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Tuesday February 27, 2024

Digital divide

By Editorial Board
September 16, 2023

While the world continues to record one jaw-dropping moment after the other in the field of the Internet of Things (IoT) – the humanoid robot in Dubai, a robotic helper in South Korea’s airport, etc – there is a section of underprivileged people divorced from today’s futuristic world to the extent that they might not be aware of the existence of these wonders. These are the 2.6 billion people (or one-third of the world’s population) who are without access to the internet. This data has been shared by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the UN agency for information and communication technologies, whose secretary-general has vowed that “we won’t rest until we live in a world where meaningful connectivity is a lived reality for everyone, everywhere.” People in low-income countries are more likely to be deprived of the internet due to factors like lack of digital awareness, no access to electricity, or unaffordability. Pakistan has been trying to tackle its internet challenges for quite some time now. It stands last out of 22 countries in Asia on the Inclusive Internet Index 2022 – and 79 globally. The index ranks countries on four parameters: Affordability, Availability, Relevance and Readiness. Although in terms of affordability, the country’s performance is relatively better since it has one of the cheapest data plans, the mere availability of the plan does not guarantee a larger digitally inclusive population (there are only 87.35 million internet users in the country).

Pakistan is in the middle of a severe economic crisis, one which has sharply reduced the purchasing power of even the well-heeled. In that case, it is almost absurd to expect people to purchase equipment to access the internet. In an import-reliant country, such devices carry a high price tag, which is normally out of reach of people. It was only in 2020 (due to restrictions placed to contain the spread of the coronavirus) that we saw more families setting up internet connections to get their children to take classes or work from home. But that necessary growth in high consumption of the internet was reversed almost immediately for it was not sustainable for most people to make internet expenses a regular feature in their monthly budgets.

Another factor that has some part in keeping the population away from the internet is the government’s inaction. In areas in northern Pakistan, lack of infrastructure and abject poverty have made the internet a dream for most residents. What these people go through was partially highlighted for the rest of the country when in May, the state decided to shut off the internet in some places in mainstream Pakistan for at least three days to launch its crackdown against people involved in attacking state properties. That arbitrary decision (although some within the government said it was helpful in the crackdown) kept people disconnected. An online marketplace had to alert its users about internet restrictions in Pakistan, warning them to be careful when choosing a Pakistan-based talent for their project. The world is moving at an extremely fast pace partly due to technological advancements that have changed the global outlook, and if Pakistan fails to view the internet as a human right, it will miss out on a lot of opportunities.