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Global digital divide


Global digital divide

Main article: Digital divide

The global digital divide is the global disparities between developed and developing countries in regards to access to computing and information resources such as the Internet and the opportunities derived from such access.[6] Unlike the traditional notion of the "digital divide" between social classes, the "global digital divide" is essentially a geographical one.

The global digital divide versus the digital divide

The global digital divide is a special case of the digital divide, the focus is set on the fact that "Internet has developed unevenly throughout the world" [7] causing some countries to fall behind in technology, education, labor, democracy, and tourism. The concept of the digital divide was originally popularized in regard to the disparity in Internet access between rural and urban areas of the United States of America; the global digital divide mirrors this disparity on an international scale.

The global digital divide also contributes to the inequality of access to goods and services available through technology. Computers and the Internet provide users with improved education, which can lead to higher wages; the people living in nations with limited access are therefore disadvantaged.[8] This global divide is often characterized as falling along what is sometimes called the north-south divide of "northern" wealthier nations and "southern" poorer ones.

Obstacles to overcoming the global digital divide

Many argue that basic necessities need to be considered before achieving digital inclusion, such as an ample food supply and quality health care. Minimizing the global digital divide requires considering and addressing the following types of access:

Physical Access

Involves, “the distribution of ICT devices per capita…and land lines per thousands” (Wilson, III. E.J., 2004, p. 306). Individuals need to obtain access to computers, landlines, and networks in order to access the Internet. This access barrier is also addressed in Article 21 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities by the United Nations.

Financial Access

The cost of ICT devices, traffic, applications, technician and educator training, software, maintenance and infrastructures require ongoing financial means.[9]

Socio-demographic Access

Empirical tests have identified that several socio-demographic characteristics foster or limit ICT access and usage. Among different countries, educational levels and income are the most powerful explanatory variables, with age being a third one.[9][10] Others, like gender, don't seem to have much of an independent effect.[11]

Cognitive Access

In order to use computer technology, a certain level of information literacy is needed. Further challenges include information overload and the ability to find and use reliable information.

Design Access

Computers need to be accessible to individuals with different learning and physical abilities including complying with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act as amended by the Workforce Investment Act of 1998 in the United States(

Institutional Access

In illustrating institutional access, Wilson (2004) states “the numbers of users are greatly affected by whether access is offered only through individual homes or whether it is offered through schools, community centers, religious institutions, cybercafés, or post offices, especially in poor countries where computer access at work or home is highly limited” (p. 303).

Political Access

Guillen & Suarez (2005), argue that that “democratic political regimes enable a faster growth of the Internet than authoritarian or totalitarian regimes” (p. 687). The Internet is considered a form of e-democracy and attempting to control what citizens can or cannot view is in contradiction to this. Recently situations in Iran and China have denied people the ability to access certain website and disseminate information. Iran has also prohibited the use of high-speed Internet in the country and has removed many satellite dishes in order to prevent the influence of western culture, such as music and television (Tait, 2006).

Cultural Access

Many experts claim that bridging the digital divide is not sufficient and that the images and language needed to be conveyed in a language and images that can be read across different cultural lines (Carr 2007).

Concrete examples of the global digital divide

In the early 21st century, residents of First World countries enjoy many Internet services which are not yet widely available in Third World countries, including:

  • In tandem with the above point, mobile phones and small electronic communication devices;
  • E-communities and social-networking;
  • Fast broadband Internet connections, enabling advanced Internet applications;[12]
  • Affordable and widespread Internet access, either through personal computers at home or work, through public terminals in public libraries and Internet cafes, and through wireless access points;
  • E-commerce enabled by efficient electronic payment networks like credit cards and reliable shipping services;
  • Virtual globes featuring street maps searchable down to individual street addresses and detailed satellite and aerial photography;
  • Online research systems like LexisNexis and ProQuest which enable users to peruse newspaper and magazine articles that may be centuries old, without having to leave home;
  • Electronic readers such as Kindle, Sony Reader, Samsung Papyrus and Iliad by iRex Technologies;
  • Price engines like Google Shopping which help consumers find the best possible online prices, and similar services like ShopLocal which find the best possible prices at local retailers;
  • Electronic services delivery of government services, such as the ability to pay taxes, fees, and fines online.
  • Further civic engagement through e-government and other sources such as finding information about candidates regarding political situations.

The bit as the unifying variable

Instead of tracking various kinds of digital divides among fixed and mobile phones, narrow- and broadband Internet, digital TV, etc., it has recently been suggested to simply measure the amount of kbps per actor.[14][15] This approach has shown that the digital divide in kbps per capita is actually widening in relative terms: "While the average inhabitant of the developed world counted with some 40 kbps more than the average member of the information society in developing countries in 2001, this gap grew to over 3 Mbps per capita in 2010." [15] The upper graph of the Figure on the side shows that the divide between developed and developing countries has been diminishing when measured in terms of subscriptions per capita. In 2001, fixed-line telecommunication penetration reached 70% of society in developed OECD countries and 10% of the developing world. This resulted in a ratio of 7 to 1 (divide in relative terms) or a difference of 60% (divide in measured in absolute terms). During the next decade, fixed-line penetration stayed almost constant in OECD countries (at 70%), while the rest of the world started a catch-up, closing the divide to a ratio of 3.5 to 1. The lower graph shows the divide not in terms of ICT devices, but in terms of kbps per inhabitant. While the average member of developed countries counted with 29 kbit/s more than a person in developing countries in 2001, this difference got multiplied by a factor of one thousand (to a difference of 2900 kbit/s). In relative terms, the fixed-line capacity divide was even worse during the introduction of broadband Internet at the middle of the first decade of the 2000s, when the OECD counted with 20 times more capacity per capita than the rest of the world.

This shows the importance of measuring the divide in terms of kbps, and not merely to count devices. The International Telecommunications Union concludes that "The bit becomes a unifying variable enabling comparisons and aggregations across different kinds of communication technologies" [16]


Using previous studies (Gamos, 2003; Nsengiyuma & Stork, 2005; Harwit, 2004 as cited in James), James asserts that in developing countries, “internet use has taken place overwhelmingly among the upper-income, educated, and urban segments” (James, 2008, p. 58) largely due to the high literacy rates of this sector of the population. As such, James suggests that part of the solution requires that developing countries first build up the literacy/language skills, computer literacy, and technical competence that low-income and rural populations need in order to make use of ICT.

It has also been suggested that there is a correlation between democrat regimes and the growth of the Internet. One hypothesis by Gullen is, “The more democratic the polity, the greater the Internet use...Government can try to control the Internet by monopolizing control" and Norris et al. also contends, "If there is less government control of it, the Internet flourishes, and it is associated with greater democracy and civil liberties (Pick & Azari, 2008).

From an economic perspective, Pick & Azari (2008) state that “in developing nations…foreign direct investment (FDI), primary education, educational investment, access to education, and government prioritization of ICT as all important” (p. 112). Specific solutions proposed by the study include: “invest in stimulating, attracting, and growing creative technical and scientific workforce; increase the access to education and digital literacy; reduce the gender divide and empower women to participate in the ICT workforce; emphasize investing in intensive Research and Development for selected metropolitan areas and regions within nations” (Pick & Azari, p. 111).

There are projects worldwide that have implemented, to various degrees, the solutions outlined above. Many such projects have taken the form of Information Communications Technology Centers (ICT centers). Rahnman explains that “the main role of ICT intermediaries is defined as an organization providing effective support to local communities in the use and adaptation of technology. Most commonly an ICT intermediary will be a specialized organization from outside the community, such as a non-governmental organization, local government, or international donor. On the other hand, a social intermediary is defined as a local institution from within the community, such as a community-based organization” (Rahman, 2006, p. 128).

Other proposed solutions that the Internet promises for developing countries are the provision of efficient communications within and among developing countries, so that citizens worldwide can effectively help each other to solve their own problems. Grameen Banks and Kiva loans are two microcredit systems designed to help citizens worldwide to contribute online towards entrepreneurship in developing communities. Economic opportunities range from entrepreneurs who can afford the hardware and broadband access required to maintain Internet cafés to agribusinesses having control over the seeds they plant.

At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the IMARA organization (from Swahili word for "power") sponsors a variety of outreach programs which bridge the Global Digital Divide. Its aim is to find and implement long-term, sustainable solutions which will increase the availability of educational technology and resources to domestic and international communities. These projects are run under the aegis of the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and staffed by MIT volunteers who give training, install and donate computer setups in greater Boston, Massachusetts, Kenya, Indian reservations the American Southwest such as the Navajo Nation, the Middle East, and Fiji Islands. The CommuniTech project strives to empower underserved communities through sustainable technology and education.[17][18][19]

Building on the premise that any effective solution must be decentralized, allowing the local communities in developing nations to generate their own content, one scholar has posited that social media—like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter—may be useful tools in closing the divide.[20] As Amir Hatem Ali (2011) suggests, “the popularity and generative nature of social media empower individuals to combat some of the main obstacles to bridging the digital divide” (p. 188). Facebook’s statistics reinforce this claim. According to Facebook, more than seventy-five percent of its users reside outside of the US (Facebook Statistics, 2011). Moreover, more than seventy languages are presented on its website (Facebook Statistics, 2011). The reasons for the high number of international users are due to many the qualities of Facebook and other social media. Amongst them, are its ability to offer a means of interacting with others, user-friendly features, and the fact that most sites are available at no cost (Ali, 2011). The problem with social media, however, is that it can be accessible, provided that there is physical access (Ali, 2011). Nevertheless, with its ability to encourage digital inclusion (Ali, 2011), social media can be used as a tool to bridge the global digital divide.

Some cities in the world have started programs to bridge the digital divide for their residents, school children, students, parents and the elderly. One such program, founded in 1996, was sponsored by the city of Boston and called the Boston Digital Bridge Foundation.[21] It especially concentrates on school children and their parents, helping to make both equally and similarly knowledgeable about computers, using application programs, and navigating the Internet.[22][23]

World Summit on the Information Society

Several of the 67 principles adopted at the World Summit on the Information Society convened by the United Nations in Geneva in 2003 directly address the digital divide:[24]

10. We are also fully aware that the benefits of the information technology revolution are today unevenly distributed between the developed and developing countries and within societies. We are fully committed to turning this digital divide into a digital opportunity for all, particularly for those who risk being left behind and being further marginalized.
11. We are committed to realizing our common vision of the Information Society for ourselves and for future generations. We recognize that young people are the future workforce and leading creators and earliest adopters of ICTs. They must therefore be empowered as learners, developers, contributors, entrepreneurs and decision-makers. We must focus especially on young people who have not yet been able to benefit fully from the opportunities provided by ICTs. We are also committed to ensuring that the development of ICT applications and operation of services respects the rights of children as well as their protection and well-being.
12. We affirm that development of ICTs provides enormous opportunities for women, who should be an integral part of, and key actors, in the Information Society. We are committed to ensuring that the Information Society enables women's empowerment and their full participation on the basis on equality in all spheres of society and in all decision-making processes. To this end, we should mainstream a gender equality perspective and use ICTs as a tool to that end.
13. In building the Information Society, we shall pay particular attention to the special needs of marginalized and vulnerable groups of society, including migrants, internally displaced persons and refugees, unemployed and underprivileged people, minorities and nomadic people. We shall also recognize the special needs of older persons and persons with disabilities.
14. We are resolute to empower the poor, particularly those living in remote, rural and marginalized urban areas, to access information and to use ICTs as a tool to support their efforts to lift themselves out of poverty.
15. In the evolution of the Information Society, particular attention must be given to the special situation of indigenous peoples, as well as to the preservation of their heritage and their cultural legacy.
16. We continue to pay special attention to the particular needs of people of developing countries, countries with economies in transition, Least Developed Countries, Small Island Developing States, Landlocked Developing Countries, Highly Indebted Poor Countries, countries and territories under occupation, countries recovering from conflict and countries and regions with special needs as well as to conditions that pose severe threats to development, such as natural disasters.
21. Connectivity is a central enabling agent in building the Information Society. Universal, ubiquitous, equitable and affordable access to ICT infrastructure and services, constitutes one of the challenges of the Information Society and should be an objective of all stakeholders involved in building it. Connectivity also involves access to energy and postal services, which should be assured in conformity with the domestic legislation of each country.
28. We strive to promote universal access with equal opportunities for all to scientific knowledge and the creation and dissemination of scientific and technical information, including open access initiatives for scientific publishing.
46. In building the Information Society, States are strongly urged to take steps with a view to the avoidance of, and refrain from, any unilateral measure not in accordance with international law and the Charter of the United Nations that impedes the full achievement of economic and social development by the population of the affected countries, and that hinders the well-being of their population.

See also



  • Ali, A. H. (2011). The Power of Social Media in Developing Nations: New Tools for Closing the Global Digital Divide and Beyond. Harvard Human Rights Journal, 24 (1), 186 – 219.
  • Azam, M. (2007). Working together toward the inclusive digital world. Digital Opportunity Forum. Unpublished manuscript. Retrieved July 17, 2009, from
  • Borland, J. (1998, April 13). “Move Over Megamalls, Cyberspace Is the Great Retailing Equalizer.” Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.
  • Brynjolfsson, Erik and Michael D. Smith (2000). The great equalizer? Consumer choice behavior at Internet shopbots. Journal article, July 2000. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.
  • Carr, Deborah (2007). The Global Digital Divide. Contexts, 6(3), 58-58. Retrieved from
  • Facebook. (2011). Statistics. Retrieved from
  • Guillen, M. F., & Suárez, S. L. (2005). Explaining the global digital divide: Economic, political and sociological drivers of cross-national internet use. Social Forces, 84(2), 681-708.
  • James, J. (2004). Information Technology and Development. New York, NY: Routledge.
  • James, J. (2008). Digital Divide Complacency: Misconceptions and Dangers. The Information Society, 24, 54-61.
  • Lu, M. (2001). Digital divide in developing countries. Journal of Global Information Technology Management, 4(3), 1-4.
  • Norris, P. (2001) Digital Divide : Civic Engagement, Information Poverty, and the Internet Worldwide, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  • Pick, J. & Azari, R. (2008). Global Digital Divide: Influence of Socioeconomic, Governmental,and Accessibility Factors on Information Technology. Information Technology for Development, 14(2), 91-115
  • Rahman, H. (2006). Empowering Marginal Communities and Information Networking.Hershey, Pennsylvania: Idea Group Publishing.
  • Section 508 (1998). United States Government.
  • Tait, R. (2005, Wednesday, October 25). Iran bans fast internet to cut west's influence. The Guardian, Retrieved July 17, 2009 from
  • Wilson, III. E.J. (2004). The Information Revolution and Developing Countries. Cambridge,MA: The MIT Press.
  • World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS). (2005). What's the state of ICT accessaround the world? Retrieved July 17, 2009 from
  • World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS). (2008). ICTs in Africa: Digital Divide to Digital Opportunity. Retrieved July 17, 2009 from

Further reading

  • "Bridging Brazil's digital divide", BBC, Digital Planet, São Paulo Special, BBC World Service, Thursday, 2 October 2008.
  • [1])
  • "The Digital Divide Within Web 2.0 Data", Floatingsheep Blog, June 15, 2009.
  • Chen, W. & Wellman, B. (2004) The global digital divide within and between countries. IT & Society, 1(7), 39-45.
  • DiMaggio, P. & Hargittai, E. (2001). From the 'digital divide' to 'digital inequality': Studying internet me as penetration increases (Working Paper No. 15). Retrieved May 31, 2009 from Princeton University,WebUse: Scientific Research on the Internet Web
  • Foulger, D. (2001). Seven bridges over the global digital divide. IAMCR & ICA Symposium on Digital Divide. Retrieved July 17, 2009 from
  • Graham, M. (2011) Time Machines and Virtual Portals: The Spatialities of the Digital Divide. Progress in Development Studies, Vol. 11, No. 3, 211-227. Retrieved from:
  • James, J. (2005). "The global digital divide in the Internet: developed countries constructs and Third World realities", Journal of Information Science, 31 (2), 114-23.
  • Madon, S., Reinhard, N., Roode, D., & Walsham, G. (2007). Digital inclusion projects in developing countries: Processes of institutionalization. Paper presented at the Proceedings of the 9th International Conference on Social Implications of Computers in Developing Countries. Retrieved July 13, 2009 from
  • PDF
  • NTIS, "A Nation Online: Entering the Broadband Age", United States Department of Commerce, September 2004.
  • Rumiany, D. (2007). Reducing the Global Digital Divide in Sub-Saharan Africa. Posted on Global Envision with permission from Development Gateway. Retrieved July 17, 2009 from

External links

  • International Telecommunication Union (ITU)

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