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<nettime> Why I'm Giving Up on the Digital Divide
Michael Gurstein on Thu, 16 Apr 2015 06:20:17 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Why I'm Giving Up on the Digital Divide

Folks might find this of interest (and comments are of course welcome?


Why I?m Giving Up on the Digital?Divide 

I?ve spent much of my working life engaging in one way or another with what
is generally termed the ?Digital Divide? (defined as the ?divide between
those who have Internet access and those who do not?).

The broad area in which I work and which I have contributed to building ?
Community Informatics ? arguably had its origins and its development framed
by the concepts of the ?Digital Divide? (DD); and in particular through the
Community Informatics challenge to those concerned with the DD to address
issues of ?effective use? of the Internet as a means to achieve community
enablement and empowerment beyond the simple availability of ?access?.

However, of late I?ve begun questioning whether the notion of the DD is any
longer of value. I?ve begun to wonder whether the continuing visibility and
attention being given to the DD even after 20 or so years may in fact be a
diversion and distraction from the broader issues of social equity and
social justice that energized my own involvement with Community Informatics.
What is interesting of course, is that the DD and ?access? discussion which
has been around since almost the very beginnings of the public Internet, is
still so seemingly active and pressing and is apparently such a
pre-occupation and priority at least at the pro-forma level in the variety
of forums currently attempting to engage with Global Internet Governance
issues. Surely everything that could possibly be said and advocated in this
area has already been said and repeatedly over many years and with many
??????? 10. The importance of access to open, secure and stable
communication infrastructures around the?world was stressed. It is of equal
importance that developing countries can fully connect to the internet
economy. Delegates underlined the importance to include the need for
universal Internet access in the post 2015 agenda.
(DRAFT Chairperson?s Statement GLOBAL CONFERENCE ON CYBERSPACE 2015, the
Hague, Netherlands)

he problem in ?overcoming the DD? surely isn?t a matter of awareness raising
or information sharing as seems to be the only objective and possible
outcome for these events. In fact most of these discussions are of the ?feel
good? form of ritual incantations meant more to indicate a general aura of
sympathy for an issue via the the conference, panel, Commission, or whatever
than any intention of actually engaging in meaningful action or committing
to resource consuming outputs.

Simply repeating the desirability of overcoming the DD for advantaging the
rural and the poor, enhancing the position of Less Developed Countries,
gender equality, etc. etc. without at the same time tackling how these
social objectives will in practice be achieved (moving, as Community
Informatics has been arguing for some 20 years from ?access? to ?effective
use?) may give oneself and one?s constituencies the satisfaction of being on
the side of the angels, but accomplishes little if anything.

And surely after 20 years of unrelenting rhetorical attacks on the DD it
might be time for people of good-will to declare victory and move on,
recognizing the DD approach for what it is?a fine ?cyber? example of the
?welfare dependency model?, where we beneficent and generous (rich and from
the global North) folks are going to give those poor and needy people living
on the ?other side of the Digital Divide? some sort of (pale and poorly
equipped) version of the Internet in return for which they will be suitably
and demonstrably grateful and in our eternal (figurative or even quite
material) debt).

Further having done this, having passed the pre-canned resolution, included
the standard paragraph in the outcome document, taken the necessary bow in
the direction of social concern?the attitude is clearly ?can we now get on
to the serious matters at hand? which of course have nothing to do with
ensuring that poor people or even those of us who aren?t on one or another
of the various Internet gravy trains get a fair shake out of the Internet.

The challenges to overcome the DD have been significantly, even wildly,
successful. From a standing start some 20 or so years ago there are now in
excess of 3.1 billion individuals able to access (if not ?effectively use?)
the current Internet. Perhaps of even more importance, issues of Internet
access (but again not of use) are being taken up by significant corporate
and governmental forces (both national and inter-governmental).

Companies such as Facebook and Google are in the process of launching and
implementing innovative infrastructure oriented projects (involving
balloons, drones, cabling etc.) to increase those numbers into the next
billions. Their intent of course, is not idealistic but rather a clear
recognition that they benefit significantly from the ?network effect?.? The
more people with internet access the better will be their advertising and
data/information capture/resale businesses even if those numbers include
among the poorest and most remote who equally can be mined for data and
micro-revenues both now and for the future. This evidently is sufficient to
justify the infrastructure investments that these companies reportedly are

Certain governments, notably the US also see extending connectivity as being
in their geo-political and economic interests by tying ever wider swathes of
humanity into their version of Internet promulgated values such as ?Internet
Freedom?, providing them and their ideological spin-meisters and spooks an
unchecked pipeline into (and out of) the inner thoughts and actions of
whoever in the world might be of interest, and in-passing of course, giving
a very significant leg up to US dominated e-commerce activities. (An even
casual observation of how the US has attempted in the past and is now
promoting at full steam the extension of Internet ?access? into Cuba as a
platform for extending various forms of control errr ?Internet Freedoms?
into the very heart of its erstwhile enemy, is a very revealing window on
the underlying intention of these processes.)

And as well it is hard to a find a country anywhere that hasn?t bought into
the meme promoted by the USG, the Internet corporations and the various
global commissions and think tanks?that only through the broadest base of
Internet (and particularly broadband) connectivity can their citizens
progress and become sufficiently ?innovative? to survive economically in the
21st century. The effect of this is that country after country having
privatized their telecommunications systems have been in the process of
creating for the emerging Internet infrastructure, platform and service
providers (particularly mobile operators) highly concessionary tax and
spectrum costing regimes all in the name of extending access and thus
promoting ?innovation?.

While certainly there are issues in how (and where) these corporate and
government driven anti-DD processes are being deployed (and particularly in
such things as Facebook?s zero rating initiatives), it should be recognized
that the scale of resources and the direction of much of this investment
particularly in broadband and mobile infrastructure is quite consistent with
the arguments promoting simple, passive, one way ?access? to the Internet
(for ensuring the widest possible numbers of potential e-consumers) that has
been the agenda for so many DD warriors for decades.

Nothing wrong with all that, but sigh, since we?ve heard it all so many
times before what is the point of repeating the bland DD generalities at the
Internet Governance Forum (IGF) or the NetMundial Initiative (NMI) one more

Hmmm? maybe given the pervasiveness of the rhetoric and sheer numbers of the
empty pro forma pronouncements something else might be going on. When the
IGF and the NMI take on the DD as priorities could it be that the corporate
sector and the Developed Country governments which dominate these forums are
trying to fill the Internet policy space and the Internet policy agenda?s of
sympathetic governments, civil society and people of good will with an
active misdirection?a distraction pointing in one direction while making
sure that we don?t look in another.

In fact, given the studied avoidance (and even, it has been rumoured) active
suppression of divergent approaches to the discussion of social equity
issues in, for example, the IGF it would appear that the Internet policy
establishment is hoping to avoid for as long possible addressing the
emergent and rather more politically explosive issues concerning social
justice on the Internet having to do with how the benefits (and costs) of
Internet use are being distributed and mal-apportioned within societies and
between nations globally.

There is a clear reluctance to address the critical social and social
justice issues emerging out of the enormous transformative drive of the
Internet?accelerating income inequality, Internet supported loss of ?good
jobs?, the mad rush to the bottom in a range of employment areas which are
shifting to the global Internet platforms, the loss of health and safety
protections in the newly emerging forms of employment contracting, tax
dodging by companies such as Google and Apple, growing gaps between Internet
haves and have not?s in Developing countries and Developed countries alike.
In place of confronting these issues discussions are being
directed/re-directed to the endless repetitive discussions of ?access? and
the DD which in the cold light of day have the clear appearance of being
direct supports for and subsidies to the Google, Facebook, and Amazon
business models and to the drive for neo-liberal ideological and policy
dominance from the US State Department and its allies in the OECD and

So please, can we once and for all drop the DD posturing and either address
the real issues of social justice that are emerging in, on and through the
Internet or be transparent with the obvious reality that the Internet
overlords and their academic, technical community and civil society
hirelings want nothing more in their various gatherings and pronouncements,
than to get on with the business of figuring out how to make the rich richer
and the rest of us grin and bear it while thanking the 1% for the privilege.

BTW, for anyone who is interested, while the DD model of extending Internet
access was a poor substitute for really enabling communities with the
Internet even in the early days (as multiple failed top down community
internet projects can attest) a new model of bottom-up, self-directed, mesh
wifi community networking and Internet access is spreading rapidly
throughout remote parts of Europe and elsewhere, The basis of this model was
pioneered in certain parts of remote and rural Spain where commercial
companies refused to go because it was unprofitable. The model links
community members to community members, providing a sophisticated but easy
to install and maintain technology platform, while putting in place a
collaborative/cooperative governance structure. The system has since been
evolving towards resolving the DD through grassroots based collaborative and
cooperative mesh networks and without either the (welfarist) dependency of
most DD programs or the consumer lock-in of the commercial Internet
infrastructure developments.

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