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The Internet, the network of networks, is about connecting. It is about sharing and accessing information. Or is it?

In the last few decades, information and communication technologies revolutionized the world of communication to the point at which we often refer to an information society in discussing our modern social and technological structure. Many of us — digital literates living in developed countries — regularly experience the Internet as the groundbreaking forefront of a digital revolution. The Internet enables me to communicate for free with friends and family who live across Europe. It makes it easy to order food while streaming a movie in the comfort of my living room. It helps my students to access articles and books without having to physically wander through the aisles at the library. More importantly, the Internet is a powerful tool able to ease public and political participation, and to facilitate the circulation of information enabling the spawning of revolutionary movements, such as the Arab Springs. In this sense, the Internet may be an important vehicle for free speech that contributes to the well being of a democratic society. In this sense, we may agree, the Internet is indeed a revolutionary tool. But who is benefiting from such a revolution? Also, the Internet is often described as a globally distributed, decentralized, democratic and non-hierarchical network. But, is it?

In 2012there were approximately 2.4 billion Internet users — roughly 34 percent of the world population, meaning that the remaining 66 percent of the world was digitally excluded. In other words, 5.6 billion people never had the chance to access the Internet. They never had the luxury to browse the Web searching for information. They never enjoyed the opportunity to talk for free to their loved ones thousands of miles away. If we think of the Internet in terms of digital inclusion and digital exclusion, then our perception and understanding of today’s digital revolution might assume slightly different features.

We, in the developed Western world, do not consider access to technology as a luxury good. To us, digital technology is an essential tool of social participation that may fundamentally influence human relationships. We use the Internet to craft our own networks. We share and search for information. We participate in blog activities. We update wikis. We post reviews. We access and build knowledge. We connect and interact. In one word, we access, turning the Web into a reflexive medium of cognition, communication, and cooperation where users take on a crucial responsibility. These fundamental components contribute to building, understanding, reinterpreting, and constantly reshaping the Web. And yet, 5.6 billion people do not have such a power.

What does this mean for the digitally excluded? It means unpaired access to information and knowledge, lack of technological literacy, disadvantage in the job market and weakness of social and political participation. It means having fewer sources of inspiration. Less freedom to connect, share, speak up and be active members of today’s information society. If the Internet is a necessary tool for social connection, an important instrument for public participation and civic engagement, and a basic component that may facilitate democracy, then it should also be considered a fundamental human right rather than a luxury good. Digital exclusion, in 2013, is a socially constructed disability that affects two out of three people.

The Web is pervading human life. It conveys and re-creates knowledge, questioning values and bringing conflicts between fundamental rights such as intellectual property and freedom of speech. The growth of information technology generates and enhances a number of important ethical issues. Among those, the ethics of digital access become even more problematic as the Internet is a constant presence in our lives. By now, to the digital included, accessing the Web means, literally, existing in the real world. Our needs are increasingly addressed through digital icons such as national insurance numbers, bank accounts and credit cards. We increasingly share sociality and personal growth through mediated practices that oftentimes cross social media platforms. These digital footprints are essential for us to be considered — or to consider ourselves — part of the “real world.” Lacking a digital presence, to many of us, means risk becoming invisible “non citizens.” Does our presence on social network sites or on online communities affect our likeness of having offline friends, communities and social skills? Perhaps not. But the Web is a unique domain that may facilitate access to a potentially globalized social environment. Online networks can be small and intimate or broad and impersonal, and they can impact our social settings in a variety of ways. Considering these premises, is the price of being excluded from the network socially acceptable? Should the Internet still be considered a luxury good?

In the information society, digital access includes three major components. First, we must have access to the technology — a computer or a smartphone to connect. Second, we must have access to the information itself — news stories, forums or blogs. And third, we must have adequate literacy to deal with the information we access — which often means technical literacy as well as language proficiency as the vast majority of documents are in English. Access, in other words, is a layered argument. It has to do with technical skills and with the understanding of the potentialities of the Internet. But it also relates to the selective spread of technological innovation. Alas, source inequality is an inherent (and unethical) feature of the Internet. Education and economic systems are crucial components of access. Western countries invest huge capital in digital information technology. With large investments frequently comes a focus on profit. The ethics of access, unfortunately, is often left aside as nonprofitable. Habitually, educational media are not accounted for in the financial agenda of information technology.

Perhaps, then, the Internet may not always be considered an instrument of democracy. The Internet, in fact, can be a channel of discrimination and power inequality. It can be a tool for oppression and control. The Internet can — and often does — enhance the disparities between rich and poor. Access to knowledge and information is often directly related to success in the job market. The Internet can stimulate the growth of dominant cultures against diversity. But, undoubtedly, the Internet also has an inherent democratizing potential. Granting access would be a first step toward the fulfillment of such a potential. Democratization, in other words, would mean making the Internet accessible worldwide, fighting the information gap and the digital divide. It would mean contributing to the spread of the wealth of information by increasing literacy, practical training and technical access.

Needless to say, digital inclusion is a complex issue. It entails physical access to computers, electricity, Internet connection and bandwidth. It entails technical literacy. It entails the ability to use and perhaps reinterpret, reshape, and renegotiate the content, or the infrastructure, or both. It entails fighting against discrimination and power inequalities.

A first important step toward supporting access would be asking our governments to build sustainable infrastructures dedicated to the economically impaired and, perhaps, to compel powerful online companies — who are enormously benefiting from the digital revolution — to invest part of their profits in boosting digital inclusion. This would involve the creation of centers where the digitally excluded could have access to technology and to quality education to become informed and skilled digital citizens. Where they could build connections, enjoying the benefits of online and offline social networks. Where they could receive quality education to learn how to access the Web more effectively, how to create content, how to improve their knowledge, how to become proficient and connected digital citizens. Some of these centers have begun to surface. Many have proven proficient. Unfortunately, these initiatives are still peripheral phenomena.

The challenge is crucial and complex. But developing and supporting educational structures that facilitate digital access is fundamental for the future of the Web, for fully developing its potential to become a powerful and unprecedented democratizing tool and, perhaps, to start making the world a better and more inclusive place.

Federica Fornaciari

Federica Federica Fornaciari is a Ph.D candidate in Communication and an IGERT fellow in Electronic Security and Privacy at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Reach her at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @fedefo.

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