There is nothing like a global lockdown of billions of people to awaken us to the critical importance of digital connectivity and sadly, the digital divide. Things moved fast. From the last days of February, at the Counted and Visible Global conference on Gender and Intersecting Inequalities into full lockdown by mid-March. We were caught off-guard, and for many citizens, businesses and governments, almost helpless.
At that conference, I spoke about access to data and information equality in the digital era through the stories of five women. I now write to share how these five women are experiencing the COVID-19 crisis.
Amina lives in rural Africa. She does not have home access to the Internet. Brenda lives on an island in the Pacific, with a connection that comes and goes. Chantal is in a large city in Central Europe and is overwhelmed by the deluge of news and data. Dinaya is a well-known television personality in her country in Asia – known and abused. Elena is in South America and lacks the digital skills needed to engage meaningfully.
COVID-19 has exposed information inequalities these women face
Inequalities in Internet access are the most prominent. Amina is the face of the 46% of the world’s population who are offline: female, rural, living in a Least Developed Country (LDC) and poor. Meanwhile, Brenda can connect, but her Internet access doesn’t allow her to be part of the #WorkFromHome elite. Her situation challenges us to define, adopt and measure what constitutes meaningful connectivity.
Dealing with viral misinformation is the lot of Chantal, Dinaya and Elena. The onslaught of messages, news and conflicting reports cast a scary shadow over them, and they wonder if it is better to disconnect. Without knowledge of how to verify information, and without enough coming in from their respective governments, coronavirus has led them to a “take-it-or-leave-it” dilemma. For Dinaya, the fear that her voice will be smothered by fake news is real, but she has not given up.
Data inequalities are a concern to all of these women. So many questions are going unanswered. How is data on COVID-19 being gathered and processed? Where is it published? Who owns the data? Are decisions being made based on objective medical data, or for political gain? Is my personal data protected?
Digital inequalities hamper development. The global pandemic has forced us to stay at home and limit our in-person interactions. The inequalities faced by these women have real-life consequences that mirror global digital inequalities – which determine who can work or study from home, get a Netflix account, enjoy reliable information, engage in e-commerce or even benefit from basic government services. Many women feel helpless: without computers, smartphones, Internet access and in some cases without electricity, they fall behind.
Intersecting inequalities affect progress on targets to increase people’s Internet access. Sadly, as the chart below shows, we will miss two key UN targets on global connectivity.
Individuals using the Internet in high, middle, and low low-income countries (%)
Analysis from the Web Foundation and others predicts that we will fail to meet the Sustainable Development Goal 9C target to achieve universal access in LDCs by 2020. This model predicts we’ll reach just 23%. We are also likely to miss UN Broadband Commission 2025 targets to reach 75% global broadband connectivity.
Moreover, the Web Foundation calculates that men are 21% more likely to be online than women, rising to 52% in LDCs.
What can we do for Amina, Brenda, Chantal, Dinaya and Elena?
Here are my immediate thoughts.
- implement policies to ensure everyone can connect to the Internet and dedicate available resources to expanding access, especially for women and marginalized groups
- boost affordability, by removing consumer-facing taxes on data plans and Internet services. This crisis has shown that the Internet is a lifeline, not a luxury
- provide data and operate transparently, telling people how their personal data will be collected and used. Only the data necessary for effective response to COVID-19 should be collected – and should be anonymized and sex-disaggregated
- prominently display accurate health information; dedicate emergency resources to limit the spread of misinformation; and remove content, when warranted
- zero-rate websites and essential government services, meaning these sites will not draw from people’s data plans. This is critical to ensuring women aren’t shut out for lack of data
- share accurate, credible updates and advice from trusted sources like the World Health Organization (WHO), public health authorities and reputable news outlets
- amplify women’s voices and raise ours in support of good practices and against negative online practices, like cyberstalking of women, playing our active role as digital citizens, as per the Contract for the Web
In this age of digital interdependence, it is our common duty to leave no one – including these five women – behind. Together, we are stronger than our inequalities.
Nnenna Nwakanma is the Chief Web Advocate, World Wide Web Foundation. She describes herself as "Nnenna from the Internet" and globally shares her passion for connecting the unconnected, especially women. Recognized as one of the World's 100 Most Influential Persons on Digital Governance, Nnenna lives and breathes digital equality, gender equality, open data, open government and women technology leadership. With over 20 years of experience across international organisations, she daily invests her energy towards meaningful connectivity, digital cooperation and social justice. Nnenna is a respected voice and a renowned speaker and mentor in the global technology scene. She speaks five different languages and has lived in more than eight countries.