Inequality on the Web

Article by

Dr. Ali Farghaly

The Web was hailed in 1995 as the miracle that would democratize knowledge and information in the world. The promise was that It would put an end to the monopoly of knowledge and information and of using them as commodities available only to those who can afford them. It would mark the end of censorship. People can share their ideas on the web without being censored by regimes that do not allow differences in opinion. Despite the progress that has been made in this respect, there are still several obstacles to the realization of the democratization of knowledge. A closer look at what is really happening on the web would show that there are several types of inequality in the use of the Internet.

Economic Inequality

Less than half the population in developing countries have access to the Internet while people in advanced countries have much greater representation on the web. Unfortunately, lack of access to the internet in the developing countries reduces the chances for quality education and training that would raise standard of living. It has been reported that internet access is associated with increased economic development, and greater income potential, and improved access to government and health services.

Gender Inequality

Gender inequity is greatest in the Middle East and North Africa Region (MENA). In a recent paper, Farley and Langendorf (2022) show that women are 12 percent less likely to use the Internet than men. There is a similar situation in Indonesia and India.

Social Inequality

In the real world, there are social interactions among the affluents, well-educated and sophisticated groups. Such interactions are usually rich and frequent. They usually serve purposes such as networking, giving and receiving information, learning, showing off and exploring opportunities. In contrast, social interactions among the deprived, poor and less educated are less frequent with limited purposes.

Social interaction on the web magnifies this inequality because of the limited access to the Internet for the poor and less educated. While this observation applies globally, it also applies even to the most advanced countries such as the USA. Recent Research during COVID (Van Deursen, 2020) shows that older people, less educated people, and people with physical health problems, low literacy levels, or low levels of internet skills have been at disadvantage during the Pandemic.

Linguistic Inequality

A decision to implement a universal broadband access and computer literacy programs could help eliminate the digital divide in access to the web. However, most of the materials on the Internet are written in English and as such accessible only to proficient English speakers. English web content by far has the Lion’s Share of web content. This is true to the extent that English is regarded as not only the language of business, but also the language of the Internet.

The following are the the top three languages used on the Internet according to Internet World Stats (https://www.internetworldstats.com/stats7.htm)

Since most content on the web is in English, users’ benefit from the web depends on their proficiency in languages, and especially in English. This excludes all users who are not proficient in the English language. There is a dire need for more content in the low resource languages which can only be attained by encouraging researchers in the developing countries to publish in their native languages rather than in English.