Proposals for Closing the Digital Divide

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The existing barriers to universal digital access are slowly but surely being dissolved by proactive internet governance organizations.

Many solutions have been proposed, such as Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg’s solution to offer Free Basics. This program allowed users to access some websites for free, but made some completely unavailable. Free Basics is currently available in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East, though a few countries have now banned it for violating net neutrality principles.

In response, Google installed free wifi hotspots at public transportation stations in India and Indonesia, with hopes to expand to more locations in the next ten years. These hotspots allow individuals who may not be able to afford internet to access high speeds at no cost.

Google also launched Project Loon to help people in difficult to reach areas -- such as rural locations or those with rough terrain -- get online. This project transmits wifi signals via hot air balloon receptors that fly through the atmosphere.

Some individuals have also taken it upon themselves to personally promote access and connectivity. In India, billionaire Mukesh Ambani launched Reliance Jio, which offers high speed service at incredibly low prices. In the United States, several billionaires donated large sums to solving access issues, including building digital training centers, lobbying the federal government to create inclusive policies, and other projects. 

Other groups, such as the Web Foundation, have proposed policies that promote free or low cost public internet access, such as budget allocations for internet access in public libraries, schools, and community centers, or provision for spectrum use. Web Foundation also suggested creating legislation that defines and penalizes individuals for online harassment in the hopes that it will entice more individals to adopt the internet.

Each of these projects are just first steps to closing the digital divide. As the internet infiltrates more aspects of our daily lives, it will be necessary to create more broad-reaching and effective programs at much faster rates. However, we must not forget that in order to access and use the internet, individuals must first have access to basic necessities like electricity, clean water, and an education. Open Society Foundation recently examined three African countries (Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa) and found that to the extent there is a digital divide, it is in many ways a question of access to electricity rather than to internet hotspots.

Proposed solutions must pay close attention to low-income, rural areas, and particularly to the women who live there. In many developing nations where basic needs of electricity and running water are not met, women must spend their day cooking or fetching water. As a result, they do not have time to explore the benefits of the internet.

It is important to note that while global leaders have declared commitments to making universal access a reality, and many nations have proposed solutions to close the digital divide, very few policies have actually been implemented thus far. We hope that the IGF 2017 will be a valuable opportunity to discuss the need for action on this important issue. 

By Katie Watson

Katie Watson is the CEO of Watson Wanders, a Youth@IGF Fellow, and the Development Manager at Public Knowledge. Prior to joining Public Knowledge, Katie was a Policy and Program Manager at Next Century Cities, a Google Public Policy Fellow at the Open Technology Institute, and a Policy Analyst Intern at the Benton Foundation. 

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