16 per cent of the world’s poorest countries and 53 per cent of the entire world will be connected by 2020, according to the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI).3 The Alliance further notes that the impact of this connectivity lag will “undermine global development across the board, contributing to lost opportunities for economic growth and denying hundreds of millions access to online education, health services, political voice, and much, much more.”4
Mobile phones are widely considered the entry point into the digital economy, and “one of the most far-reaching technologies in history. … While mobile connectivity is spreading quickly, it is not spreading equally,” notes the GSMA, an association representing the interests of mobile operators worldwide.5 Disparities in access and use of mobile phones and the Internet follow urban, rural, gender and geographical divides.
As an illustration, the GSMA notes that “in rural areas the cost of building and operating mobile infrastructure can be twice as expensive compared to urban areas, with revenues up to 10 times smaller.”6 This would disincentivize telecommunications service providers from prioritizing these areas, which are also traditionally left behind on other infrastructure and development fronts.
The GSMA, in its latest assessment on the mobile gender gap, has further found that “women in low- and middle-income countries are, on average, 10 per cent less likely to own a mobile phone than men, which translates into 184 million fewer women owning mobile phones. Even when women own mobile phones, there is a significant gap in usage, particularly for more transformational services, such as mobile Internet. Over 1.2 billion women in low- and middle-income countries do not use mobile Internet. Women are, on average, 26 per cent less likely to use mobile Internet than men. Even among mobile owners, women are 18% less likely than men to use mobile Internet.”7 Research by the World Wide Web Foundation found that in poor communities in nine cities across Africa, South-East Asia and Latin America, nearly all women and men own a phone.8 However, when controlling for income, education level and age, women are nearly 50 per cent less likely to access the Internet than men in the same communities, with Internet use reported by just 37 per cent of women surveyed. Once online, women are 30 to 50 per cent less likely than men to use the Internet to increase their income or participate in public life.9
A country’s geography impacts the cost of connecting its citizens. This means that landlocked countries and island archipelago nations typically have higher Internet costs. Small countries (either in population or by area) “have the least opportunity to realise economies of scale”, while “industry costs incurred in the provision of internet service shows that the cost to provide one subscriber with mobile broadband data for a year in an island archipelago nation like the Philippines is nearly five times the cost to do the same in a coastal nation like Nigeria.”10
Research has consistently pointed out that the cost of accessing devices and the Internet is the key barrier to connecting the unconnected.11 Unfortunately, the measures recommended by various actors have not achieved sufficient political and policy momentum to eliminate this barrier. Mobile devices are often priced beyond what those who earn the least in most communities can afford, even though device costs have decreased and adoption of mobile-enabled smartphones has increased. Additionally, for these people, the price of a basic broadband connection represents a much higher proportion of income than for those earning the national average income.12
Other factors play into keeping people, especially women, unconnected. Women’s Rights Online research (2015) found that many women in poor urban communities who remain offline cited “not knowing how” to use the Internet as a barrier to getting online.13 GSMA research also finds that low digital literacy (not knowing how to use a mobile phone and how to access the Internet on a mobile device) and literacy (reading and writing difficulties) are often felt more by women than men.14
Lack of time and (ir)relevance of content (dearth of online content in local languages) were also widely cited as barriers preventing women, especially, from getting and staying connected.15 Online spaces, particularly social media, which have been found to be significant drivers of Internet use in Africa, Asia and Latin America,16 are increasingly unsafe. This is not only keeping people offline but creating a trust deficit around the Internet and new technologies. Once perceived to hold the promise of being “public squares” for engagement with opportunities and ideas, social media platforms are increasingly toxic, unsafe spaces from which many are starting to opt out. Again, women have borne the heaviest brunt of these risks.
Attaining the SDGs, and the role of technology in driving this effort, may not be achieved unless radical measures are deployed. The digital divide is a manifestation of deeply unequal societies and of policy failure. Globally, action on developing and effecting requisite policies to address the aforementioned challenges is stalling.
As discourse on the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the impact of new technologies is capturing policy, innovation and investment interest, there is a growing risk of widening digital divides. If half of the world’s population has yet to gain access to what can be dubbed ‘enabling technologies’, as discussed above, how, then, will new technologies benefit them? It is imperative that discussions concerning universal, affordable access to the Internet and to connecting devices remain front and centre, even as attention is focused on new technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), the Internet of things, robotics and blockchain.
Innovation leading to the creation and appropriation of new and existing technologies is welcome and is a way to address many of the challenges facing society today, as well to achieve the Global Goals. Spaces to foster and ideate innovations need to be matched with equal policy vigour, particularly in enforcement.
There is an urgent need to assess the ideas driving innovation discourse; tech solutionism—the popular belief that every problem has a remedy based in technology—needs to be placed under more scrutiny. That women, minority groups and people of the Global South barely play a role in technological innovation presumed to be addressing the challenges they face should call for pause. More nuanced approaches to the notion of innovation through new technologies, including addressing how these people can be creators as much as beneficiaries, should be pursued.
New technologies will not solve the problems emerging from those already permeating our lives. For instance, the deployment and prioritizing of AI for content moderation17—rather than using human moderators—by social media platforms is already leading to human rights violations.18 The very conception of many technologies is already laden with biases that are nearly impossible to account for, yet they are posited as solutions to these challenges.
While we need innovative thinking to achieve the Global Goals, the critical role of policy needs to be brought back into the discussion on what technologies can and cannot do. They will not solve the lack of political will to address poverty or adverse social norms. Policy is just as important as innovation because the right policy environments will ensure the success of efforts to achieve the Global Goals, including those related to technology. Sound policy implementation helps to identify investment mechanisms used by States and private actors to achieve policy goals. This applies to tech-specific policies as much as to those aimed at equitable social and economic development. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to policy reform; context-specific challenges must be appreciated to drive inclusive and sustainable development through new and existing technologies.
Despite the expectation that ICTs would leapfrog any variety of challenges, these unfolding realities should serve as a timely reminder that technologies in and of themselves cannot solve their antecedent challenges or inequalities, however much we may will them to. Furthermore, in their development and deployment, ICTs may also be creating new disparities. The unfolding digital divides are also, by and large, gender and income divides, making them development—rather than just technical—challenges.
In breathing life into the United Nations Secretary-General’s Strategy on New Technologies, these are some considerations that I hope will guide its implementation. One of the key outputs has been the establishment of the High-level Panel on Digital Cooperation, of which I am a member. In our work, we will be exploring deeply the interplay of values and principles, methods and modalities, as well as illustrative action areas that showcase what works. We will also invite honest reflection on what hasn’t worked, and determine what more is needed to maximize the transformative potential of technology, while mitigating its risks and harms.
I believe that we have many of the building blocks—from the SDGs to innovations and policy recommendations—to leave no one behind in this digital era. What is needed is the human (political) motivation to drive the SDG mantra at the local, regional and global levels. How we unlock this potential remains perhaps the greatest techno-political challenge of all.
- International Telecommunication Union and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, The State of Broadband 2018: Broadband catalyzing sustainable development, September 2018 (Geneva, 2018), p.p. 6, 8, 10. Available at https://www.itu.int/dms_pub/itu-s/opb/pol/S-POL-BROADBAND.19-2018-PDF-E.pdf.
- International Telecommunication Union, “ICT Facts and Figures 2017” (Geneva, 2017). Available at https://www.itu.int/en/ITU-D/Statistics/Pages/facts/default.aspx.
- Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI), “Affordability report 2015-16” (Washington, D.C.), p. 4. Available at http://a4ai.org/affordability-report/report/2015/.
- GSMA, “Connected women: The mobile gender gap report 2018” (London, 2018), p. 2. Available at https://www.gsma.com/mobilefordevelopment/connected-women/the-mobile-gender-gap-report-2018/.
- Genaro Cruz, “Mapping the unconnected: GSMA’s new tool to help drive investment in expanding mobile infrastructure”, GSMA, 19 July 2018. Available at https://www.gsma.com/mobilefordevelopment/programme/connected-society/mapping-the-unconnected-gsmas-new-tool-to-help-drive-investment-in-expanding-mobile-infrastructure/.
- GSMA, “Connected women”, p. 3.
- World Wide Web Foundation “Women’s rights online: translating access into empowerment”, Global report (October 2015), p.p. 3, 4, 13, 21. Available at https://webfoundation.org/research/womens-rights-online-2015/.
- Ibid. These were representative surveys of the urban, poor communities in the study.
- A4AI, “2018 Affordability Report” (Washington, D.C.), p. p. 4, 27. Available at https://a4ai.org/affordability-report/report/2018/.
- See, for example, GSMA “State of mobile Internet connectivity” reports and Alliance for Affordable Internet “Affordability reports” at https://a4ai.org/affordability-report/.
- A4AI, “Affordability report 2015-2016”, p. 25. Available at http://a4ai.org/affordability-report/report/2015/#poverty_income_inequality_and_the_case_of_mistaken_affordability.
- World Wide Web Foundation “Women’s rights online”, p. 18.
- GSMA, “Connected women”, p. 3 – 4.
- World Wide Web Foundation “Women’s Rights Online,” p.p. 20-21.
- After Access Network. Available at http://afteraccess.net/wp-content/uploads/After-Access-Website-layout-r1.pdf
- Ray Serrato and Michael Meyer-Resende, “AI can’t fix Facebook: Media giant needs human solutions to better detect hate speech in places such as Myanmar”, Politico, 5 September 2018.
Available at https://www.politico.eu/article/facebook-myanmar-rohingya-opinion-ai-cant-solve-facebooks-problems/.
- Tom Miles, “U.N. investigators cite Facebook role in Myanmar crisis”, Reuters, 12 March 2018. Available at https://www.reuters.com/article/us-myanmar-rohingya-facebook/u-n-investigators-cite-facebook-role-in-myanmar-crisis-idUSKCN1GO2PN.
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