The internet was supposed to be an equalizing force, but instead, accessibility barriers threaten to make the world even more unequal.
To bridge the digital divide we need to build resource-light, decentralized, community-owned tools and platforms.
The big, open secret of the web is that it’s not democratic at all. In fact, it’s a tale of two classes – the haves, and the have nots.
Although this is well known, it tends to get forgotten; in sectors from app development to government service provision, decisions get made and products are built on the assumption that “everyone” is online. That assumption is hugely problematic.
In fact, the digital divide exists across the globe, as well as within countries. It’s geographical, cultural and social, and it deepens existing exclusions across the board.
This means that we can’t effectively address inequality on any front without addressing internet inequality; and within the tech industry, we should all be factoring this issue into the design.
Because through our choices, we often make things worse, when we could be making them better.
It’s about basic human rights
Internet accessibility is a fundamental human rights issue. That’s quite clear from Article 19 of the UN’s Declaration of Human Rights (the right “to seek, receive and impart information and ideas”), and a recent UN resolution foregrounds the crucial issues of the digital divide and the internet shutdowns.
These two topics are growing in urgency because on the one hand, the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated inequalities, and on the other, governments are increasingly resorting to shutdowns as a weapon in their arsenals of repression.
Let’s start with the effects of the pandemic. Much has been made of the way in which Covid turbo-boosted digitalization of our ways of working, learning, shopping and connecting with others.
This brings many benefits for those who can take their internet connection for granted – but when business and government activity move online, who is left behind?
From contact tracing to Covid certificates, many government tactics to manage the pandemic have depended heavily on internet access (and the ubiquity of mobile devices).
But nearly half of the world is not online. Even in the developed world, lack of high-speed internet access affects 6% of US households (mainly in rural areas); in Australia, it’s 13%.
In a world made for broadband, speed matters. Having a slow internet connection makes it impossible to make use of remote learning and working tools, or access telehealth services, or to run an online business.
In poorer and less developed countries of course the barriers are higher; for many households, the prohibitive cost of computers, mobile devices and even mobile data keeps them offline.
There’s also a significant skills gap, with populations lacking the confidence or ability to use digital devices effectively, not to mention a language barrier.
In any society with limited connectivity, access is not evenly distributed, but rather serves to deepen existing divides. In less developed countries, Covid has turned the problem into a crisis.
Remote work, already a luxury available only to white collar workers, is impossible without a reliably connected workforce.
Remote learning disadvantages the majority of children who do not have home internet access. And how can you spread the information needed to fight a pandemic if only a fifth of your population is online?
Save lives – or put them at risk
Four years ago, the former Rwandan minister for health called for recognition of the life-saving power of social media – its vital role in disaster response, information campaigns and development, connecting and lifting up rural populations.
But none of that works if the population can’t access social media in the first place. And beyond infrastructure issues, there is the problem of repression.
Having a computer, and a broadband connection, still isn’t any use if your government decides to switch off the internet. Think that can’t happen? It is happening frequently.
Between January and May this year, digital rights organization Access Now recorded at least 50 government-backed shutdowns.
As you might expect, these shutdowns are closely linked to repressive regimes – they are both a warning sign and a symptom. Governments frequently cut internet access ahead of elections, or at times of protest, or in conflict zones.
Doing so thwarts attempts to organize rebellion, but also quashes attempts to spread word of outbreaks of violence, with life-threatening effects.
Many shutdowns target individual platforms such as Facebook, rather than entire networks, but the result can be devastating either way; as we saw when Facebook’s apps went down globally for just a few hours, the knock-on effects were enormous. If the social internet can be a powerful force for good, shutting it down is a terrifying force for evil.
There now exist powerful tools available to counter these attacks on freedom. One such is decentralization.
As governments aim to control online participation without losing out on the economic benefits of the internet, they often target specific platforms; but it’s much harder to shut off a network when there isn’t a single point to attack.
Decentralized, community-owned networks can provide vulnerable populations with a way to access and share information that is less vulnerable to government censorship or shutdown.
If we are to create an internet that is truly open to all, therefore, it should be decentralized. It should also allow people to be anonymous and protective of their privacy – anything less leaves marginalized people vulnerable to government and personal harassment.
We need to learn from the cautionary tale of Web2; centralized platforms inevitably led to a concentration of power that left web users at the mercy of tech giants, with the profit motive taking precedence over every other consideration, even user safety.
Let’s take back control
As the internet continues to grow, its path should not be left solely in control of the private sector.
While the invisible hand has increased the size of the pie, it inevitably produces losers as well as winners and, to date, there has not been a very palatable or effective system for redistribution.
However, the advent of decentralized technology demands that we re-examine how markets work. Building a decentralized internet can break down barriers to entry for those who understand it, reshaping the average person’s relationship with capital and entrenched business practices.
Tech companies whose strategies depend on locking customers in will have to adjust to the idea that dissatisfied consumers are increasingly being presented with alternatives for their services.
Freedom of choice is a powerful force, and the weather is shifting; the tech giants are finding that their poor judgment calls have consequences.
Although most users didn’t delete WhatsApp after January’s privacy outcry, they certainly did realize that they had other options, and started to use them; the messaging service is no longer the most popular Android communications app, having lost that spot to the independent, ad-free, privacy-focused service Telegram.
Similar outrage over intrusive photo scanning has forced Apple to hit pause on that new iPhone feature. As we continue to build tools for customers to move out of the established ecosystems, the realization that we get to make decisions based on our own net benefit calculations will only grow.
By the time everyone in the world is connected, decentralization – with concomitant freedom from any powerful, central company – will have become the rule, rather than the exception.
The times ahead may be tumultuous, as the universe of technological possibilities changes once again. That’s a good thing.
This time, there is the means to grow the pie and for all of us to take a piece for ourselves. Building a decentralized internet by design means that, for the first time, we hold the tools to fashion an economically inclusive world.
In reshaping the tech world we can create services that are resource-light, accessible and community-owned, as well as powerful and clever.
Web creator Tim Berners-Lee has described the centralization trend as “anti-human”; he’s one of those working on a new, decentralized paradigm that lifts people up while bringing them online.
As tech becomes ever more deeply embedded in our society and our lived experience, it has more power than ever to improve lives and increase freedoms – if we design with care.
Stephanie So is an economist, policy analyst and co-founder of Geeq.
Throughout her career, she has applied technology within her specialist disciplines. In 2001, she was the first to use machine learning on social science data at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications.
More recently, she researched the use of distributed networking processes in healthcare and patient safety in her role as a Senior Lecturer at Vanderbilt University.
Stephanie is a graduate of Princeton University (A.B.) and the University of Rochester (M.A., M.S., Ph.D).