Feminist Scholarship on the Global Digital Divide A Critique of International Organizations and Information Companies
Digital divide is commonly defined as the discrepancy of internet access across different populations at the local, regional, national, and global levels.1 At all levels, the poorest populations in rural areas tend to have less internet coverage than those living in affluent, populated areas. At the local level in California, African Americans and Latinx who are low-income, less educated, or live in rural areas tend not to have broadband subscriptions at home (Goss, Lee, & Gao, 2019). At the national level, the poorest US households are less likely to have a smartphone, desktop computer, or broadband services (Anderson & Kumar, 2019). At the regional level, less affluent countries in a single region have lower telecommunications penetration rates than their wealthier neighbors. For example, more than half of individuals in South Africa used the internet in 2017, but less than ten percent did so in Congo.2 At the global level, Europe has the most individuals using the internet while Africa has the least.3
I assert in this chapter that the digital divide should not be narrowly defined as internet access and digital device ownership. Digital divide should also include discrepancy in skills such as reading and writing competencies in one or more languages as well computer and information literacies (Ford, 2000). I also assert in this chapter that digital divide refers to unequal opportunities in the production and ownership of information. Some related questions are: who produces content by using consumer-grade software? Who creates or modifies a programming language? Who contributes to the internet architecture? Who owns intellectual property of digital content and code? If these questions are taken into account, then it is clear that the huge gulf between the “information-haves” and the “information-have-nots” cannot be merely explained by individuals’ financial, cultural, or intellectual abilities to go online and acquire technological products. The gulf can only be explained by structural political economic arrangements that systematically exclude certain populations from accessing, understanding, creating, or owning digital media, technologies, and knowledge. In other words, the disparities in internet access are not about individuals’ inabilities to pay for them, but about public and private institutions actively excluding populations who are deemed to have little political, economic, and cultural power. Such disparities are also not about individuals’ intellectual failure to grapple technical knowledge, but about institutions singling out some knowledge as being more useful than others (Lee, 2006). Similarly, intellectual property is not about protecting individuals’ rights to their own creations, but about protecting the concentrated power of private corporations (Lessig, 2005).
If the discussion of digital divide is shifted from individuals’ lack to institutional exclusion, then we need an analytical approach that could connect the phenomenon of digital divide to broader political, economic, and cultural injustices such as global wealth disparities, power imbalance, and the erosion of public life. The analytical approach that I explore in this chapter is called a feminist political economy. A feminist political economic approach recognizes that gender differentiates the production, distribution, and consumption of wealth and resources. At the same time, gender is used to justify why such imbalances in wealth and resources should be legitimized (Lee, 2006). For example, some societies will only send boys, not girls, to schools because parents believe girls should help out at home and learn to be good wives. In another example, women still earn less than men doing the same jobs because women are not seen as the main breadwinners (Hegewisch & Tesfaselassie, 2019). Gender is not only about women, but all historically constituted social relations, including those between races, ethnicities, social classes, geographical locations, religions, and physical and mental abilities. These historically constituted social relations tend to promote social hierarchy rather than equality. Even though the focus of this chapter is the social relation between women and men, by no means does it assume other social relations are less important in the analytical framework of a feminist political economy.
In the following, 1 will first examine what feminists say about the digital divide. Then I will suggest why a feminist political economic approach will shed light on the digital divide at the global level. Next, I will explore how three international organizations—UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), ITU (the International Telecommunications Union), and the World Bank—define, explain, and tackle digital divide. Lastly, 1 will examine how Alphabet (the parent company of Google) appears to play the role of international organizations by promising universal internet access to the world’s population.