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What is digital equity?

Two-thirds of the world’s population uses the Internet, but 2.7 billion people remain offline. This means that one in three people cannot benefit from the economic, educational, political, social and health potential of being connected. This article explores the concept of digital equity and its significance in today’s interconnected world. It delves into the definition of digital equity, its importance, the relationship between digital access and equity, the causes of digital inequities, the digital divide concept, the consequences of digital inequity, and strategies to bridge the gap and improve digital equity.  

What is digital equity?

Digital equity refers to the state where every person and community has the necessary information technology resources to participate in society, democracy, and the economy fully. The term encompasses not only access to devices and the Internet, but also the ability to use and benefit from them effectively. According to National Digital Inclusion Alliance, it is crucial for active involvement in civic and cultural affairs, employment, continuous learning, and access to vital services.

Why is digital equity important?

Having digital equity means that everyone has equal access to information, education, job opportunities, healthcare services, and civic engagement platforms. This fosters inclusivity, promotes social and economic justice, and helps individuals thrive in a technology-driven society. Without digital equity, marginalized communities may be left behind, worsening existing disparities and hindering social progress.

Causes of digital inequities

The following list is not exhaustive and draws on various sources, including studies by the International Telecommunications Union (2020), United Nations (2019), Robinson et al. (2015) and DiMaggio et al. (2004) that have explored barriers to digital equity.

  1. Income: Technology use rates increase with higher family income levels, as affordability can be a barrier for low-income individuals and families. Both within and across countries, lower incomes correlate with lower rates of Internet use.
  1. Region and place of residence: Disparities in digital access exist between urban and rural areas or regions where infrastructure and connectivity may be limited in specific locations. As of 2022, 82% of people living in urban areas across the world are using the Internet, which is 1.8 times higher than the percentage of Internet users in rural areas.
  1. Employment status: Employed individuals may have better access to digital technologies and resources than those who are unemployed or underemployed. In addition, digitally disadvantaged workers and entrepreneurs face barriers to full participation in the economy that their more digitally advantaged peers do not confront.
  1. Age: Older individuals may face challenges in adopting new technologies and may have lower digital literacy skills, which can contribute to the digital divide. Studies have shown that up to 27% of the older urban population lacks internet connectivity.
    Some initiatives are intended to help reduce barriers. For example, the Internet Society Foundation funded United Way the Netherlands to implement the Joining Forces project that connected 300 elderly individuals and 300 refugees through technology.
  1. Gender: Gender-based disparities in digital access and use can exist, although the extent of these disparities varies by country and context. On average, women are less likely to use the Internet than men. Men are 21% more likely to be online than women globally, rising to 52% in Least Developed Countries.
    Our grantee The Alliance for Affordable Internet found that countries have missed out on $1 trillion USD in GDP as a result of women’s exclusion in the digital world.
  1. Education: In 40% of countries reporting data, less than 40% of individuals reported being able to carry out a digital activity considered a “basic” information communication technology (ICT) skill.
    In addition, higher levels of education are often associated with higher rates of Internet use and digital skills. Limited educational opportunities can hinder access to technology and digital literacy.
    Our Grant Program SCILLS, aims to contribute to economic inclusion and increase educational opportunities by supporting individuals and communities to more knowledgeably and skillfully use the Internet.
  1. Race-ethnicity: Internet access and usage disparities exist among racial and ethnic groups. Factors such as income and education contribute to these disparities, but differences in Internet use persist even when controlling for those factors. In addition, digital inequalities often augment racial and ethnic disparities because of the economic division between the Global North and the Global South.
  1. Language: Language barriers can hinder access to digital resources, especially for non-native speakers who may struggle to navigate interfaces and find relevant content.
    Our grantee Pollicy conducted a study about experiences and challenges that non-English speakers face online, focusing on access, usability and safety issues.
  1. Disability: Inadequate accessibility features and accommodations in digital tools and platforms can hinder individuals with disabilities from fully participating in the digital space.

Published first time at ISOC Foundation.

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