Should digital equity be a national priority?

The economic impact of persistent digital inequities exacerbates other societal inequalities.

C onnectivity — through internet— is a major differentiator between developed and developing nations today. It supposedly informs where the power resides. Twenty years ago, when it was first used, it took time for the world to understand what it meant. And even today, it means different things to different people. In simple words, it may mean access to digital technology. However, as one starts probing further, it boils down to the type of technology, starting from basic mobile phones, smartphones to high end laptops. Even the definition of connectivity varies from person to person, for some, it is about being online and offline, and for others, it may have a deeper connotation, amounting to a perpetual struggle, as the inability to get online is all about lacking capacity to earn, learn, and access healthcare options.
Benchmarks of connectivity have further continued to evolve with innovations. For nations across the globe, it is a non-negotiable need, as the lack of connectivity limits education, economic development, wellness outcomes, government service delivery options, access to emergency services, and civic engagement. Considering this, the United Nations General Assembly in 2016 declared access to the Internet a basic human right. This equated to the fact that social workers should advocate for policy and programs to ensure digital equity.
Does that mean that internet accessibility should be available to people like any other public utility? We should not forget that developing the Internet involved decades of research and funding to bring it into existence, and it was no different from creating other public utilities such as water and electricity. This also brings us to the premise that encouraging the use of internet and information technology leads to the social inclusion of marginalised groups. Thus, digital inequities result in the digital divide, and this is due to a variety of factors, including computer ownership, high-speed Internet access and adoption, and digital literacy. This brings us to a question, should investing in digital equity be a national priority? The economic impact of persistent digital inequities, exacerbates other societal inequalities. Truly, if unequal access to financial resources can impact human life substantially, inaccessibility of an economic enabler such as internet is definitely adding to the already existing poverty.
The pandemic further reinforced how digital divide restricted millions of people from work and studies, only because of inaccessibility to the Internet. The digital divide caused by online classes not only defeated the fundamental right of every poor child to study in mainstream schools but also led to drop out of those children whose parents could not afford gadgets like computers and smart phones. The other common but stark reality in most countries is that women not owning the devices, and those with disabilities also lack access. Digital illiteracy, gender, and disability amplify the deprivation to extreme levels.
While the impact of digital inequity is difficult to objectively calculate in today’s world, it nevertheless affects a vast number of people, fortifying marginalisation. Digital training leads to digital literacy underpinning digital empowerment. It is time we accept, digital literacy is no different from traditional literacy. And in years to come, who knows, it may supersede the prominence of traditional literacy.

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