This article was first published in the Mint newspaper on September 6, 2015.
The world has come a long way since 1995, when the Internet was introduced in India, and since 2003, when the UN General Assembly held the first of the two World Summits on the Information Society (popularly known as WSIS) in Geneva.
The second WSIS was held in Tunis in 2005. The call of the WSIS was pretty simple: to work towards making an information society where every person is part of the connected world, and as much as possible overcome the digital divide and enable a digitally inclusive society.
After more than two decades of Internet, 60% of the world continues to be on the wrong side of the digital divide—the number of Internet users has reached only 3.2 billion in 2015 from 1 billion in 2005 when the second WSIS was held in Tunis.
As far as the WSIS is concerned, its function nowadays is to review what has been the status, impact and spread of the information society. In that regard, it has also opened up for submissions from various stakeholders, including government, business, civil society, academia and international organizations.
It is a matter of how one looks at the emergence and progress of the information society. If I have to explain in one line, I would say that WSIS and all such efforts have failed to make an even information society. Under the mirage of the success of the information society, we have made half the world digitally excluded.
I was a newbie in 2003 when I attended the WSIS in Geneva. The organization that we had founded was still without much activity. Time progressed, and in the past 12 years, we as an organization have digitally empowered about a million people either through digital literacy or through getting them connected or by reaching out to them to be affected positively by digital intervention.
Last week, India achieved 350 million Internet users, which is hard to believe; but even if it is true, more than 72% people in India are still not part of the integrated information society.
Let’s look even more deeply at the wrong side of the digital divide or the information society.
According to various figures, 60-70% of the world population is yet to be connected. And those who are left to be connected, or who are on the wrong side of the digital divide… they are poor, marginalized, underserved; they live in inaccessible areas; they are tribals, backward class, socioeconomically backward, disabled, mostly women; and they all belong to underdeveloped or developing countries.
In other words, the poor are still poor and they are now further marginalized—digitally. Incidentally, this digital exclusion is hurting them because their earlier existing offline system of accessing information and rights have now been gradually monopolised online, which does not even exist for them.
Last week, I had this paradoxical experience: I was travelling in the deepest part of the tribal district of Baran in Rajasthan where bonded labour is still in practice, and tribes such as Bheel and Sahariya communities have been serving landlords and big farmers for generations. Here, we have established 11 digitally-enabled community information resource centres, resulting in enabling thousands of tribal communities as part of the information society.
Yet, in between villages, I met several of them oblivious of the Internet, ignorant that the Internet is the only place where they may find public entitlement information, or that digital is the only way they can get an Aadhaar number, and thus their identity. I thought what would be an Internet Ecosystem of Poor People—one such person asked me: “What’s Internet; can I see it some time; and can I grow it in my field?”
Followed by this drastic experience of digital exclusion in the villages of Baran, I had to attend a meeting in Pattaya, near Bangkok in Thailand, which was titled Asian Regional Consultation on the WSIS+10 Review. More than 50 individuals from 29 organizations and 15 countries from the Asia-Pacific had gathered in a beautiful beach hotel discussing what has been the journey of WSIS so far and where it should be focusing.
The charged atmosphere of the room and its discussants, for a change, reviewed the entire progress of the information society and walked themselves assuming they were in a remote location and not connected—how would that feel?
As a result, this group of people took a serious note of how WSIS and the progress of the Internet has been heavily influenced by the business community and the result of the information society has been mostly commercial and corporatized.
The Pattaya meeting also took a serious note of how the Internet and all efforts to fight the digital divide have resulted in a huge population that has been trapped by digital exclusion resulting in violation of their basic rights and access.
The Pattaya group strongly suggested to WSIS and the UN General Assembly that the next focus of global community should be primarily on connecting the next billion and the stress should be on those digitally excluded.
The people who are not connected and are suffering from a life of exclusion must get serious attention through the efforts of governments, industry, civil society and academia.
Thankfully, the WSIS+10 Review in its own non-paper, which was made public late last week, mentions: “…digital divides remain, both within and between countries. There is a risk that these divides will widen as technology and services evolve, and as the speed and quality of connectivity become more important, particularly with the evolution of broadband, which is now essential for achieving sustainable development.”
Osama Manzar is founder-director of Digital Empowerment Foundation and chair of Manthan & mBillionth awards. He serves on the board of World Summit Award formed under WSIS framework in 2003. Tweet him @osamamanzar