The Digital Divide  

Many expressions were used to describe the dichotomy of people’s participation or not in the Information Society such as information poor/ rich or have/ have not, but the most widely spread now is the "Digital Divide". Used by most international organizations, this expression has become the reference term. There is not one single definition about it but they are more or less taking about the same thing. At first, some narrower definitions of the digital divide were focused only on access to computers and Internet but access alone does not bridge the technology gap. As a result, definitions are much wider today.
I chose two of them found on the web, that state clearly what is according to them the digital divide:

  • "The term 'digital divide' describes the fact that the world can be divided into people who do and people who don't have access to - and the capability to use - modern information technology, such as the telephone, television, or the Internet. The digital divide exists between those in cities and those in rural areas. It also exists between the educated and the uneducated, between economic classes, and, globally, between the more and less industrially developed nations" (Whatis?com, 1999).
  • "The digital divide is the "Differences based on race, gender, geography, economic status, and physical ability:
  • In access to information, the Internet and other information technologies and services
  • In skills, knowledge, and abilities to use information, the Internet and other technologies" (OITP, 2000).

First, those two definitions noticeably show the multidimensional nature of the digital divide. They stress the necessity of access and knowledge but I will add a third one, which is contents. These three key points access, knowledge, and contents are what will determine the participation to Internet and therefore will be studie all along this work.

When looking at access, you can see that the Internet is expanding its territory so rapidly that soon you might be able to get it anywhere and in multiple forms (you can already find it in mobile phones or digital Televisions). However, today it is still mainly through computers that one can access the web. Either you can buy your own computer to access Internet but this is not affordable for all. Governments aware of this financial problem are pushing for installation of computers in public spaces, such as libraries or post offices. The market also tries to answer this new demand by the creation of cyber cafés. The last months have seen an incredible development of huge cyber cafés with more than 300 terminals in all major European cities. Their success relies on fast access connections at low price and a 24 hours

opening and clearly show that there is a demand for such access. These different approaches might well be part of the answer to bring access for all. A study done in the UK shows that the success of bringing a new audience to the Internet primarily relies on the social environment, as well as on the staff support you can get. Therefore, it is challenging the value of attempting to extend access via unstaffed Internet access points (Milne, 2000, p57).

This research also clearly emphasizes the second factor, the necessary knowledge to use Internet. There are user’s needs for information and training in order to participate in the Information Society, and this is definitely another major risk of exclusion. For people learning the potentialities of the information and communication technology may be a bigger barrier for new users than lack of technical access (ibid). For example, people who are quasi-illiterate have no chance to master the Internet. I strongly believe that the education system must be the main provider of this new knowledge, but that some other options must exist for people who would not have access to it for various reasons.


Moreover the fantastic pace of evolution of information technology obliges any participant in the Information Society to continually improve one’s knowledge, learning does not stop once one has completed a training course. In addition, mastering the Internet, one needs formal training, but knowledge also develops through learning by doing (Milne2000); one can improve it by trying things out, sharing one’s problems and seeing what others are doing. All this will contribute to a lifelong learning society where people will have to continuously learn to master these constantly changing technologies, and therefore to be able to participate in their society.

Finally to participate, people must have access to information that is relevant for them; the contents can be found on the Web will determine the success of this participation. Currently on the web, more than 78% websites are 96 % of e-commerce sites are in English (, 2001, p20). The dominance of English, and especially US content, makes it less useful to other countries. English speakers were the first users of Internet, so the predominance of their language was natural. But Nowadays, Just over 50% of all Internet users are native English speakers with an increasing diversity of users but this, so there is a necessity to have more variety in languages on the Web. Additionally, non-English countries produce less local content making the Internet less relevant to their lives. It is also necessary that users become content creators as well by the creation of their own websites. By doing that, they participate in the construction of the Web and produce sites that might interest others.

The definitions also introduced two different forms of Digital divide, one between countries but also between groups within a country. Bridges organization extensive report puts it in these terms "Real disparities exist in access to and use of information and communications technology (ICT) between countries (the "international digital divide") and between groups within countries (the "domestic digital divide")" (ibid, p13).

International Digital Divide

The International Digital Divide, also sometimes call the global DD, is easy to understand but hugely difficult to overcome. Firstly, this divide is an infrastructure problem. For example, in all of Africa, there are fewer phone lines than in New York City alone and owning a phone is seen as a luxury item. The costs are enormous and this is why developing countries need support otherwise they might not even be able to give access to their population. The structural problem is not the only one. In developing countries, the majority of people besides wealthy individuals cannot currently afford the technology, even when it is available, so usage remains low. "Poverty is the greatest barrier to Internet growth in Africa" (ibid, p19), this statement by the US Internet Council wants to emphasize the fact that costs to access Internet are in comparison to developed countries much higher and therefore unaffordable. It is not rare to see a monthly connection cost for Internet in Africa exceeding the monthly median income of the population.

For Internet, it is difficult to give accurate figures because they are changing so quickly. Most institutions when trying to determine Internet users across the world use the Nua Internet surveys. Their latest figures from November 2000, if they estimate that 407 million people were Internet users, only 3 million of them were Africans. If you compare these figures with the world population, you can clearly see the huge gap with developed countries such as USA and Canada where there is more than 16 millions users. (Nua internet surveys, 2001).

The World Bank also stresses this point "Roughly 90 percent of Internet host computers are located in high-income countries that account for only 16 percent of world population"(World Bank, 2000).

It would be an error to consider the International Digital Divide as poor countries vs. rich ones problem. Even within the European Union, this gap exists. If in Sweden or the Netherlands two third of the population are Internet users, only less than 20 % are in Greece or Portugal (European Commission (2) 2001, p3).

Domestic Digital Divide

The domestic digital divide is more complex to define, because multiple factors are involved. Access within countries can be looked according following socio-economic factors:

- Age - Income

- Geographical location - Education

- Race - Gender

- Disability

All following figures come from the latest Eurobarometer of the European Commission in June 2001 clearly show that this digital exclusion is often cumulative adding to other social disadvantages. (Ibid, p2)

Gender: If gender difference in Internet usage is limited among white-collar workers or students, the gender gap become obvious when considering groups that are disadvantaged for others reasons. An example can be that among people with low income female Internet users are only half that of men. Huge differences on this issue can be seen between countries, if in the USA, a near parity has been attained, the UN Development Fund for Women reveals that only 4% of Internet users in the Arab world are women ( 2001, p26).

Disability: Internet and Information Technologies are promising for people with disabilities because it can assist them in overcoming their handicaps, however the potential may not be realized if they cannot afford assistive technologies or if accessibility of equipment or web-content is not ensured.

People with:

no disability

a disability

learning disability

difficulty in

using hands





Internet access (%)







Source: Survey on Income and Program Participation, Aug. Nov. 1999 - U.S. Bureau of the Census

In the US, Internet penetration among disabled people was only half that of people without disabilities in 1999, with differences according to the kind of their disability (European Commission (2) 2001, p6)

Race: Mainly studied in the USA, this aspect shows that there is a vast disparity between the usage by European and Asian Americans versus Hispanic and African Americans. "Falling Through the Net", the US Department of commerce report states that if August 2000 the Internet penetration was 23.6% for Hispanic and black households to compare to 41.5% for households nationally (, p24).

Age: There is a normal difference because ICT are easily used and adopted by younger generations and they benefit from their school training. However, studies in Sweden or Finland show that a more active participation of older people is possible.

Geographical gap: there is a difference in use between different parts of same countries as show the following graph drawn from the European Union figures (European Commission (2) 2001, p5). It is easier to get an Internet access in cities and this trend might not be changed soon.

In Fact, the new fast access technologies to Internet such as the optical fibre for example, are mostly available in urban areas and there is a risk that this divide increases. This is why there is a necessity of national planning at a country level to insure that all areas have the same possibilities.

Income: It is interesting to notice that socially excluded people have mostly a low income and once more, this economic factor could affect their participation in the Information Society. Income is the first factor of exclusion, because even if computer prices and access costs drop by a large margin, they would still be inaccessible to poor people who need to cover their basic needs first.

Education: is closely correlated with employment and income. Those with higher levels of education are more likely to have ICT at home and at work. The less educated people show least interest in getting on-line, may be because they do not see the interest for them.

All these questions related to the domestic Digital Divide are mainly studied in developed countries but there is evidence indicating that these inequalities are far more pronounced in developing country where a small elite own everything and cumulate the advantages leaving most of the population with very little.