Smart Information Systems and the Digital Divide

The Case

The Internet heralded a time of great benefits from digitilisation globally. It was predicted by a Harvard political scientist that teachers connected to the digital world in Lagos, Beijing or Calcutta will be able to access the same electronic journals, books and databases as students at the Sorbonne, Oxford or Harvard. However, it soon became clear that many advantages of digitilisation did not trickle down to lower-income settings. The term ‘digital divide’ was coined to describe three main types of disadvantages and deprivations. First, lack of access to computers and Internet connection. Second, lack of necessary skills or willingness to use digital resources. Third, passive use of Internet facilities (e.g. video streaming) versus active use (e.g. e-voting). SIS could lead to further digital divides, where even previously included businesses and citizens are no longer able to use the benefits of digitilisation in full (e.g. agricultural data analytics may lead to a further growth of large monocultural industrial farms which can afford the technology).

Ethical Issues

The digital divide is an ethical issue in itself, because:

  • It is just one small characteristic in a world that distributes its opportunities extremely unevenly.
  • According to Jeffrey Sachs: “there is enough in the world for everyone to live free of poverty and it won’t require a big effort on the part of big countries to help poor ones”. But it is not happening, not on the digital divide nor in more basic survival areas.
  • The world economy is seriously and life-threateningly biased towards the rich, and lack of access to computers, the Internet and SIS is only one symptom of this divide.

Legal Responses?

In the literature one finds efforts at promoting a “human right to Internet access”or a“human right to connect”. However, these demands are not mirrored in current legal instruments.

A UN resolution on the human right to education, points out that access to information on the Internet has the potential to achieve affordable and inclusive education globally. Hence, the digital divide directly affects the enjoyment of the human right to education.

In soft law, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) promote access to the Internet as a major objective. In particular, one of the Goal 9 targets is to “provide universal and affordable access to the Internet in least developed countries by 2020.”

Outlook

The digital divide is based on major inequalities that are dominant in the world today and for which the non-legally binding SDGs are the main legal response. What does this mean for SIS?

  • Whilst it has been claimed that SIS can contribute to achieving the SDGs, a chronic shortage of Artificial Intelligence talent is a bottleneck to addressing humanity’s challenges through SIS.
  • According to the World Economics Forum, charities and non-for-profit organisations do not have a seat at the table in the big SIS and Artificial Intelligence discussions. That’s problematic for discussions of the digital divide, a topic that would typically be raised by non-for-profits.
  • In the worst case scenario, SIS will have major climate change implications (some predictions, assume that electricity use of data processing centres will see a 10-fold increase by 2040), in which case the underlying poverty-related reasons for the digital divide will worsen.

More details on this case and further cases and scenarios are available at: https://www.project-sher- pa.eu/workbook/

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