When the first phase of the World Summit on the Information Society convened in Geneva in 2003, representatives from international public and private organizations adopted the “Declaration of Principles” in response to the growing development and use of information technology in the world.
The declaration summarizes the purpose of the summit, which was to address the goals and the challenges of building and maintaining an information society for all based on shared knowledge. The participants committed to strengthening cooperation to realize the vision of an inclusive information society that upholds the key principles detailed in the document. A few of these key principles include maintaining cultural diversity and identity, and addressing ethical and legal dimensions.
Of the many aspirations enumerated at the summit, and keeping in mind the history and purpose of the summit, I feel that it is most important to bridge the digital divide. The summit emphasizes the inclusiveness of the global information society, yet we are not being inclusive unless we bridge the digital divide and accept participants and ideas from all around the world. Ironically, I think bridging this gap is also the biggest obstacle to achieving the global information society the declaration describes.
Bridging the digital divide requires a multidisciplinary approach that addresses the economic, social, political, health, cultural, educational, and scientific differences in each country or location. As detailed by ‘B3) Access to information and knowledge’ in the document, the barriers to equal access of this information must first be removed, but there are so many barriers that are all different and need to be addressed on a case-by-case basis. We need to formulate numerous multidisciplinary models to even begin dreaming of bridging the divide.
One fundamental step to bridging the digital divide is to bring up literacy rate around the world. This article by Edwyn James in the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) Observer details why it is not enough to just give the world a phone and a computer. Digital literacy is important as well. This will improve individuals and allow them to participate in the information society. After all, what is the point of having the Internet or having a cell phone if you cannot use it because you cannot read, write, or speak? According to the figure below, low literacy rate is localized in many poorer locations around the world. These may be the places to start bridging the literacy gap first.
In addition to improving individuals so they can become active participants, it is also imperative to educate people about and change their attitudes toward the information society. In places where even mere survival is an issue, people will care less about communication and socializing, let alone participating in an information society. In addition, we need to do this in such a way that it can still mesh in with their culture.
Although I’ve said that solutions to bridging the digital divide will differ on a case-by-case basis, I also recognize that that in itself creates a problem. The problem lies in standardization (item B6.44), which the “Declaration of Principles” states is one of the essential building blocks of the information society. It also states that, “There should be particular emphasis on the development and adoption of international standards. The development and use of open, interoperable, non-discriminatory and demand-driven standards that take into account needs of users and consumers is a basic element for the development and greater diffusion of ICTs and more affordable access to them, particularly in developing countries.” It will be hard to standardize since the process of bridging the divide in each case is different.
Additionally, bridging the digital divide allows more people to access the global information society. As we allow more people in, more security will be needed. We will need new ways of protecting users and recognize that different kinds of users need different levels/kinds of protection.
We see that though bridging the divide is the most important aspiration to achieve, it is also the most difficult obstacle to overcome since it is so multifaceted and leads to a whole host of other problems in standardization and security. The next step is to group and prioritize all these issues in order to take reasonable measures that are socially optimal.