According to the Biden Administration, more than 30 million Americans live in a part of the country without consistent or reliable access to broadband internet (White House, 2021). Some consider this digital divide to be an inhibiting factor on future growth for the United States (Bray & Goodman, 2021). This article will define the digital divide along with the effects it creates, discuss the ethical considerations around it, its role in educating future generations, and what more can be done to address it nationally as well as on a global level.
In 2021, the United States Senate passed, as part of its infrastructure bill, the 2021 Digital Equity Act. Section 60303 provided a sense of Congress that broadband and digital literacy are vital features of how citizens “participate in the society, economy, and civic institutions of the United States; and access health care and essential services, obtain education, and build careers” (Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, 2021, p. 2097). The gap between those who can access broadband and those that cannot is called the digital divide. Specifically, Sosa Díaz (2021) defines the digital divide as the “social inequality between individuals regarding (1) ‘access’ (availability of technological devices and Internet connection), (2) ‘effective use’ (frequency of technology use) and (3) ‘social envelope’ (capacity to use ICT for different purposes)” (p .3). According to the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (2021), there are high costs associated with this divide: lost economic, education, health, inclusion and civic engagement opportunities and an exacerbated wealth and income gap.
There is no difference regarding the ethics of the digital divide when taking the national or global view into account. The distinction rests in who can address it. National governments (or even state governments in the federalism structure here in the United States) address national problems. Global problems require the intervention of multinational coalitions or supra-national organizations such as the United Nations. It is the same three issues Sosa Diaz (2021) defines: access to technology, digital competency, and motivation towards technology.
Using Velasquez et al.’s (2015) framework for evaluating ethical situations, access to technology, as defined by Sosa Diaz (2021), is best addressed by the fairness or justice approach. This approach goes back to the ancient Greeks and underlines the idea that we need to treat all humans equally (at a minimum, fairly); in this case, fair access to technology. Table 1 shows that while mobile access was very high in the developed world in 2014, it lagged significantly in the developing world: the developed world is four times more likely to have access to mobile-based broadband than the developing world. The same ratio is true for traditional, or fixed, broadband access. Table 1 also demonstrates that, in terms of broadband and mobile access, the global community and the United States are failing to address this first of Sosa Diaz’s (2021) concerns under the rubric of fairness and justice.
Access to traditional broadband (fixed broadband) and mobile (mobile broadband) technologies
Note: Adapted from “The Global Digital Divide” by T. Evans, n.d., Lumen Learning, Creative Commons Copyright (CC BY-SA 4.0).
Sosa Diaz’s (2021) second aspect of the digital divide, digital competency, is directly linked to her first. Without access to the technology, there can be no digital competency. In fact, Sosa Diaz (2021), when reviewing the data around remote education related to the COVID-19 pandemic, found a “the lack of previous training and digital competencies of the students” (p. 3) increased the vulnerability of already at-risk populations: those with limited access to technology for educational purposes. Again, an ethical framework of fairness or justice would dictate that this issue be addressed.
Sosa Diaz’s (2021) final version of a digital divide involves the motivations of support groups to actually encourage the use of the technology. Again, there is a direct linkage between her first and third area. When the pandemic closed community centers to prevent the spread of the virus in 2020, parents were forced into providing significant activity into their childrens’ education. If those parents lacked the necessary digital competency to perform this task, their own lack of motivation or ability can “worsen the socio-economic inequalities among students” (p. 4.). The fairness/justice approach would dictate that countries address this concern as well.
As noted previously, COVID-19 affected how students receive an education. All manner of schools shut their doors due to the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Sosa Diaz (2021), nearly 1.6 billion students across 190 countries were forced into stay-at-home situations; this was 94% of the world’s students. Educators adapted their methodologies from an in-person model to a remote one using information technology and the Internet to try to ensure children could continue to learn. However, if students lacked any of the three issues Sosa Diaz (2021) raises, failure was likely. For example, two children were photographed working on homework on their school-supplied laptops while sitting outside a Mexican restaurant because they had no access to broadband at home; the irony is that this took place in Silicon Valley in California (Yancey-Bragg, 2020). Silicon Valley is the international hub of Internet and information technology.
Proper access to technology is the most important of Sosa Diaz’s (2021) three ideas; it underpins the other two. In the United States, the government levies a fee on users of telecommunications services known as E-Rate. However, the E-Rate program is not aligned to the current needs of school systems and should be adjusted to better serve its goals (Park et al., 2007). Additionally, the program has been plagued by allegations of fraud and waste by independent reviewers; the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) which oversees the E-Rate program is still working on addressing these concerns but they should move faster (Government Accountability Office, 2020). The full US Congress should pass the US Senate-approved Digital Equity Act of 2021. This law would give the US government the ability to award grants to communities directly to “facilitate the adoption of broadband by covered populations” (p. 2133).
Addressing digital competency, the 2021 Digital Equity Act will also play an important role. The same grants discussed previously can also be used to facilitate training programs across a wide range of skill levels. If this does not become law, another option would be to expand what is allowed to be purchased under the E-Rate program. Currently, only technology can be bought; training programs are not eligible for funding (Federal Communications Commission, 2020). Allowing training programs would be beneficial to the communities that purchase the technology so they can use it properly. To address the final variation of the digital divide Sosa Diaz (2021) calls out, she recommends conducting training and outreach programs for families so they can encourage each other to make use of the technological access they are provided. This too is covered by the Digital Equity Act.
At the international level, the United Nations Secretary General has published the Roadmap for Digital Cooperation. The United Nations should speed up key parts of this plan to address the digital divide: its Global Connectivity efforts which has as a goal that “every person should have safe and affordable access to the Internet, including meaningful use of digitally enabled services” by 2030 (United Nations, 2020, para 8) for access to technology, its focus on digital capacity building program to address the lack of digital competency around the world (and in particular the developing world), and its efforts around digital inclusion to better the motivations (or lack thereof) of using technology.
The digital divide is a significant concern in the United States and internationally. Because technology pervades so much of how we operate across various domains (home, education, work, socially), having access to the necessary technology, the ability to use it properly, and the understanding how deep it is ingrained in the world are all vital aspects. The US Senate has taken a significant step in its infrastructure bill to close the digital divide here. The full Congress should pass this law and the president should sign it. Internationally, the United Nations must enhance its timelines around the efforts to bring technology to the developing world and address its member states’ own digital divides if they are unable to do it themselves. Technological pace will not slow down. If governments and other global bodies miss this chance to reduce the digital divide, the gap to make up will only grow wider at an accelerated rate.
Bray, D., & Goodman, J. (2021, August 23). Closing the digital divide: It’s not optional. Virginia Business. https://www.virginiabusiness.com/article/closing-the-digital-divide-its-not-optional/.
Evans, T. (n.d.). The Global Digital Divide. Cultural Anthropology. https://courses.lumenlearning.com/culturalanthropology/chapter/the-global-digital-divide/.
Federal Communications Commission. (2020, November 20). Modernizing the E-rate program for schools and \libraries. Public Documents. https://docs.fcc.gov/public/attachments/DA-20-1418A1.pdf.
Government Accountability Office. (2020, September 16). FCC should take action to better manage persistent fraud risks in the schools and libraries Program. Telecommunications. https://www.gao.gov/products/gao-20-606.
Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, H. R. 3684 (Amended) (2021). bill. https://www.epw.senate.gov/public/_cache/files/e/a/ea1eb2e4-56bd-45f1-a260-9d6ee951bc96/F8A7C77D69BE09151F210EB4DFE872CD.edw21a09.pdf.
Park, E., Sinha, H., & Chong, J. (2007). Beyond access: An analysis of the influence of the E-Rate program in bridging the digital divide in American schools. Journal of Information Technology Education: Research, 6, 387–406. https://doi.org/10.28945/223
Sosa Díaz, M. J. (2021). Emergency remote education, family support and the digital divide in the context of the COVID-19 LOCKDOWN. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 18(15), 1–18. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph18157956
United Nations. (2020, May 29). Secretary-general’s roadmap for digital cooperation. United Nations. https://www.un.org/en/content/digital-cooperation-roadmap/.
Yancey-Bragg, N. (2020, September 4). More than $130K raised for California family after girls seen Using Taco bell wifi for school work. USA Today. https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2020/09/01/thousands-raised-girls-who-had-use-taco-bell-wifi-school/5680992002/.