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Digital divide

The digital divide or digital split or digital plumbers crack is a social issue referring to the differing amount of information between those who have access to the Internet (specially broadband access) and those who do not. The term became popular among concerned parties, such as scholars, policy makers, and advocacy groups, in the late 1990s.

Broadly speaking, the difference is not necessarily determined by the access to the Internet, but any ICTs (Information and Communications Technologies) and media that different segments of society can use. With regards to the Internet, the access is only one aspect, but the quality of connection and auxiliary services, processing speed and other capabilities of the computer used, and other factors could also be part of the issue. (Davison and Cotten; 2003), although one doesn´t need even a computer to connect to the Internet ( see also WebTV, Webphone, PDA, mobile phone).

The problem is often discussed in an international context, indicating certain countries such as the U.S. are far more equipped than other developing countries to exploit the benefits from the rapidly expanding Internet. This global digital divide will be discussed in a separate article.

The idea of the digital divide resonates with "common sense" skepticism against claims of the revolutionary power of the Internet and the emerging utopian information society. Some suggest that the Internet and other ICTs are somehow transforming society, improving our mutual understanding, eliminating power differentials, realizing a democratic society, and so on.

At the same time, some skeptics point out that not every gap is a problem. Michael Powell, chairman of the FCC, stated that the 'Mercedes divide' (differing ownership status of Mercedes Benz automobiles) is not a problem, implying that the digital divide is not, either; but the access to the Internet is a universal service (i.e. to access to knowlodge and encyclopedias) in some cases and Mercedes Benz is not.

Apart from the ideas, the term can be traced back to early 1990s. The exact origin is unknown [1], but the earliest citation found so far is in 1993.

Table of contents
1 Dimensions of the Divide
2 Information Poverty
3 Knowledge Gap
4 National Interest/Societal Benefit
5 Rural areas access
6 Policies
7 Reference

Dimensions of the Divide

Unlike what the term evokes, digital divide is not indeed a clear single gap which divide a society into two groups. Researchers report that disadvantage can take such forms as lower-performance computer, lower-quality or high price connection (i.e. narrowband or dialup connection), difficulty of obtaining technical assistance, and fewer access to subscription-based contents.

It should also be noted that cost of service may differ depending on location, being pricier at the rural areas.

Not surprisingly, the most discussed issue to date is the availability of the access at an affordable cost. As internet connection is becoming popular in some countries such as United States, and broadband connection becomes realistic policy issues than future expectations, the increasing amount of discussion of the divide between people who have broadband connections and those who have narrowband.

Information Poverty

The idea that some information and communication technologies are vital to quality civic life is not new. It is also not new that some communication infrastructure and active use of it are considered of national interest. (See, for example, Colombo and Lanzavecchia, 1982).

In many countries, access to the telephone system is considered such a vital element that governments implement various policies to offer affordable telephone service (universal service).

Literacy is arguably another such element, although it is not related to any new technologies or latest technological devices. It is a very widely shared view in many societies that being literate is essential to one's career, self-guided learning, and political participation.

On the other hand, some scholars point out that information is quite different from money, and the notion of "information poverty" is somewhat misleading.

Knowledge Gap

The idea that some people have better access to information than others is not new, either.

The knowledge gap hypothesis in communications studies, first formulated in Tichendor, Donohue, & Olien (1970), suggests that there is a chronic gap of knowledge that different sectors of society possess.

The subsequent research seem to suggest that the gap is smaller in the arena of knowledge about local issues and matters personally relevant to the recipients.

The gap was also thought to reduce as television replaces newspaper as a source of knowledge. Compared to newspapers, television require less literacy, and it is considered a more passive medium.

The advent of the Internet might reverse this change, since it is predominantly a text medium. It is also the case that users of the Internet may need more skills to navigate through vast amount of information rather than passively receiving information feed from newspaper or television.

At the same time, the much expected broadband and its applications may change the situation yet another time, bringing audio-visual dimension to the medium. It is also the case that personal interactions are easier on the Internet than newspapers and television, and the process of knowledge acquisition may change qualitatively. (See also Opinion leadership Two-step flow of communication)

National Interest/Societal Benefit

There are a variety of arguments regarding why closing the digital divide is important. The major arguments are as follows:

1. Economic equality

Some think that the access to the Internet is a basic component of civil life that some developed countries aim to guarantee for their citizens. Telephone is often considered important for the reasons of security. Health, criminal, and other types of emergencies might indeed be handled better if the person in trouble has an access to the telephone. Also important seems to be the fact many vital information for their career, civic life, safety, etc. are increasingly provided via the Internet, especially on the web. Even social welfare services are sometimes administered and offered electronically.

2. Social mobility

Some believe that computer and computer network play an increasingly important role in their learning and career, so that education should include that of computing and use of the Internet. Without such offerings, the existing digital divide works unfairly to the children in the lower socio-economic status. In order to provide equal opportunities, the government might offer some form of support.

3. Democracy

Some think that the use of the Internet would lead to a healthier democracy in one way or another. Among the most ambitious visions are that of increased public participation in election and decision making processes. Direct participation (Athenian democracy) is sometimes referred to in this context as a model.

4. Economic growth

Some think that the development of information infrastructure and active use of it would be a shortcut to the economic growth. Information technologies in general tend to be associated with productivity improvements. The exploitation of the latest technologies may give industries of a country a competitive advantage. Also deemed important is that information industries, including development of hardware and software, online services, and many others. Some think raising some of those industries are of national interest. These broader goal of developing information economy may involve some form of policies addressing digital divide. Having a greater pool of domestic labor force capable of working for information industries, for example, may be considered beneficial.

Rural areas access

The accessibility of rural areas to the Internet is a test of the digital divide. But nowadays there are different ways to eliminate the digital divide in rural areas (if they can be universally accessed and with cheap prices):


With the landmark legislation of Telecommunications Act of 1996, Internet accessibility for schools and other Internet-related goals are included in the universal service goals that the United States government pursue.