As the world becomes increasingly digital, the concept of the “digital divide” is more relevant than ever. This term refers to the disparity between those who have access to technology and those who do not. This gap can have a significant impact on people’s lives, especially when it comes to accessing important information and opportunities.
For those living in affluent areas where broadband internet is a matter of course, the discussion revolves around the use of emerging tools such as ChatGPT to increase productivity and attempts to limit screen time. In areas saturated with digital technologies and connectivity, human contact can now be seen as aluxury goodwhere those who can afford it choose not to have their data sold and sell their attention as a product.
For others, however, the inability to use the Internet renders access to many services inaccessible. A report on the digital divide in the US reveals major differences between U.S. states regarding accessibility to Internet services, digital adoption, and usage. Access to telehealth, online banking and distance education is hampered by the lack of digital access, exacerbating inequality and historical injustice. For example, the report found that nearly half of Americans without internet were living in black and Hispanic households at home.
While investing in internet infrastructure is essential to bridge this gap, infrastructure alone does not necessarily translate into digital adoption and beneficial use. Here, technology companies have the potential to make good use of their power. From mobile banking applications that give unbanked people access to financial resources to web applications that help people connect globally, technology companies can play a role in advancing digital inclusion. The latest results of the World Benchmarking Alliance (WBA) Digital Inclusion Benchmark.however, show that less than 14% of the world’s largest technology companies are achieving digital inclusion.
After assessing 200 technology companies from around the world, examining whether they enable greater access to digital technologies, improve digital skills, reduce usage risk and ensure inclusive and ethical innovation, the WBA findings show that only 27 of the 200 companies a score of at least 50% on the most important criteria.
“It’s not enough to just look at access or potential access to the Internet,” said Pauliina Murphy, Director of Engagement & Communications for the World Benchmarking Alliance. “Companies need to look at the holistic view of what it takes to be digitally inclusive.”
The best performing companies in the benchmark were Telefonica, Orange, Deutsche Telekom, Apple and Microsoft, all of which demonstrated a clear commitment to data privacy and child protection. They publicize what they are doing, carry out impact assessments to understand the risks and try to fill the gaps, for example by setting up skills programs for women and girls. In short, “companies that demonstrate a clear commitment to protecting human rights, respecting decent work and acting ethically are better at digital inclusion.
“Voluntary disclosure of social performance is a great starting point for many companies looking to become more digitally inclusive,” explains Murphy. Disclosure enables companies to engage with stakeholders, such as investors, employees and customers, to identify relevant issues for the company to focus on and make an impact. At the same time, companies need to pay extra attention to engaging and listening to the needs of vulnerable and marginalized populations in developing countries, who currently have the least access to digital.
Bridging the digital divide requires a multifaceted approach. We need to address the practical barriers to entry while exploring the wider cultural and societal factors that contribute to the gap. By taking a more holistic approach, there is an opportunity to create a more digitally just and inclusive society.