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“In the twenty-first century, the capacity to communicate will almost certainly be a key human right. Eliminating the distinction between the information-rich and information-poor is also critical to eliminating economic and other inequalities between North and South, and to improve the life of all humanity.”-Nelson Mandela, TELECOM 95, October 3, 1995 (Wilson, 2004, 1)

The global digital divide is a term used to describe “great disparities in opportunity to access the Internet and the information and educational/business opportunities tied to this access … between developed and developing countries”. Unlike the traditional notion of the "digital divide" between social classes, the "global digital divide" is essentially a geographical division.

Over 30 years ago, “Hans Singer (1970) introduced the concept of international technological dualism, by which he meant essentially unequal developments in the area of science, technology, between rich and poor countries” (James, 2004, p. 11-12). Today, the "rapidly growing disparities in the utilization, expenditure, and availability of technology" (Pick & Azari, 2008, p. 91) on a worldwide scale is known as the Global Digital Divide. The global digital divide involves "economic, educational, and social aspects" (Pick & Azari, p. 92) that influence the levels of information communication technology development in each country. A 2002 World Economic Forum report on the global digital divide found that, "88% of all Internet users are from industrialized countries that comprise only 15% of the world's population" (Pick & Azari, p. 93).

The Internet threatens to magnify the existing socioeconomic disparities, between those with access and those without, to levels unseen and untenable. Therefore, urgent actions are needed at the local, national, and international levels to bridge the global digital divide.

The global digital divide versus the digital divide

Within countries around the world there is a gap that exists among those that have access to information and communication technology (Azam, 2007), including computers and the Internet, and those that do not. This term has been coined the “digital divide”. In addition to access, it is noted that the ability to use these technologies, as well as find and produce relevant content, define the “digital divide” as well (Azam, 2007).

The "global digital divide" is distinguishable from the "digital divide", in that “Internet has developed unevenly throughout the world” (Guillen, M. F. & Suarez, S. L. 2005, p. 681) causing some countries to fall behind in technology, education, labor, democracy, and tourism. The concept of the “digital divide” was originally popularized with regard to the disparity in Internet access between rural and urban areas of the United States of America. The “global digital divide” relates to disparity among less developed nations from developed nations.Unlike the case in many classical economic analyses of income disparity, there is no claim in this case that the developed nations' advances in information and communication technologies (ICT) have fed off the labor or resources of developing nations. Conversely, there is generally no claim that developing nations are faring absolutely worse because developed nations are doing better.

The geographical divide

It is argued that developed nations with the resources to invest in and develop ICT infrastructure are reaping enormous benefits from the information age, while developing nations are trailing along at a much slower pace. This difference in rates of technological adoption has been blamed for widening the economic disparity between the most developed nations of the world (primarily Canadamarker, the United Statesmarker, Japanmarker, South Koreamarker, Western Europe and Australasia) and the underdeveloped and developing ones (primarily some Latin American countries, Africa, and Southeast Asia), thus creating a digital (that is, digitally-fostered) divide. 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.

Despite the explosive growth of the Internet access and use in developing countries, a disproportionate number of users are still concentrated in developed countries, especially the United States (Chen & Wellman, 2004, p. 40). The G8 countries (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the UK and the US) are home to almost 50% of the world’s total Internet users even though they had just 15% of the world’s population (WSIS, 2005, Did you know that…? Section). Discrepancies in international Internet bandwidth are even higher because developing countries often have to pay the high full cost of a link to a hub in a developed country (WSIS, 2005). For example, Denmark has more than twice the international Internet bandwidth that the whole of Latin American and the Caribbean combined (WSIS, 2005). Even within the Americas, it has its own North-South divide: the United States and Canada have roughly 6 times the Internet penetration rate of the countries of Central and South America and the Caribbean (WSIS, 2005, Americas section). Asia-Pacific region is the world’s most diverse region and it also has the most pronounced digital divide (WSIS, 2005, Asia-Pacific section). The Internet penetration ranges from below 1% in countries like Bangladesh, to above 65% in countries like Australia and Republic of Korea (WSIS, 2005, Asia-Pacific section). The top three countries in terms of broadband penetration were Republic of Korea, Hong Kong (China) and Netherlands in 2004 (WSIS, 2005).

The differences in the Internet penetration rate both within and between countries are contributed by socioeconomic, technological and linguistic factors (Chen & Wellman, 2004, p. 39). High costs, economic priorities, English language dominance, the lack of relevant content, the lack of technological support and disparity in literacy rate are some of the barriers for disadvantaged communities to be overcome (Foulger, 2001; Chen & Wellman, 2004). Appropriate public policies and regulatory frameworks in telecommunication, social resources, education and infrastructure are prerequisites for the developing countries to narrow the gap (Chen & Wellman, 2004; WSIS, 2008). In some countries, the digital divide is even deepening even as the number of Internet users increases because the newcomers to the Internet are demographically similar to those already online. The disadvantaged social groups or nations may be increasingly excluded from knowledge based societies and economies and continued to be affected by the social inequality (Chen & Wellness, 2004).

The promise and potential of the Internet

The Internet has been hailed as a “great equalizer” (Brynjolfsson and Smith 2000),” allowing the smallest of businesses to access markets and have a presence that allows them to compete against the giants of their industry (Borland, 1998). It is also a revolutionary technological tool that enables efficient transfer of information on a global scale. This global information could be used for international trade, online digital libraries, online education, telemedicine, e-government and many other applications that would solve vital problems in the developing world. Norris states that, “in poorer villages and isolated communities, a well-placed computer, like a communal well or an irrigation pump, may become another development tool, providing essential information about storm warnings and crop prices for farmers, or medical services and legal land records for villagers” (Norris, 2001, p. 40).

The fundamental commonality of this class of problems is the realization that the developed nations have in abundance many of the resources that the developing ones could use to solve some of their problems, but geographical, political, philosophical, ideological, and cultural barriers exist that make it difficult or impossible for these solutions to be transferred effectively.

Sources of widespread public information such as broadcast television, telephone services, educational institutions and public libraries are considered a norm in developed countries. In developing countries, however, these modes of communication and information sources are not easily accessible. This limits citizens’ ability to gather information and coordinate with each other to solve their problems. The Internet’s ability to promote the efficient dissemination of information promises huge improvements to internal communications in and among developing countries.

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 healthcare. 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.
  • Financial Access
The cost of ICT applications, technician and educator training, software, maintenance and infrastructures require ongoing financial support.
  • 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.
  • Content Access
It is thought that, “Most of the Internet’s content is written in rather academic or business style and thus is not directly applicable at the grassroots level” (Rahman, 2005, p. 129). Another type of content access is language as most of the content available on the Internet is in English.
  • Production Access
Wilson (2004) states, “To be truly sophisticated and fluent in the emerging broadband, interactive environment, users need the confidence and capacity to be able to produce their own content for their own local consumption” (p. 302).
  • 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).

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:


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.

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. Grammen 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 Technologymarker, 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, installed and donated computer setups in greater Bostonmarker, Massachusettsmarker, Kenyamarker, Indian reservations the American Southwest such as the Navajo Nation, the Middle East, and Fiji Islandsmarker. The CommuniTech project strives to empower underserved communities through sustainable technology and education.

Other examples include:

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. 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.

See also


  1. Lu, Ming-te (2001). Digital divide in developing countries. Journal of Global Information Technology Management (4:3), pp. 1-4.
  2. Cf. Fizz and Mansur, MIT Tech Talk, June 4, 2008
  3. IMARA Project at MIT
  4. Boston Digital Bridge Foundation


  • 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.
  • Chen, W. & Wellman, B. (2004) The global digital divide within and between countries. IT & Society, 1(7), 39-45.
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  • 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.
  • Madon, S., Reinhard, N., Roode, D., & Walsham, G. (2007). Digital inclusion projects in developing countries: Processes of institutionalization. Paper presented at the The Proceedings of the 9th International Conference on Social Implications of Computers in Developing Countries. Retrieved July 13, 2009 from

  • 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.
  • 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
  • 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

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