Digital and social divides: Mutually reinforcing?

by Shehla Shora

I recently attended the first India Internet Governance Conference (IIGC) convened at the FICCI Federation House in New Delhi. Among the various issues that fall under the umbrella of Internet Governance, the most important to me, personally, is freedom of legitimate political expression over the Internet. Many people of my age and background also identify this as their top concern. While we are worried about such progressive notions as complete freedom of expression even for our opponents and faster data connections, the Internet remains a dream for the majority of our population. As of December, 2011 India’s Internet penetration stands at 10.2% which is about a 100 million. The number of Active” Internet users as per the AIMAI report is about 90 million (70 million urban and 20 million rural). According to Akamai State of Internet Q2 Report, only 7% of Internet users in India have access to broadband (2 mbps & above). The Internet has a huge development potential which is really limited by penetration. This came out as a major concern during the conference.

At the IIGC 2012, Mr. Mani Shankar Aiyer went to the extent of saying that the Internet is leading to a new social divide. He’s not entirely wrong. The digital divide is very real and has the potential to widen itself precisely because it is highly enabling. But the solution is obviously not aversion to the Internet. The challenge is to make the Internet accessible to those who are deprived of it, deliver it to them in such a way that it is useful to them. The Government of India has been making many efforts to increase Internet penetration. One such effort is the Aakash- an affordable tablet that has the potential to take Internet to the doorsteps of the most underprivileged sections of the society. It’s an apt realisation of the fact that penetration can increase much more if cheap handhelds are made available although the issue of affordable broadband on mobile poses a huge question mark.

The full potential of the Internet for research, business and education can be realized only on a desktop or a laptop or a tablet at best with broadband access. Though highly enabling, even smartphones have certain limitations. But the impact of desktop-based Internet was limited, partly due to issues of ownership as pointed out by Mr. Sitaram Yechury at the IIGC 2012. This is why cyber cafes still have a great role to play in rural areas. Although there’s much to be done in areas of broadband, mobile broadband, smartphone penetration, etc. the government can, for starters, make it easier to open and run a cyber café in rural areas and not kill them with regulations. The idea is to make all options available with reasonable ease and let people choose the solution that suits their specific needs best. Qualitatively speaking, most Internet junkies usually have two to three distinct means of accessing the Internet regularly.

The temptation to assume that everyone wants to use the Internet is great. However, there are many people who find the Internet not very relevant, not very easy-to-use, even intimidating. According to an independent survey done by India Online 2007 only 41% existing Internet users prefer to read in English! The sample population in this survey, quite clearly, is tech-savvy because the few thousand people surveyed accessed the India Online 2007 website. One can only begin to imagine the trend of language preference amongst the Internet-deprived 90% of our population. While the Government of India is rightly focusing on bringing down the cost of handheld devices, very little is being done to make the existing information accessible in various languages, to make the Internet more relevant and less alien to users- existing and prospective. As Ms. Bishakha Datta of the Wikimedia foundation pointed out at the IIGC 2012, the biggest divide in this country is the language divide. It’s an invisible divide which, if not conquered, will make it impossible for policymakers to conquer the seemingly widening digital divide. The digital divide” is not a monolithic entity; it’s not a problem of penetration or cheap handhelds or broadband alone- it is a combination of social, linguistic, connectivity, literacy, computer literacy, e‑literacy, and occupational divides and all of these will have to be addressed together. Otherwise they have a tendency to reinforce one another.