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World Bank: Digital Divide Leaving Too Many Behind

With 60% of the world offline, the World Bank calls for changes to support the promise of the digital revolution.

iPhone 7 Rumors: 7 That Have People Talking
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The Internet and related digital technologies amplify economic growth, opportunity, and efficiency, according to a report released on Thursday by the World Bank. Yet the digital dividends arising from technological advancement -- growth, jobs, and services -- remain unevenly distributed.

Around the globe, according to World Bank figures, there are 6 billion people without access to broadband, 4 billion without access to the Internet, and 2 billion without mobile phones. As World Bank Group president Jim Yong sees it, traditional social and political challenges prevent the benefits of technologically driven prosperity from reaching the poor and disadvantaged.

"[T]he full benefits of the information and communications transformation will not be realized unless countries continue to improve their business climate, invest in people's education and health, and promote good governance," Yong wrote in the report.

The report frames ostensible efforts to expand Internet access, like Facebook's Internet.org, in a broader context. As Catherine A. Novelli, Under Secretary for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment at the State Department, put it in a statement, Internet access is necessary, but it isn't enough. "To fully realize the economic and social benefits from the digital dividend requires a technology environment that fosters competition among businesses, adapts workers' skills to the demands of the new economy, and ensures that institutions are accountable," she said.

(Image: World Bank)

(Image: World Bank)

Improving global prosperity, the report asserts, requires analog complements to digital advances, including regulations that foster connection and competition, skills to use technology, and institutions that respond to the needs and demands of citizens. For example, in Afghanistan and Niger, where 7 in 10 adults cannot read, literacy must precede connectivity.

The digital transformation that has been reshaping commerce, social interaction, and governance since the Internet became a mass market medium in the 1990s ought to have changed the world for the better. For many, it has. But it hasn't been enough to offset deeper problems. These include the declining rate of productivity growth around the globe, rising income inequality, and a decline in the percentage of free and fair elections around the world.

"Firms are more connected than ever before, but global productivity growth has slowed," the report says.

It attributes the dissonance between technological advancement and economic retreat to several factors, including the fact that 60% of the world's people remain offline and unable to participate in the digital economy; the polarization of labor markets, because technology amplifies opportunities for the highly educated while it works against the less educated by making low-skill jobs scarce through automation and competition; and the winner-take-all tendency in the digital economy, which empowers elites, to the detriment of governance and institutional accountability.

[Read IoT: Can It Bridge the Digital Divide to Fulfill Its Promise?]

Noting that the economics of the Internet favor natural monopolies, the report cites two U.S. companies as examples. "Google, which captures almost one-third of global digital advertising revenue, has been investigated for preferential placement of its own products, exploiting third-party content, and exclusionary practices in its placement of advertising," the report says. "Amazon, the largest sales platform for book publishers, has used its market power to enforce its pricing policies."

The report stops short of condemning such concentrations of power, allowing that there may be other market benefits. But the implication is that instead of "winner-take-all," we'd all be better served by "winner-take-less."

The World Bank report also notes that Internet filtering and censorship, which have become increasingly common, impose economic and welfare costs, and threaten the Internet as an engine of growth.

The World Bank's recommendations to ensure that the digital revolution reaches everyone are simple: regulations that promote investment and innovation; educational opportunities that allow people to participate; and institutions that address citizens' concerns and requirements. But implementing these recommendations, even if the powers that be are so inclined, will not be simple.

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Thomas Claburn has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television, having earned a not particularly useful ... View Full Bio

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Broadway0474
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Broadway0474,
User Rank: Ninja
1/19/2016 | 11:02:18 PM
Re: It's a new age.... of tycoons, monopolists and oligarchs?
Pedro, it's interesting that you mention efforts to improve lives in developing economies through the use of cell and smart phones. But those wouldn't work without mobile and Internet access, right? So broadband and digital communication infrastructures are becoming increasingly more intertwined with an ability to provide those basics that you speak of.
PedroGonzales
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PedroGonzales,
User Rank: Ninja
1/19/2016 | 6:05:27 PM
Re: It's a new age.... of tycoons, monopolists and oligarchs?
I do not think broadband or Internet access is a human right.  I think governments should focus on meeting the basics first, clean water, basic health services.  What is the point of having broadband access, if people can't afford or haven't met their basic needs.  I like approaches such as Kenya's efforts that use technology to support people daily challenges, such as sending money via a phone or extending wireless carriers for people in developing countries.
Broadway0474
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Broadway0474,
User Rank: Ninja
1/18/2016 | 11:42:58 PM
Re: It's a new age.... of tycoons, monopolists and oligarchs?
Pedro, do you believe that broadband is a human right? I don't say that in a facetitious manner. Like water, food, economic opportunity, safety and privacy, and individual liberties like freedom of religion and conscience, perhaps we should add the ability to connect with the world via the Internet to the list. And provide it through intergovernmental movement.
PedroGonzales
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PedroGonzales,
User Rank: Ninja
1/16/2016 | 11:03:23 PM
Re: It's a new age.... of tycoons, monopolists and oligarchs?
I think the progress will be made via portable computers as well mainly smartphones. They are affordable enought that anyone can by.  I think mozilla and chinise manufatures like xiomi are making their smartphones affordable in the developing world.  I think that their biggest problems in many countries it their infrastrucutre becuase broadband connectivity still not dominant in many countries.  As the report points out the digital divide instead of decrease it has increase and made the gap between rich and poreer greater.  What can major computer companies do to decrease such gaps? the laptop per child effort was not enough to solve this problem.
danielcawrey
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danielcawrey,
User Rank: Ninja
1/16/2016 | 4:03:58 PM
Re: It's a new age.... of tycoons, monopolists and oligarchs?
I've long believed that technology can help bridge that gap between the rich and the poor. The advent of really cheap smartphones that anyone can afford and use has always been promising. But it's clear this information from the World Bank shows there's still a lot of progress to be made. 
Broadway0474
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Broadway0474,
User Rank: Ninja
1/15/2016 | 11:48:26 PM
Re: It's a new age.... of tycoons, monopolists and oligarchs?
Charlie, we're already there. Big Tech has as much say probably now as Wall Street on DC policies, and if they don't, it's because they're still learning how to play the game in the Beltway. Intergovernmental orgnizations like the World Bank can call for whatever idealistic changes they want, and they might be able to influence governments, then businesses, in places like Europe. But no way this call for "winner takes less" flies in America.
Charlie Babcock
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Charlie Babcock,
User Rank: Author
1/15/2016 | 6:05:12 PM
It's a new age.... of tycoons, monopolists and oligarchs?
The unevenness of the distribution of benefits in the new digital economy is a growing theme in world affairs. The economic power of the titans of the emerging economy will be unprecedented because it's happening on a global scale. The NRA is accused of influencing the last election by spending $12 million on it. What might Apple accomplish with a fraction of its $200 billion in cash reserves? Are we headed for a new age of tycoons, monopolists and oligarchs throwing their weight around with their economic power, while touting the benefits of their 'innovations?' What's to prevent history from repeating itself?
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