The ethics of the digital divide

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      Katherine Lee

      The digital divide, the gap between members of the community who have ready access to information and digital technology and those who do not, has become an important ethical question in the information society. Generally, literature examining the ethics of this topic encourages authorities to provide programs to improve digital literacy and greater access to ICT to disadvantaged groups. However, ethical questions relating to the nature of digital divide research and the fairness of expecting certain communities to adopt technologies and digital services that do not suit their unique needs requires further attention.

      Sources discussing the digital divide within particular countries identify certain social groups as being excluded. The community members generally identified at being at a disadvantage include racial and ethnic groups, people with disabilities, dual parent families, the elderly, people with low-income and people with low education. These groups are already perceived as being socially disadvantaged and the intensity of the focus of digital divide literature on certain groups, particularly racial groups, can enforce discriminatory stereotypes. Hacker and Mason (2003) question whether the current research into the digital divide is ethical and argues that, there is a widespread problem of “ethical indifference” in the data gathering techniques and research on this subject.

      Economic factors are a key consideration in discussions of the digital divide. Digital inclusion is promoted as contributing to economic development and the key to increasing productivity and promoting better job opportunities. Therefore, access and training in ICT is seen as a solution for social inequalities. However, little consideration is given to potential negative consequences of inclusion in the digital community. Hacker and Mason (2003) are concerned that closing the digital divide for purely economic reasons could potentially lead to the further exploitation of these disadvantaged groups.

      Furthermore, in some cases digital technologies are being forced on excluded groups despite the fact that they do not meet their unique needs. This concern has been raised primarily in relation to e-government initiatives. While these are promoted as being beneficial to the greatest number, the responsibility for using these services is placed on citizens without considering whether their involvement is possible or convenient. Letch and Carroll (2008), who studied the appropriateness of an e-government service to the needs of an Aboriginal community living in a remote part of Western Australia, argued that the system widened the digital divide as it did not recognise the community’s culture or unique circumstances. By creating online services that are unusable for certain members of the community governments are exacerbating the digital divide, not closing it.

      The ethical issues relating to the digital divide are complex and need much deeper consideration. Providing digital literacy programs and access to technology to those who are at a disadvantage is important. However, greater attention needs to be given to the ethics of the digital divide to ensure that attempts to include people are not discriminatory or exploitative. Furthermore, greater consideration needs to be given to non-users when creating public online services to ensure that their implementation does not increase the digital divide.

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