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Barriers to Digital Inclusivity

COVID-19 has accelerated the Fourth Industrial Revolution, expanding the digitalization of human interaction, e-commerce, online education and remote work. These shifts will transform society long after the pandemic and promise huge benefits—the ability to telework and rapid vaccine development are two examples—but they also risk exacerbating and creating inequalities. Respondents to the GRPS rated “digital inequality” as a critical short-term threat. A widening digital gap can worsen societal fractures and undermine prospects for an inclusive recovery. Progress towards digital inclusivity is threatened by growing digital dependency, rapidly accelerating automation, information suppression and manipulation, gaps in technology regulation and gaps in technology skills and capabilities.

Disconnected Societies

Digital division comes in many guises, from automated bias that can be manipulated to gaps in accessibility and capacity. According to GSMA, a mobile operator’s trade body, around three-quarters of the population in sub-Saharan Africa (747 million people) have a mobile connection. However, only a third of these (250 million) use a smartphone. In 2019, only 10 out of 45 African were able to afford internet connectivity. Societies are becoming more disconnected. Populations find themselves increasingly polarized and bombarded with misinformation, and the widening gap in digital ability risks the emergence of a digital underclass.

Digital Underclass of Workers

Widening gaps in digital literacy risk creating a digital underclass. Workers excluded from digital resources will miss the educational and employment opportunities constantly created by the global digital economy: the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report estimates that, by 2025, 97 million new jobs may emerge from the division of labor between humans and machines.

Regulatory Techlash

Governments across the world are ramping up protection for consumers and increasing regulatory pressures on digital markets in response to the potentially deleterious societal impacts of digital dependency and influence. Meanwhile, regulations are tightening around providers’ responsibility for illegal activities on their platforms— such as the spread of misinformation and malicious content. A regulatory “techlash” could confront major tech companies with large fines along with more governmental control and the possibility of breaking them up. In South Africa, the Protection of Personal Information Act (POPIA) that becomes effective on 1 July 2021 regulates the collecting, processing, storing, deletion and security of personal information. 

Stronger government intervention in digital markets can empower consumers and users by fostering more competition and regulating anti-competitive practices, but breaking up major platforms can also reduce services overall.

What’s Next?

Digital tools will benefit workers and employers alike while enhanced healthcare reduces business risks such as safety, continuity and reputation but so will technology that is more inclusive. More companies are working with civil society on the design and governance of technology and digital services. By integrating marginalized and vulnerable groups into technology development—including those of different ethnicities and genders—companies are reducing bias and promoting access to emerging technologies. The business case for such collaborations is that they help to make technology more user-centric and easier to adopt.