A widening digital divide

Jun 02 2018


ALTHOUGH there has been a massive surge in the availability and use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in Pakistan over the past decade, internet penetration remains alarming low — extending to only 22 per cent of the population, according to a 2018 Global Digital report.

The internet’s spread across the country has been far from homogenous, and an emerging ‘digital divide’ — ie inequality in the access, use and impact of ICTs — can be seen to run across gender, income, religion, geographic location (urban-rural) and education lines. If this divide is not addressed, there is a risk that the internet will exacerbate marginalisation and inequalities, rather than serve as a driver for social mobility, democratic participation and economic growth.

Pakistan’s current ICT policy focuses too narrowly on the availability of internet-related technology and less on other areas affecting access. But effectively bridging the digital divide requires a concerted, holistic, cross-sectoral and multi-stakeholder approach to policymaking that can account for a plenitude of factors that impact one’s ability to effectively use the internet.

Pakistan has proved to be largely unprepared to deal with the challenges of the internet age.

There is an important political dimension to issues of access that is often ignored in favour of technologically deterministic arguments. The state often restricts internet access or denies the provision of internet services in certain geographical regions as a political tool, which serves to silence or suppress certain segments of the population. Last year, internet services were shut down for up to a year in many districts in the frontier regions of (now former) Fata, KP and Balochistan on the basis of ‘national security’.

In Gilgit-Baltistan and Azad Jammu and Kashmir, the military-run Special Communications Organi­sation continues to maintain a monopoly over the provision of telecom and internet services. In April, the SCO challenged the decision of the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority to allow private service providers to launch 3G and 4G services in Gilgit. In the court-ordered status quo, the state is able to exert a perturbing degree of control over internet access, and the lack of free market competition means that the internet continues to have limited coverage and operate at slow speeds in these regions.

Social and cultural norms also significantly contribute to barriers to access and thus to the widening digital divide. Out of Pakistan’s 35 million social media users, only 23pc are female. The internet is often considered dangerous in the hands of a woman, while online expression is considered inappropriate. Female access to the internet is thus often restricted or monitored by male family members.

Furthermore, it is important to note that making effective use of ICTs is contingent on a wide array of factors such as language, skills, literacy and education. Minorities are often faced with language barriers, and disadvantaged due to a lack of basic literacy and education. People with disabilities are also unable to use ICTs due to the lack of provision of special needs equipment such as keyboards, screens and accessibility aids for sensory impairments.

Differences in technology such as computer processors, internet speed and technical assistance also have an impact on the extensiveness of internet usage, interaction and contribution that an individual or social group can have online. This means that certain privileged groups, which are able to pay for more sophisticated technologies and greater bandwidths, are able to exert an unequal influence in cyberspace.

Lastly, as the principle of net neutrality becomes a phenomenon of the past, internet service providers are beginning to increasingly discriminate between different types of data. The differentiation of prices and access by user, content, website, platform, application, type of attached equipment, or method of communication propels digital inequality on both a national and international level.

The digital divide is magnified by the implicit assumption in current ICT policy of the internet as a neutral, open and equal space. An effective and cohesive ICT policy must account for various forms of online discrimination against women, the LGBTQ community and religious and ethnic minorities.

Female internet users are generally more vulnerable to various forms of online harassment, cyber-stalking and bullying, as well as identity theft, character defamation and blackmail. Minorities are also discriminated against on online spaces and their freedom of expression is stifled. The murders of personalities such as Qandeel Baloch and Mashal Khan, on allegations of vulgarity and blasphemy respectively online, are glaring testaments of the link between online and offline violence and discrimination, and the need for a cross-sectional approach to ICT policy.

Pakistan has proved to be largely unprepared to deal with the challenges of the internet age. Cyber-crime laws to protect internet users were entirely nonexistent until late 2016, when the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act was passed. Although the act institutes provisions for user protection, it is also largely contentious on the basis of the broad powers it gives to the state to stifle citizens’ right to information and freedom of expression. It has also largely failed to protect internet users as implementation remains ineffective due to the weaknesses in our judicial system as well as the lack of capacity of our law-enforcement agencies to deal with the magnitude and sensitivity of cyber-crime cases.

As the rights to information and freedom of expression become increasingly contingent upon internet access, the UN has recognised the right to access the internet as a basic human right. In order to work towards guaranteeing this right in Pakistan, there is a dire need for a more holistic approach to internet policymaking.

The Universal Services Fund, which has been established by the government to support the development of telecommunication services in unserved and underserved areas, is underutilised. A more targeted approach towards specific population groups — through the use of disaggregated indicators — that accounts for intersectionality across factors such as age, religion, disability, economic position and gender — can positively impact the ability of various social groups to exercise their rights online and help bridge the digital divide.

The writer works as a research associate at Bolo Bhi, an advocacy forum for digital rights

Published in Dawn, June 2nd, 2018