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The Importance of Universal Digital Access

Credit: Photo on Visual hunt

As of November 2016, 47% of the world’s population had access to and actively used the internet. While that number is still far lower than is acceptable in a growing digital economy, it is a big jump from the 30% that were connected in 2010, and still a modest gain from the 43% that were connected in 2015. This is a sign of the mounting importance of the internet, but it is also a warning sign that the majority of the world’s population has been left on the wrong side of the digital divide.

According to the same study that determined the percent connected, the disparity between nations is huge. While European nations report an average of 79% connectivity and the Americas report 66%, only 41.6% of Asia and 25.1% of Africa are connected.

Some populations are disproportionately affected by the digital divide, including populations of women, low-income households, and minorities. Women and girls in developing areas are 50% less likely than men to have access to the internet. The same report found that in many cultures it is believed that men are entitled to priority access to the web. The largest barrier, however, is lack of an education. Without basic understand of written language and technology, it is nearly impossible for women to fully adopt the internet. In sub-Saharan Africa for example, women make up more than half of the labor force, but high levels of illiteracy and a lack of technological training mean that they are less likely to profit from the digital economy. This has stark implications for their families, communities, and the nations as it prevents a major work force from generating revenue and investing in their communities.

Similarly, low-income households are often unable to afford technological devices and internet access, and rural areas are less likely to have the infrastructure in place to access it at all. This cuts them off from the global marketplace, and limits their ability to climb the socioeconomic ladder.

The internet is an absolutely crucial part of modern day life. Those who are connected have the opportunity to make and sell goods online, take courses, apply to college and receive scholarships, find deals on common goods, engage with their local and national government, and so much more. The internet is so important that in 2016 the United Nations named it a human right.

Access is obviously of critical importance to the billions of people who are currently unconnected -- without the internet they cannot access educational resources, digital economy platforms, job opportunities, or a means to connect with distant friends and relatives. But it should be equally important to everyone else that these individuals get online. It is estimated that if every person on Earth had internet access it would produce an additional economic output of over $6.7 trillion, which could raise over 500 million people out of poverty. If nothing else, this should convince stakeholders to take immediate action to close the digital divide.

There are several key policies in place that seek to tackle this monumental problem, particularly as it pertains to vulnerable populations -- women and girls, rural areas, and low-income households. Over the course of this five part series on digital access, we will explain who lacks internet access today, and what challenges we face when we attempt to get them online. 

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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