Most of the world still can't get online, and it's making inequality worse
But not all of us get to live so well off the fat of the World Wide Web. According to a report released Wednesday by the World Bank, 60 percent of the world's population is still excluded from the dividends of the digital economy.
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Access to the Internet has tripled since 2005, but four billion people, mostly folks in the developing world, still aren't able to get online, even a dial-up speeds or on slow mobile connections. As a result, well-off, highly skilled, and influential people—the folks who freak out because the Wi-Fi goes down on a trans-Atlantic flight, perhaps—are the ones benefitting the most from access. This, warns the report, puts us in danger of creating a new global underclass.
"Digital technologies are transforming the worlds of business, work, and government," said Jim Yong Kim, president of the World Bank Group in a statement. "We must continue to connect everyone and leave no one behind because the cost of lost opportunities is enormous."
The report points out that the 6 billion people without high-speed internet have a tough tim participating in the digital economy. As a result, people end up paying more for goods and services, can't build skills or learn through platforms such as the Khan Academy, and continue to be hamstrung by class or gender inequality.
To spotlight the benefits of access, the report shared several examples of success stories from around the globe. The introduction of a digital payment system in Kenya lowered the cost of sending remittances 90 percent. Women can "participate more easily in the labor market—as e-commerce entrepreneurs, in online work, or in business-process outsourcing," wrote the authors. Indeed, one-third of China's 8 million e-commerce entrepreneurs are women.
The introduction of digital ID systems to nearly 1 billion people in India over the past five has increased access and slashed corruption in public systems, the report pointed out. Text messages that remind people to take their medication have been a public health boon to people around the globe living with HIV or other illnesses.
Although these achievements are lauded by the report, the authors caution that simply making sure everyone can get online isn't a panacea for the world's problems. After all, poor people living in a household without proper sanitation might acquire a mobile phone with Internet access, but still not have a toilet.
"The digital revolution is transforming the world, aiding information flows, and facilitating the rise of developing nations that are able to take advantage of these new opportunities," said Kaushik Basu, World Bank Chief Economist. Yet, "with nearly 20 percent of the world's population unable to read and write, the spread of digital technologies alone is unlikely to spell the end of the global knowledge divide."
Some critics suggest that the World Bank itself plays a role in expanding global inequality because of the economic policies it imposes on poor nations as a condition of its assistance, but that wasn't a focus of the report. Instead, the authors wrote that governments need to swiftly close the digital divide by ensuring people have "universal, affordable, open, and safe" Internet access and training workers so that their skills match the digital economy.
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