Addressing Digital Inequality in the GIS Watch 2024 Special Edition Report 

Since its inception in 2003, the World Summit on Information Society (WSIS) has aimed to address information asymmetries and inequalities in order to achieve a “people-centered, inclusive and development-orientated Information Society.” It has historically done so by focusing research and resources on addressing supply-side gaps in internet infrastructure and bandwidth. The consensus has generally stated that through the improved distribution of ICT, we can unlock sustainable development goals. 

Yet, paradoxically, our increased reliance on ICT and data-driven technologies has in many instances exacerbated the foundational inequalities they were expected to erase. People of the Majority World are increasingly marginalised from digital resources as a result of content commercialisation, paywall restrictions, and data surveillance over social networks, to name a few. Those who find themselves at the intersection of inequalities in class, race, gender, ethnicity and even religion consequently experience uneven impacts and harms from technological progression. 

In her latest chapter for the GIS Watch 2024 Special Edition Report, Executive Director Dr Alison Gillwald (PhD) argues that from a policy perspective, universal and affordable access, “needs to be coupled with investments in digital skills and education, localised digital content, data safeguards and cybersecurity measures.” Beyond internet access, Research ICT Africa’s After Access surveys have demonstrated that demand-side constraints limiting implementation and adoption are some of the main barriers prohibiting people from productively using digital technologies in the majority world.

Dr Gillwald contends that in order to reach digital equality, and not just digital inclusion, rigorous, disaggregated data is needed to analyse the disparate conditions between active and passive internet users. Furthermore, she emphasises the need to go beyond consensus building in the WSIS multistakeholder processes. Global data must be collected to establish “a baseline from which progress towards the SDGs targets can be measured and disaggregated to identify and address the unequal impact of digitalisation.” 

Without this, certain societies will risk increased economic and social marginalisation, as well as an erosion of democratic participation. As we build up to the 2024 Summit of the Future, where the Global Digital Compact will be adopted and ultimately used to inform the WSIS+20 review process, Dr Gillwald reminds us that it is crucial we redress the digital inequality, as a reflection of structural inequality, by promoting economic regulation, data governance and the safeguarding of consumer welfare and digital rights.