By: Chisheng Li


Information and Communications Technologies (ICT) play a critical role in a citi-
zenry’s access to information, opportunities, and ability to participate in democratic
practices. Recent worldwide events such as the Arab Spring have underscored ICTs’
and social media’s importance in bringing about social change and engagement.
Research shows that ICT infrastructure and access is more prevalent in developed
countries, creating a “digital divide” between the global north and the global south.
It is crucial that governments and human rights advocates address equity with re-
gard to ICT access—in terms of ICTs’ potential to enhance democratization, as well
as ICT limitations when information access is censored or prohibited.

About the Author

Chisheng Li is currently working toward a Master of Science in Information
(M.S.I) and a Master of Public Policy (M.P.P.) at the University of Michigan with
academic interests in information policy, globalization, and information technol-
ogy development. He received his B.S. in Molecular and Cell Biology at the Univer-
sity of Michigan in December 2008. Sheng studied U.S. privacy laws, technology,
and journalism under Mr. Robert Ellis Smith of Privacy Journal. Sheng plans to
pursue entrepreneurship with multinational enterprises focusing on technology-
based and market-based solutions to international development.



Proliferation of the Internet and digital technologies in the 1990s ignited
the imagination of entrepreneurs, scholars, and policymakers alike. En-
thusiastic visionaries perceived the Internet as a decentralizing and em-
powering medium that would triumph over space and time in a globally
connected world. Others predicted information and communications technologies
(ICTs) would be used as tools to create a Habermas public sphere, where par-
ticipants are in control rather than state and commercial entities.1 For instance,
Mark Cooper, Director of Research at the Consumer Federation of America, sug-
gested that people who use digital technologies would be “better trained, better
informed, and better able to participate in democracy.”2 Thomas Friedman, New
York Times columnist, proclaimed that, “the days when government could isolate
their people from understanding what life was beyond their borders or even be-
yond their village are over . . . Thanks to the democratization of information, we
all increasingly know how each other lives—no matter how isolated you think a
country might be.”3 To these “cyber-utopians,” information technologies present
tremendous opportunities to advance social, economic, educational, and govern-
mental causes.

Despite efforts in ICT innovation by national governments and international
entities, such as the United Nations (UN) and the International Telecommunica-
tions Union (ITU), digital technologies have not created the anticipated improve-
ments. Instead, the Internet and relevant technologies have developed unevenly
throughout the world, leading to a phenomenon known as the “global digital
divide.” At present, only a quarter of the population in developing countries are
Internet users.4 Mobile phone subscription per 100 inhabitants in the developing
world is 77.8 subscriptions, compared to 122.3 subscriptions in the developed

While serving as UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan was concerned with the
global digital divide as a pressing humanitarian issue in the 21st century. He em-
phasized access and usage of ICTs as a fundamental civil necessity: “The capacity
to receive, download and share information through electronic networks, the free-
dom to communicate freely across national boundaries—these must become reali-
ties for all people.”7 He warned further that for people in poverty who lack jobs,
shelter, food, healthcare, and potable water, “being cut off from basic telecommu-nications services is a hardship almost as acute as these other deprivations, and
may indeed reduce the chances of finding remedies to them.”8 Former World Bank
President Robert Zoellick echoed similar concerns, and called for solutions that
would enable developing nations to “use ICT to improve public services, overcome
poverty, and enable regional integration.”9

The global digital divide is a complex issue that goes beyond a simple gap in
physical access and usage of digital technologies. ICTs are democratizing tools that
enable decentralized mass communications and user-generated, virally-shared
content. Through long-distance networking and political participation, ICTs can
facilitate freedom of information and expression, two fundamental human rights
and vital elements to a vibrant democracy. Conversely, the global digital divide
re-inscribes traditional hierarchies as repressive states stifle ICT access and digital
content to exercise state control over citizens. Because the United States and Euro-
pean countries remain the primary source of ICT innovation and digital content,
the global digital divide reinforces Western hegemony through ICT governance
and by using English as the language of global communication. Based on the po-
tential benefits of ICTs, government should adopt institutional reforms that foster
political freedom, while non-government organizations should consider existing
entrepreneurial strategies that promote ICT development and basic ICT skills to
alleviate the digital divide.

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