The Internet as a Global Social Problem

Gili S Drori. Handbook of Social Problems: A Comparative International Perspective. Editor: George Ritzer. Sage Publication. 2004.

With helicopters hovering above and armored vehicles patrolling the streets, police forces in protective gear were trying to keep peace in the streets of Naples, Italy. Naples, known more for its scenery than for its political activism, was swamped with antiglobalization protesters coming to demonstrate against the meeting of the Global Forum, the United-Nations-led transnational policy forum. These protesters challenged a variety of traditional Global Forum agenda items, from citizen representation to governance reforms to corporate involvement. Yet the agenda of the Third Global Forum’s Naples 2001 meeting was devoted to the single theme of “e-governance.” On this meeting’s program was the initiative to harness the Internet revolution to improve public administration through increasing transparency and accountability. Antiglobalization protesters, on the other hand, were holding banners proclaiming that the Internet Age is only exacerbating global inequalities, a result of greedy corporate leaders and failed international aid policies. How did the Internet, or in its alternative label, the global digital divide, become such an explosive policy issue, drawing people into street demonstrations and conference halls? What is the aura, or mystique, of the Internet and of hightech that has led to the definition of the Internet as a global social problem? These issues are at the core of this chapter.

In this chapter, I review a range of issues relating to the global digital divide and specifically to global disparities in access to the Internet. In addition to the general questions, I also ask: what are the various proposals to address this newly conceived social problem? What do these discussions imply about current global social priorities? And what are the related research tasks for social scientists? After a short review of global trends in Internet diffusion and of global gaps in its current use, the sections of this chapter follow the order of these questions.

Author’s Note: I thank John Meyer, Francisco Ramirez, Hilton Obenzinger, and Evan Schofer, as well as the members of Stanford University’s comparative workshop, for their thoughtful comments on earlier drafts of this paper.

Internet Development and Diffusion

The “Internet revolution” of the late 1990s made such terms as “e-commerce” and “dot com” into household words and let us dream that tomorrow’s technology was already here. Internet development built upon the few decades of innovative computer technology, making progress by creating faster, cheaper, and more capable communications through a shared and open network.

The first steps toward a global open network of electronic information exchange were made in DARPA laboratories in the early 1960s, marked by the move from a conceptual “galactic network” to the 1968 development of ARPANET and later the introduction of “internetting.” These experimentations with open-architecture networking and with various protocols to meet the requirements made by such openness resulted in the Internet. For the following two decades, the network grew, while still maintaining its elite character: after the first host-to-host message was sent in October 1969 from Leonard Klienrock’s laboratory at MIT to Elizabeth (Jake) Feinler in the Stanford Research Institute (SRI), all the joining hosts were academic institutions or major research and development (R&D) labs. These pioneering networks offered data-sharing capabilities and electronic mail to their respective community members yet did not reach beyond their institutional boundaries. Only in 1984/1985 did network members, namely NSFNET and the British JANET, explicitly aspire to serve the entire higher-education community. Then, NSF’s conditioning of its sponsorship on “the connection must be made available to ALL qualified users on campus,” combined with DARPA’s founding of the Internet Activities Board (IAB), extended the reaches of this technology. Finally, Tim Bernerslee’s 1989 development of the basic concept of the World Wide Web while at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), backed by the 1993 introduction of Mosaic, led to the launching of the World Wide Web Consortium in 1994. This groundbreaking project, developing a global hypertext platform for information sharing, made the Internet into an information and communication bridge across businesses, peoples, and governments the world over. Today, the World Wide Web is an expansive network, still based on the pioneering ideals of open architecture and open protocol yet also commercializing the initial sponsorship of government and academic institutions. Clearly, more recent technological advances, moving from character-based language into graphical interface and from command structure into “point-and-click” control, popularized the Internet, making it more comprehensible and welcoming to the general population.

The Internet quickly came to be the fastest-growing information and communication technology ever. The number of Web sites grew from 200 in June 1993 to 20 million such sites in late 2000 (United Nations Development Programme [UNDP] 2001:32), with estimates of as many as 2 million Web pages added daily (Lake in DiMaggio et al. 2001:308); the number of Internet users around the world grew from 16 million in 1995 to over 500 million in 2001, and was estimated to reach 655 million in 2002 (UNDP 2001:25 and International Telecommunications Union [ITU] updates); the number of e-mail accounts grew from about 15 million worldwide in the early 1990s to 569 million at the end of 1999 (Compaine 2001:325); the number of Internet hosts worldwide doubled in the two years 1999 to 2001 and grew tenfold in OECD member states between 1990 and 2000 (UNDP 2002:189); and the number of countries connected to the Internet grew from 8 in 1988 to 214 in 2000 (ITU 2001:1). The Internet system itself is also increasingly more robust: “In 2001 more information can be sent over a single cable in a second than in 1997 was sent over the entire Internet in a month” (UNDP 2001:30). And international Internet capacity reached the remarkable level of some 300 Gbit/s in 2001, almost five times greater than its capacity in 1999, so it now exceeds international telephone circuit capacity (ITU 2001:3). Last, such advancement in technology also means cheaper access to it: for example, the cost of one megabit of computer memory dropped from $US 5,257 in 1970 to 17 US¢ in 1999 (UNDP 2001:2, 33), and Internet dial-up costs reached their lowest rate ever in 2002 to an average of $US 45 for 30 hours of dial-up access in OECD countries (ITU 2001:3).

The rate of diffusion of the Internet is like no other communication technology before it. The Internet was the quickest technology to ever be adopted by American households, faster than cell phones and personal computers and much faster than other household products such as the microwave, VCR, electricity, and the telephone (see Compaine 2001:322; Norris 2001:33). Thus, “It took television 13 years and the telephone 75 years to acquire 50 million users,” while “it took the internet [only] five years” (Main 2001:85).

In summary, the Internet appeared on the field of communication technology in the early 1990s and quickly changed all parameters of technology diffusion. Most dramatically, the Internet made unprecedented leaps in terms of accessibility and affordability, making this technological diffusion faster to spread and lower in cost than all communication and household technologies before it. The Internet, then, quickly lowered the barriers to communication technology: during its short life, Internet technology has enabled more people to have access to more information at a lower cost than imagined, or planned, by its conceivers. Nevertheless, numerous barriers still prohibit most of humanity from gaining access to this newest communication technology.

Falling through the Net

Even with such changes in access to, and cost of, communication brought about by the Internet during the 1990s, this information and communication technology still left many people worldwide not linked to this network. So, despite the Internet’s dramatic global diffusion, only 5 percent of the world’s population is now “on-line” (ITU 2001:1). In addition, countries and world regions still differ greatly in their Internet capacities. For example, more than 97 percent of all Internet hosts are located in developed countries, which are home to only 16 percent of the world’s population (UNDP 2001:40). By comparison, in 2000, 35 of the least-developed countries, which are home to a half billion people, accounted for only 1 percent of on-line users (Norris 2001:45). This comparison between the share of global population and the share of the global on-line population is the most striking evidence of the global divide in access to the Internet. This great gap between the relative shares exists when considering both levels of industrialization and regional location. These data reveal that the only three world regions where the share of global on-line population is greater than the share of global population are Scandinavia, North America, and Western Europe—regions that account for 66 percent of the global on-line population while accounting for only 13 percent of the number of countries and 14 percent of total world population.

This North-South divide in Internet access extends also to Internet capacity: global regions and countries are clearly divided by the varying ability of local networks to serve multiple users and to transfer great data quantities. For example, the whole continent of Africa has less bandwidth than the city of Sao Paulo, Brazil, while all of Latin America’s bandwidth is roughly equal to that of the city of Seoul, South Korea (UNDP 2001:3). In countries and regions lacking such capacity, Internet connections are less efficient and, by definition, less available. In this sense, varying levels of Internet capacity set barriers before Internet users in developing countries and in marginal regions: their network is overloaded, if not overwhelmed, not because of a large number of users or great amounts of data transferred, but rather due to a low capacity to serve those users. It is, then, the local network’s capacity that prohibits people’s full-fledged use of the Internet, if it is available at all.

Another related major barrier to universal access to Internet technology is the cost of the required hardware and connection. Mainly due to income differentials, Internet technology is beyond the reach of most of humanity. In other words, most of humanity, hardly able to afford basic life necessities such as food, clothing, and medication, can certainly not meet the expense of purchasing the necessary technological tools or paying the connection fees. For example, in the United States, the cost of a single personal computer (PC) equals one-tenth of the gross domestic product (GDP) per capita, while in Zimbabwe the cost of a PC equals about 10 times the GDP per capita (Main 2001:94). Thus, with average annual income in countries with low human development equaling $US 1200, owning the cheapest Pentium III computer, costing about $US 700 in January 2001 (UNDP 2001:35, 144), is still a distant dream for most of humanity. After all, half of humanity has never even made a single phone call (World Bank 2000); hence, there are real doubts about the ability of these people to be able to use a phone system, let alone a PC, as a gateway to the Internet.

In addition to this Internet gap between developed and developing countries, great digital disparity exists also among the Western, affluent nations. Even within the group of OECD member nations, the difference among countries is dramatic: in the year 2000, for example, the number of Internet hosts per 1000 people in Finland, the United States, and Norway was 200.2, 179.1, and 193.6, respectively, whereas the ratios in other OECD member countries, such as Japan, Germany, and South Korea, were merely 49.0, 41.2, and 4.8, respectively (UNDP 2001:48). Similarly, the cost differentials in Internet dial-up costs among OECD countries ranged from about $US 90 per 30 hours in June 2000 in Belgium to $US 13 in Canada (ITU 2001:3). These differences reveal the extent of variation in Internet access, capacity, and cost even within this exclusive group of economically advanced and technologically sophisticated countries. Moreover, while Scandinavian countries rank highest in all per capita measures of Internet use, having 51.5 percent of their population on-line (NUA 2000 data in Norris 2001:47), the United States is clearly the leader: 79 percent of all Internet hosts, 59 percent of all electronic mailboxes, 54 percent of all on-line shoppers, and 38 percent of all Internet users are American. These differences among Western countries highlight the distinction between relative and absolute Internet capacity: per capita ratios and growth rates in Internet access are high in all Western countries, indicating a solid Internet basis and a rapid rate of change in Internet access across the West, yet the United States remains the distant leader because of its overwhelming absolute dominance of the Internet field. In this sense, the rapid expansion of the Internet may give the impression that “Internet laggers” may be catching up to their leaders at an astounding rate, yet currently the United States is still by far the global leader in Internet capacity and use.

These global divides in Internet capacity between the global North and South and among the wealthy Northern countries are layered over intranational disparities; in other words, as much as Internet gaps are obvious cross-nationally, similar gaps exist within nations, along social class and regional boundaries. In India, residents of the state of Uttar Pradesh, the province that is home to the technology hub Bangalore, have 68 times more Internet connections than residents of the state of Maharashtra, the home of the city of Mumbai, which is the financial and commercial capital of India and the most urbanized of the Indian states (UNDP 2001:41). This gap is even more evident when we compare Uttar Pradesh with poorer and more marginal states within India. In other places, such intranational divides in Internet access follow income divides. For example, in Israel, a nation categorized as a global hub of Internet technology and activity (UNDP 2001:45), only 19 percent of Israeli households in the lowest income percentile have computers, while in the highest income percentile, the rate of computer ownership is 92 percent (Ackerman 2001). Even in the United States, where the number of Internet users grows by more than 30 percent annually, Internet access is far from reaching all walks of life equally: only 12 percent of Americans are expected to be “e-connected” by the year 2005 (UNDP 2001:35), and currently, the disparity among American users is widening along income and resources divides (OECD 2000:86).

These intranational digital divides map landscapes of urbanity (Graham 2002) and cultural capital. Even in the era of open-networking technologies, social capital is still being reproduced and social closure maintained: the disadvantaged, previously marked by their distance from the economic and cultural core (as manifested by lower income, less education, and fewer social connections than those of members of the local social elite), are currently distanced from the hightech core and its networking nodes. These intranational divides reflect, perpetuate, and magnify the global digital divide to define layers of technological exclusion, or marginality. In other words, the global elite is leaving behind the rest of humanity, the heterogeneous group of the global “have-nots,” as a result of deepening global divides.

Most important, these divides—global and national, regional and local, urban and rural—clearly identify the parameters of modern technological exclusion. Digital marginality is distinctly related to parameters of education, wealth, and professional skills, as well as to health standards and political participation. The profile of the average Internet user is a citizen of an OECD country, white, male, with professional skills and an advanced degree, younger than 35, from an urban center, and a speaker of English. A similar profile defines the average Chinese Internet user: in China, 70 percent of Internet users completed tertiary education, 84 percent are under age 35, 70 percent are male, and the residents of only two cities, Shanghai and Beijing, account for more than 60 percent of all Chinese Internet users (UNDP 2001:40). This profile, worldwide and in China, reflects the persistent connection between social characteristics and, in this case, Internet access. Even while the share of Americans among on-line users worldwide dropped from 70 to 38 percent between 1995 and 2000 (Norris 2001:45), signaling the expansion of the Internet to other nationalities and other global social groups, the basic characteristics of the on-line population are still strikingly biased toward elite features: the on-line population worldwide is still unique in terms of its human resources, racial and gender composition, and social standing.

Some dimensions of the Internet divide seem, nevertheless, to be closing more quickly than others. Specifically, it seems that the divide quickest to narrow is the gender gap, marking the difference between men and women in access to the Internet. In the United States, for example, women’s share among Internet users jumped from 38 percent in 1996 to 51 percent in 2000, and in Thailand from 35 percent to 49 percent in the single year 1999 to 2000 (UNDP 2000:40). This narrowing of the gender gap and the persistence of the other social dimensions of the digital divide (along racial, income, and ethnic boundaries) suggest, though, that this gender parity “catch-up” is occurring among the privileged social groups. In other words, within the elite (which tends to be the wealthy, urban, and educated group), women are closing the Internet gap with men; it is doubtful, however, whether such a catch-up is occurring within other social classes.

Interesting in particular is the intersection of the national-level dynamics of the gendered Internet divide with the global dimension. Such intersection yields more dramatic, while similar, results: it is in the poorest, least-educated, and more marginalized societies that women have the smallest share of Internet users compared with men. For example, in Ethiopia, Senegal, and Zambia women’s share of Internet users is 14 percent, 17 percent, and 36 percent, respectively, and in the Arab world, women’s share of Internet users is only 4 percent ( 2002). In developing countries, where women’s rights are particularly breached, women’s shares of the e-connected population are extremely low; and the poorer the country is, the more distant women are from this frontier technology. In this regard, it seems, global marginality intersects with local marginality to deepen global disparities.

In summary, while the world is clearly more “wired,” persistent patterns of technological marginality remain; moreover, on some social dimensions, the patterns of technological marginality are growing. Such patterns follow the contours of location, social capital, age, gender, and race. Furthermore, they are magnified yet further by the global dimension of each such social resource. Together, these layers of social divides define, if not determine, the differential access to the Internet, or technological marginality. Yet what is the allure, or appeal, of technological marginality that allowed it to rise over other dimensions of social inequality to become a call for action? How did this global Internet divide come to be conceived as a social problem requiring social attention?

Conceiving of the Internet Gap as a Social Problem

The Internet revolution, powered by rapid globalization, also exposed and magnified the major restructuring brought about by globalization pressures. Global Internet diffusion refocused discussions on the issue of the consequences of globalization, assessing the role of social arrangements and organizations in determining the trends and the outcomes of this technology globalization process. So, in the debates raging on the outcomes of globalization for democratization, poverty alleviation, and health care (among other issues), Internet globalization added a technological dimension to the discussions of growing global disparities. The imagery of the Internet in such discussions has, basically, two faces: technological capacity is conceived as (1) the new human capital criterion or as (2) a new form of Western imperialism.

On one hand, the Internet is conceived as a hopeful vehicle for information diffusion and thus for all the social benefits that rely on greater access to free and open information sources. In this postindustrial era, when knowledge is a most precious commodity, the capacity to access the frontiers of knowledge defines the new human capital: greater prospects await those who acquire access to, and proficiency with, the Internet. Also, for developing countries, the Internet as a gateway into the information society serves as an attractive “leap-frogging” development strategy, and thus barriers to its diffusion should be eliminated. Specifically, this mode of communication allows for global integration without the buildup of costly infrastructure: patients in Africa can access medical information from Scandinavia; Asian students can study in American on-line universities; and British researchers can access documents in Indian archives. In this sense, virtual institutions (hospital, university, and library) create global connections, correcting “market imperfections” in information distribution and institutional linkages. And through these connections, the Internet also provides a voice for marginalized populations to communicate their agendas and to reach widely scattered populations: Saudi dissident groups discuss their vision of a new Saudi Arabia on-line; American labor unionists communicate their strategies to local unions in Latin America through e-mail; and environmental international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs) monitor violations through e-postings by indigenous tribes from around the world. The Internet, then, serves as a community builder, allowing otherwise scattered people to communicate freely. This vision is summarized in numerous policy documents: the Internet, they claim, sets the basis for global integration and thus development.

The alternative perspective on global Internet diffusion came to label the Internet revolution as “emperialism,” referring to an electronic form of imperialism. Here, the claim is that the Internet, through the control of its content by Westerners, is a vehicle for penetration of Western ideas and ideals. From hardware to software, the Internet is diffusing Western logic. And with its growing importance for global integration, the Internet is forcing indigenous cultures to surrender to its mechanics and thus to its logic. In this sense, the Internet is the most powerful, most integrated form of Western domination, combining economic pressures with cultural oppression (see Hall 1999). From this perspective, Internet gaps perpetuate already existing, and widening, development gaps. Also, such technological gaps, because they follow the contours of Western dominance, contribute to the persistent marginalization of non-Western cultures, movements, and regimes. In other words, the emerging “knowledge caste system” both reflects existing power relations (based, for example, on colonial imbalances) and maintains this global social arrangement (based, for example, on trade imbalances).

Both perspectives on global Internet diffusion, much like other discussions of global social issues, conceive of the Internet divide as a problem. The two perspectives—the hopeful modernization and the condemning world system perspectives—differ, however, on what is the core problem and thus where its remedy lies. From the first perspective, Internet gaps expose market imperfections in technology diffusion, and they result in ever-growing development gaps; the remedy lies, then, in the liberalization of globalization to the extent that the Internet, and other technologies, can freely diffuse worldwide. From the second perspective, the problem lies in the persistence of social divides, in this case global and technological in nature; the remedy is, therefore, the end of Western domination over indigenous economies and cultures worldwide. Therefore, these two perspectives, while coming from distinct theoretical and policy angles, differ only a little in their perception of the Internet gap as a social problem: while the perspectives argue over the root cause—is it due to market imperfections or to social power relations?—they share an understanding that Internet diffusion is indeed a global, development-oriented social problem. This common perception made its way into the policy guidelines of various institutions, regardless of their stand on globalization, development, or technology issues. For example, the World Bank, emphasizing that the Internet has become a prerequisite for integration into the world economy and thus for economic development, argues that there exists a strong correlation between Internet capacity and foreign direct investment (World Bank 2000). Hence, argue its proglobalization experts, any lag in Internet connectivity results in further economic marginalization, for nations as well as for individuals. The same is true for the relationship between Internet connectivity and other dimensions of social development: inability to employ this technology for learning leaves already marginalized countries behind in terms of access to health information, educational resources, and political mobilization.

In summary, both perspectives see the Internet as a hopeful vehicle for global integration—either through access to useful information sources or as a voice for the disenfranchised. Therefore, both perspectives see the lack of access to this resource, or the Internet divide, as a problem of global integration. Why, then, despite their very different approaches to the social role of the Internet, do both perspectives still conceive of its diffusion path as a social problem? What is their related definition of a social problem? And what are the themes that inspire their approach to Internet gaps as a social problem?

Underlying Themes

The conceptualization of the global Internet divide as a social problem is rooted in Western, now global, culture and its emphasis on the ideals of progress and justice. Modern sensitivities call for the achievement of progress and justice. The differential diffusion of Internet capacity is therefore defined as a gap by our hope for development and our standard of equality. And it is by these criteria—of development and of equality—that the differential access to the Internet came to be defined as a social problem. In this sense, the identification of the global digital divide is much like the definition of, and criteria for, other social problems, such as education (Chabbott and Ramirez 2000) or the environment (Frank, Hironaka, and Schofer 2000). The common thread among these social concerns is that the definition of a global social problem is that which hinders the achievement of development and justice.

What are, then, the depictions of development and of justice? And how is the Internet interwoven with the depictions of these social goals? First, technology in general and Internet technology in particular are seen as instrumental for the achievement of national development. The Internet is conceived as a linkage mechanism or as a resource for global economic, cultural, and political integration. Such integration into the wider world has two tracks: a literal track, whereby the Internet connects people and countries to others as a mode of exchange of commodities and knowledge, and an abstract track, whereby the Internet connects people and countries to others by exchanging ideas and norms. Through either track of integration, it is assumed that the more integrated countries and people are, the more prosperous and more modern they will become. Most technology policies, therefore, refer to the Internet as a strategic resource, or a means, for development. In general, the effects of the Internet on development are mediated by the role of Internet technology as a tool of integration.

Three things regarding the definition of development emerge from this taken-for-granted social role of Internet technology. First, discussions of Internet diffusion address this technology in a purely instrumental, or technical, manner. The Internet is seen as predominantly a means for enhancing modern-style development and not as a general cultural framework; in this sense, the Internet is not perceived as a Western cultural framework but rather as a means toward Western goals. Second, the Internet, because it came into the discourse of developmentalism only in the late 1990s, was influenced by the policy fashions of the time and the related expansion of the definition of development from purely economic terms to broader social goals. For this reason, Internet technology is perceived as affecting democratization and political participation, empowerment and rights, and health care delivery, in addition to economic prosperity. Last, the belief that the Internet and development are intertwined is a taken-for-granted postulation, operating as an example of the myth of the endless utility of technological advancement (see Sarewitz 1996). This belief is not substantiated by empirical evidence demonstrating such a positive association between Internet capacity and any goals of development; not even UNDP (2001) and World Bank (2000) proclamations of such relationships offer more than anecdotal evidence of local hightech booms, such as in India and Israel. Such anecdotal tales support the myth of the utility of technology in general and of the groundbreaking Internet technology in particular.

The second social goal interwoven with perceptions of the Internet is social justice. Justice is an accepted global norm, based on universalistic notions that human status and the related rights, privileges, and duties extend worldwide, beyond nationality, territoriality, race, gender, or other social divides. The Internet, perceived as a cuttingedge technology on which developmental benefits depend, is defined as yet another right and privilege that should be accessible for humans worldwide. The Internet is to be diffused worldwide as a basic human right; and like all human rights, it should diffuse worldwide without barriers. Specifically, the Internet’s ability to empower social groups and to offer a voice for the socially marginalized, as well as its ability to bypass governmental censorship and open information channels, is also a means for the delivery of other human rights, such as the right of self-determination. This perception is sometimes made more strategic and utilitarian: because a variety of developmental benefits hinge on access to Internet technology, any barrier to the Internet is also a barrier to development. But at the same time, the broader approach to the Internet as a global social problem maintains that the universal access to this new social resource is required.

This powerful and persistent taken-for-granted belief in information and communication technology (ICT) as a means for development and for justice sets the basis for the mystique of hightech in policy circles and in the public’s opinion. Had the Internet (and ICT in general) gotten the reputation as godless entertainment—as does television, for example—it would not benefit from such broad support. Yet the mystique of ICT does not come solely from its utility, even while conceptualization and images of utility clearly mediate this process. New ICT is regarded with the same high esteem as, for example, the pharmaceutical industry; however, the direct benefits from pharmaceutical advances and proliferation to global audiences are obvious and proven. Overall, then, the mystique of technology in general, while divorced from the proven performance or utility of each particular technology, is the source of the Internet’s global diffusion. It is also a source for defining any diffusion barriers as a social problem, in this case, the social problem of the global digital divide.

In summary, social perception of the Internet technology frames it as both a means and a right. This perception is anchored in the modern ideals of progress and justice. Because of the reign of developmentalism (or the ideal of progress) and the premium on equality and justice, any inequality and cause of inequality are conceived as problems, for both social fabric and economic development. The global gap in Internet access is, clearly, such a dimension of inequality and a cause for further inequality, and is thus defined as a social problem. As illustrated in Figure 25.3, as technology is “filtered” through our normative “screens” of progress and justice, the utility of such technology is assessed and defined as means of progress and the rightful claim for justice. Any barrier to access to such technology is, then, a cause for conceiving of this technology as a global social problem, even if such barriers are a mere reflection of persistent social, nontechnological barriers. Here, again, the mystique of hightech propels it as a social problem further than other social resources that are also influenced by our desire for development and our concern with inequality. For example, recent “education for all” global initiatives do not enjoy the intense public attention, nor the catchy title, given to the global digital divide, from front-page coverage in central newspapers to street demonstrations. It seems, then, that the global digital divide is accompanied by a missionary tone, promoting the proliferation of Internet technology in terms of modern-day salvation, namely progress and justice.


Contributing to this social commotion around the global digital divide are the “experts” who are growing in numbers as well as in social reverence. The definition of the Internet gap as a social problem is consolidated through the work of professionals and the growing number of organizations that are seen as expert, or professional, voices. Together, development professionals and other “moral entrepreneurs” solidify the concern with global gaps, particularly technology gaps. And international organizations, offering learned or scientized agendas and the resources for their implementation, institutionalize the definition of the Internet gap as a social problem, both by calling attention to its existence and offering prescribed policy remedies to it. One such locus of expertise and moral entrepreneurship, as mentioned earlier, is the Global Forum: in its Naples 2001 meeting, the interest in governance focused on the application of Internet technologies to the promotion of e-governance. Similarly, UNDP’s 2001 Human Development Report, focusing on technological disparities, supports the institutionalization of the global digital divide as a global social problem and raises the Internet to higher consciousness as a core issue in development policymaking. Most important, through its texts and dense descriptions of trends, social effects, and policy implications, UNDP defines this as an urgent social matter and anchors it in developmentalism. Other international organizations take this social role even when the issues or remedies do not relate directly to their core agendas. For example, the Union of International Associations (UIA), while having none of its members list the global digital divide among their main goals or themes, posts elaborate texts about it as a global social problem. In its detailed directories, UIA describes not only the global digital divide as a global social problem but also its many layered dimensions: computer illiteracy, elitist control of information technology, lack of Internet access, and informational obstacles to world trade are listed among its “world problems,” while among its remedial strategies, UIA lists increasing Internet access, using the Internet for development, providing public computer centers, and connecting schools to the Internet. Overall, then, such expert-supported (not to say initiated) perception of this newly fashioned social divide consolidates a global social movement of sorts and imprints social policy and action worldwide, adding the missionary tone of developmentalism to an otherwise technical agenda.

A Call for Policy and Action: From Tech Capacity to Social Agenda

Worldwide policies are initiated, and action is taken to address the issue of differential Internet capacity. Conceiving of social policy to remedy this Internet gap came in parallel, if not as a response, to its definition as a social problem. And even in the short duration of its public attention, the framing of the global Internet gap as a social problem changed the policy response from focusing on technical capacity to addressing a wide social agenda.

Solutions to the technical dimension of this problem looked more like corporate strategy and state planning than like social reforms. For example, for hightech corporations to locate production sites outside the United States, they relied on reviews of various countries’ ICT capacities, and this led to governments addressing their nations’ relative technology capacity rankings. Governments regarded the ICT gap as a national human capital problem, addressed mostly through higher-education reforms to respond to human resources needs of potential foreign direct investors. Such is the case of Intel’s entry into Costa Rica in 1998: the combination of two development strategies (human capital and foreign direct investment) and the combination of two national forces (the Costa Rican government and a private sector foundation) transformed the image of Costa Rica from a “banana republic” to “Silicon Valley South” and lured Intel to establish a local plant there. Throughout this process of strategizing national and corporate developments, hightech is repeatedly framed as a capacity measure: technical education is declared a national human capital (Kendall 2002). Other governments also labored to make their countries attractive to corporate ICT expansion and through it to have their goals of national economic development benefit from ICT globalization. For example, governments worldwide invested heavily in creating ICT hubs and in identifying such hubs as “Silicon-Valley-like.” This desire to link with, even imitate, Silicon Valley’s success is most apparent in the choice of names for the new ICT hubs: Israel’s “Silicon Wadi” and Cambridge’s (United Kingdom) “Silicon fen” make the references to the Mecca of ICT prosperity, the American Silicon Valley, rather obvious.

Governments worldwide rushed to integrate their countries’ interests into the corporate, yet global, strategizing. Such strategizing reflects a global division of labor: it allocates corporate headquarters and venture capital to core countries (primarily the United States and Scandinavia), whereas R&D and production units are located in the semiperiphery (India, Taiwan, Israel, and Ireland, but also Brazil and South Africa). All these semiperipheral ICT hubs also have strong diasporic contacts to Silicon Valley, the global ICT capital (see Saxenian 2000).

The Indian government, hoping to capitalize on the success of its hightech diaspora (or “brain drain”), initiated a special bond issuance to nonresident Indians. Similarly, the government of Israel was quick to establish an economic attaché to Silicon Valley in an effort to use the “Israeli tribe” in Silicon Valley to strengthen its home ICT sector. Overall, corporate and governmental labor planning is what guides the approach toward global differences in Internet capacity.

Despite the dominance of the econocentric themes set by the “Washington consensus” institutions, current formulations of ICT policy—whether national, international, or transnational—clearly reflect an additional tone. As the dedication of the Naples 2001 meeting of the Third Global Forum to e-governance implies, the Internet is now considered within a broader range of social consequences, in addition to economic benefits of advances. The consequences of Internet capacity (and hence ramifications of the lack of such capacity) are recognized as ranging from income to democratization to health, and from agriculture to education to law. It is now understood, therefore, that policy decisions regarding the Internet gap should address infrastructural issues (from education to civil engineering); immigration and “brain drain” issues (from “push” forces for migrants to incentives for returning nationals); racial, ethnic, and gender policies (from support and integration to cultural preservation); as well as the initial impetus toward economic and financial planning (from tax breaks to socially responsible corporations to encouraging foreign direct investment).

With this transition from a labor-planning approach to a social agenda approach also came public policies to tackle these connections between the Internet gap and its various social consequences. To provide Internet access to low-income populations, the Brazilian government, for example, funds a university-sponsored project to produce cheap yet powerful PCs, priced at about $300. Similarly, to bypass the costly buildup of line telephone connections, technology for wireless Internet access was developed, partly with Indian governmental support (UNDP 2001:98). This technology, now available in numerous developing countries, offers publicly funded alternatives to the profitability considerations of multinationals.

The precise timing of the transition in policy themes regarding the Internet gap is difficult to identify, mostly because of the short time period that has passed since the Internet revolution. Despite this difficulty, the change in tone is clear: the Internet gap ceased to be a matter of corporate strategy and human resource planning and became a wide-scale social concern. In some sense, the change of tone regarding global Internet disparities parallels recent amendments to other social policy issues: a move away from a focus solely on economic development as the ultimate social goal and toward a broad understanding of what social development means, including parameters of social justice. Addressing the Internet gap became, then, a cause of global civil advocacy.

In terms of public policy, however, there exist a variety of paths for closing the Internet gap, without a single such solution emerging as the preferred model for success. Governments, therefore, struggle to adjudicate among such diverging policy paths as promoting industry-university R&D cooperation, sponsoring programs to expand access (such as computers in all schools and libraries), or encouraging privatization of communication markets. It is also unclear from these public policies whether the social problem of the Internet gap is a problem of social inequality or of technology. In other words, it is unclear whether the proposed “solutions” lie (1) in encouraging social equality on multiple social dimensions or (2) in making technology diffusion more efficient. In this sense, policies are undecided and vague as to whether the measures taken to remedy the problem should (1) promote expanded access to the Internet, as with other social resources, by tackling social barriers or (2) support the technical advancement of the Internet to ease its proliferation. Overall, therefore, policies that address the digital divide lack focus in their conceptualization of the Internet’s role as well as in their proposed measures to close the gap in access to it.

The Global Internet Divide as a Platform for Social Research

The lack of focus on the part of policies to close the Internet gap calls for further social research and assessment on this issue. In fact, current policy “solutions” do not even identify whether the root of this gap is social or technical in nature. Here, social science research can offer great help by investigating potential tracks of policy, assessing policy effectiveness, and offering deeper understanding of social priorities. Specifically, social science research can assist by addressing the following research directions.

Identify trends on multiple indicators of capacity, access, and cost. Currently, consensus exists in the literature neither on indicators (and their quality) nor on trends (convergence or divergence, widening or closing of the gap), despite a growing availability of cross-national measures of ICT capacity.

Identify the characteristics of the Internet divide and its trajectory, pointing to specific outcomes of this global technology divide. In this research direction, the global Internet gap is seen as both a dependent variable (or an outcome) and an independent variable (or a source) of social conditions. In such analyses, the role of various social institutions (governments, corporations, nongovernmental organizations, and social movements) should be considered. And such analyses may also reflect the various “levels” of the Internet divide: global, global-regional, national, and intranational regional.

Consider the institutional features of such trends of expansion, specifically decoupling among various dimensions of ICT policy and trends of crossnational isomorphism. Studies of science globalization suggest that these institutional features are prevalent in the particular social fields of science and technology diffusion: encouraged to do so by international science-and-development organizations, countries rush to adopt some science practices (such as establishing agencies for science-and-technology policy coordination) yet fail to follow up such policy initiatives with actual scientific work (expanding science education programs in school or sponsoring more R&D), thus establishing a decoupled, or fragmented, national science field (see Drori et al. 2003). Applied specifically to the case of ICT globalization, the puzzle is not the trend of Internet expansion per se, but rather the correspondence (1) among types of ICT or (2) between policy initiatives and policy results.

Offer policy assessment of the role of ICT in the achievement of social progress worldwide. Here, social scientists should contemplate, among other issues, the role of the state and intergovernmental organizations in technology globalization. Specifically, assessment is needed on whether public policy offers better solutions to the problem of the global digital divide than, for example, social networks (such as the case of diasporic communities). Another issue to consider is the role that the private sector can, and should, take in global technology diffusion.

Concluding Comments

The Naples antiglobalization riots of 2001 clearly dramatized global concern with the digital divide. Violent and vocal as they were, these riots gave the impression that there are two sides to this debate, presumably con and pro, on the issue of global Internet disparities. This is, however, greatly misleading: actually, all are in complete agreement. Even among the warring sides of the globalization debate, there is a clear agreement on the fact that a great gap exists between countries and between world regions in access to information and communication technology. And all agree that such a gap in access and use of the Internet is harmful to humanity because it impedes social development and perpetuates global injustices. In this sense, all “sides” agree about the ultimate goal of Internet proliferation, namely, more equitable and far-reaching social development. The point of disagreement is, surprisingly, only on the means to achieve such a goal: should the world unite around neoliberal themes and let market forces guide the process of Internet globalization, or rather, should technology diffusion be guided by direct social policy to bridge the technology gap?

In this sense, global discussions of the Internet gap and of the broader issue of the global digital divide add only a few issues to the existing list of issues and policies of global development and technology. As has been the case for a long while, policy discussions revolve around the means to achieve an undisputed social goal, and disagreements arise along ideological divides. In all such discussions, the dominant discursive themes are, as mentioned earlier, progress and justice; in all such discussions, technology, here the Internet, is conceived as a means for achieving these undisputed social goals. This brings up the question: what’s new about Internet technology? Is the Internet a revolutionary technology deserving special policies and a fresh approach? Or is it merely the latest in a series of modern technologies directed at boosting development? Clearly, the rapid rate of Internet diffusion sets it apart from any other human technology. Nevertheless, some comparisons are made between the Internet and early modern communication technology, such as the telegraph (Standage 1998). Both these “old” and “new” communication technologies enable individuals and businesses to expedite relations and contacts, thus altering human perception of time and space by condensing these dimensions. In this sense, the Internet is also comparable to breakthroughs in transportation technology, such as the railroad: similar to the pattern of communication technologies, the railroad connected places that were previously far apart, creating nodes of contacts and establishing hubs for the network.

If these similarities among the various technologies are significant, they have implications for the trajectory of the current gap in global Internet capacity; if Internet diffusion is to follow the path of old ICTs, then one can expect a growing diversification of the on-line population and hence a narrowing of the access gap over time. Moreover, considering the rapid rate of Internet diffusion, the narrowing of this “new” technology gap may be quicker than the rate of “old” technologies. This “normalization hypothesis” emphasizes the inevitable closing of social access gaps over time. Its proponents often accuse the media of mythologizing a social gap that is soon to be closed, like technology divides before it (Powell 2001). The opposing view of this diffusion trajectory notes that while the rapid narrowing of the Internet gap may be the view from the United States, clearly the pace of technology adoption is much slower in other world regions, even among other OECD or European Union countries.

These persistent international gaps in capacity, even among the affluent countries, raise the question of the Internet’s contribution to solving problems of development. Specifically, are ICTs more crucial to development than other technologies, such as health-related, agricultural, or civil engineering technology? This is of particular importance in poor and developing countries that face the frustrating dilemma of adjudicating among urgent social problems and among dwindling public funds. While great emphasis has been put on the Internet as the key to providing new-age social and economic development and while great funds are allocated to address this social gap, there is no clear evidence that greater Internet capacity yields development to help countries in making these decisions.

The most important dimension of the global Internet divide is, in my opinion, the problem of layered inequality: global divides layered upon national differences; national upon regional; regional upon racial, ethnic, and gender divides, as well as upon education, age, and language skill characteristics. Socially marginalized groups are now also disenfranchised from this new technological frontier; the poor in developing countries, and especially those in rural areas or women and minorities in these countries, are at a great (social) distance from the presumably boundaryless technology of the Internet. This layered inaccessibility of the Internet clearly perpetuates previously existing social inequality; “virtual” (or on-line) inequalities come to reflect “real-life” inequalities (Luke 1998). But more important, this layered inaccessibility of the Internet also works to further expand inequality, adding dimensions of inequality (digital upon income and education) and of social differentiation (transnational upon urban/rural and male/female).

This layered inequality is clearly not “virtual”; rather, it is solidified, or materialized, through the institutionalization of global ICT hubs. Such hubs, only 46 locations worldwide, are local enclaves (regions within nations); specifically, all these global technology hubs, other than the two small nations of Israel and Singapore, trace the boundaries of global cities (see UNDP 2001:45; also Hillner 2000). These technology hubs/global cities are separate from their national context, revealing patterns of global elitism; they identify horizontal networks of manufacturing, as well as trace patterns of consumption, culture, and standard of living. They, therefore, have more in common with other technology hubs from around the world than with their own nations and neighboring cities. For example, while Bangalore is identified as one such global ICT hub, India ranks at the lower global end of UNDP’s 2001 technology achievement index: simultaneously, Bangalore is a global center for ICT activity, and India’s general population has an average 5.1 years of education and an adult literacy rate of only 44 percent (UNDP 2001:3). The geography of hightech identifies cities, rather than nations and global regions, as centers of activity. In this sense, the global digital divide extends global social gaps to new dimensions and forms a new geography of global, transnational social inequality. This form of transnational elitism, or “elitism,” challenges the accepted notions of social order and affiliation: national sovereignty, national identity, and national cohesion are left to be reconsidered.