The digital divide


“Visions of a global knowledge-based economy and universal electronic commerce, characterized by the ‘death of distance’ must be tempered by the reality that half the world’s population has never made a telephone call, much less accessed the Internet.” OECD (1999)

Defining the Digital Divide


The OECD defines the term “digital divide” as the gap between individuals, households, businesses, and geographic areas at different socio-economic levels with regard to both their opportunities to access information and communication technologies (ICTs) and to their use of the Internet for a wide variety of activities (OECD, 2001).  This divide can refer to both disparities between countries, “the international digital divide,” as well as within countries, the “domestic digital divide.”  While the capacity to access and take advantage of Internet varies drastically between OECD and non-member states as well as across OECD states, basic telecommunications access is more widely available than Internet and thus is also fundamental to this issue (OECD, 2001).

Understanding the digital divide is critical because ICT’s can serve as a key weapon in the war against world poverty.  These technologies hold enormous potential for empowering people in developing countries and disadvantaged communities, if they are used in an effective and sustainable way such that people not only have access to but can use these technologies to improve their lives (Peters, 2001).  If applied unwisely, however, the infusion of ICT’s can intensify existing disparities.


Measuring the Digital Divide


The international digital divide is normally measured in terms of the number of telephone, computer, and Internet users.  The domestic divide is usually measured in terms of race, gender, disability, age, and income.  Due to varying definitions of the problem, differing viewpoints on whether the digital divide is getting better or worse, and conflicting ideas on the factors influencing it, a comprehensive understanding and assessment of the digital divide is difficult (Peters, 2003).  The fact that significant disparities exist, however, is undeniable. 

A few statistics may serve to illustrate more vividly these disparities.  In the entire continent of Africa, there are a mere 14 million phone lines, which is fewer than in either Manhattan or Tokyo (Nkrumah as cited in, 2004).  The top 16 percent of the world’s population defined as wealthy command 90 percent of Internet host computers, and five percent of the world’s population live in North America, yet constitute 60 percent of the world’s Internet users (Nkrumah as cited in, 2004).  According to The Economist, one in two Americans is online, compared with one in 250 Africans, and a computer in Bangledash costs eight years average pay (The Economist as cited in, 2004).


General Trends


According to the OECD 2001 Report, the most important indicator of the international level is the number of access lines per 100 inhabitants, as it is the leading indicator for the level of universal service in telecommunications (OECD, 2001).  In 1998, there were 851 million access lines in the world, with 64.5% in OECD countries, although this share of OECD countries has steadily fallen in the 1990’s, in part because of a drastic increase of access lines in China.  In general, penetration rates of access lines have increased in all regions, except for in Africa where growth as been negligible (OECD, 2001).

The digital divide for Internet access is more pronounced.  In October 2000, 95.6% of the 94 million Internet hosts in the world were located in OECD countries, while 4.4% were located outside the OECD area (OECD, 2001).  Of Internet hosts outside the OECD area, over half are in Chinese Taipei, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Israel, and another quarter are in Argentina, Brazil, Malaysia, and South Africa.  Africa has 0.25% of all Internet hosts, most in South Africa, a figure that has been decreasing (OECD, 2001).

The OECD defines the penetration rate of Internet hosts as a strong indicator of the international digital divide, according to which the international digital divide is growing rapidly.  In October 1997 the digital divide between Africa and North America, as measured in Internet host penetration, was a multiple of 267, a figure than by October 2000 had grown to a multiple of 540 (OECD, 2001).  In October 2000, there were 81.5 Internet hosts for every 1,000 inhabitants in OECD countries, but only 0.85 per 1,000 outside the OECD area (OECD, 2001).  While this number will increase for both areas, the disparity between them is still expected to increase.

Even with the differences between OECD and non-OECD countries, the differences among OECD countries still remain large.  In July 2000, the United States was far in the lead with 250 Internet hosts per 1,000 inhabitants, while the OECD averaged 88 hosts, and the European Union averaged 42 hosts per 1,000 inhabitants (OECD, 2001). 

According to a study by Bridges, a policy research organization dedicated to spanning the international divide, all countries including the poorest are increasing access and use of ICT, yet what Bridges defines as “information have” countries are increasing access at such an exponential rate that the actual divide between countries is growing, a trend that generally also remains true domestically among different groups (, 2004).  In richer countries such as the U.S., it appears that saturation points have been reached such that the gap between “haves” and “have-nots” can at times appear to be closing.  However, underlying disparities remain such that when new technologies are introduced, the divide once again becomes pronounced, as certain people can afford and have the skills to quickly use this technology while others cannot. (Bridges,org, 2004).     


Current Interventions and Policy Recommendations


OECD governments are currently implementing the following policy measures to improve ICT access and use (OECD, 2001):

·  Network infrastructure

- infrastructure development

- regulatory initiatives to enhance network competition

·  Diffusion to individual and households

- access in schools

- access in other public institutions

·  Education and training

- training in schools

- vocational training

·  Diffusion to businesses

- ICT support and training for small businesses

- Assistance to regions and rural areas

·  Government projects

- government services online

- governments as model users of IC T

·  Multilateral cooperation


In addition, governments, businesses, individuals, and organizations have conducted various studies and offered their own suggestions for policy reforms.  There have also been numerous international initiatives that have gathered leaders and policy-makers from around the world to determine and address the key issues, such as the  Digital Opportunity task Force (DOT Force) that was created by the G8 Heads of State in July 2000.

The DOT Force has analyzed in depth the causes of the digital divide and how to harness the power of ICT’s to provide opportunity, empowerment, and inclusion for all.  The task force has concluded that ICT, though not a panacea for all development problems, offer enormous opportunities for narrowing social and economic inequalities and for reaching development goals set by the larger international community (DOT Force, 2001).  However, the task force emphasizes that when misapplied ICT can intensify marginalization of the poor and unconnected.  In order for real change to be achieved, the need for a multi-faceted and multi-layered collaborative effort by all stakeholders – governments and their citizens, business, international organizations, civil society groups and individuals – is emphasized as well as the need for ownership by developing countries themselves (DOT Force, 2001).  The task force strongly affirms that the basic right of access to knowledge and information is a prerequisite for human development.

The DOT Force has identified the following actions that should be taken (DOT Force, 2001):

·                                Fostering Policy, Regulatory and Network Readiness – through various supports in developing and emerging economies, through encouraging universal participation in new international policy and technical issues raised by ICT

·                                Improving Connectivity, Increasing Access and Lowering Costs – through targeted interventions and dedicated initiatives for ICT inclusion of Least Developed Countries

·                                Building Human Capacity – through target training, education, knowledge creation, promotion of ICT for healthcare and support against HIV/AIDS

·                                Encouraging Participation in Global e-Commerce and other e-Networks – through enterprise and entrepreneurship for sustainable economic development, promotion of national and international efforts to support local content and applications


Bridges emphasizes that physical access to technology is not enough (, 2004).  If the technology is not affordable, if people cannot understand how to use it or are discouraged from doing so, or if the local economy cannot sustain its use, physical access does not translate into “real access.”  Bridges identifies various criteria for evaluating “real access” including the appropriateness of the technology based on local conditions, affordability, whether people have the capacity to understand the technology, the relevance of the content especially in terms of language, and several other factors (, 2004). 

In addition, according to Bridges, a pooling of resources and increased collaboration of organizations is needed, since the digital divide is beyond the scope of any single initiative.  Private sector programs and philanthropic efforts are also vital and necessary (Peters, 2003).


References  “Spanning the Digital Divide: Understanding and Tackling the Issues: Executive Summary,” 2004.  <>


Digital Opportunity Task Force (DOT Force).  “Digital Opportunities for All: Meeting the Challenge,” Report of the DOT Force, 11 May 2001.  <>


Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).  “Understanding the Digital Divide,” OECD 2001 Report, 2001. <>


Peters, Teresa.  “Bridging the Digital Divide,” Global Issues, November 2003. <>


United Nations Development Program (UNDP).  “Human Development Report 2001: Making New Technologies Work for Human Development,” 2001.

A good analysis of the civilian aspect of the ‘technology gap’. However, the reason why I didn’t call this CS the ‘digital divide’ as precisely because I didn’t want you to focus exclusively on the civilian aspect but to include also elements regarding the military aspect of it: the revolution in military affairs (RMA). 13/20

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