Why the spread of the internet around the world is causing concern


Connecting the world through the spread of technology is essential, according to a new report from the World Bank, but it is "far from sufficient" to lift the poorest.

A new report published by the UN institution says that digital technologies and the internet, while helping people to communicate, are failing to bring more significant opportunities for the poorest. The effect of technology has so far been "less than expected", it said.

Between 2005 and 2015, the number of internet users has tripled from 1 billion to an estimated 3.2 billion, leaving the majority of the world still without access.

However, the spread of the internet economy alone will not bring many of the more significant benefits predicted by some of Silicon Valley, the World Bank claims.

"Access to the internet is critical, but not sufficient," reads the report. "The digital economy also requires a strong analog foundation."

It adds: "The full benefits of the information and communications transformation will not be realised unless countries continue to improve their business climate, invest in people's education and health, and promote good governance."

"In countries where these fundamentals are weak, digital technologies have not boosted productivity or reduced inequality."

Widening the gap

The report, titled Digital Dividends, adds that countries which "complement" technology investments with wider economic reforms are more likely to see digital benefits.

In fact - and perhaps more concerning - it states that the spread of the internet might actually widen inequality.

Almost 60% of the world's population still have no access to the internet, which prohibits them from the digital economy, while those who are better-off and are able to take advantage of the internet receive the benefits it brings.

"Not surprisingly, the better educated, well connected, and more capable have received most of the benefits - circumscribing the gains from the digital revolution."

Increased connectivity has also had limited effect in reducing information inequality, says the report, pointing out that there are more contributions to Wikipedia from Hong Kong and China than from all of Africa combined, which has 50 times more internet users.

As one-fifth of the world's population is illiterate, the report states that "the spread of digital technologies alone is unlikely."

Last year, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates and others signed a declaration for bringing the internet to all people. It read: "When people have access to the tools and knowledge of the Internet, they have access to opportunities that make life better for all of us."

The report also raises concern about Facebook's plan for free internet in developing countries. "The recent trend to develop services in which some basic content can be accessed free of data charges (such as Facebook's Free Basics or Internet.org)," it says, "while other content is subject to data charges, would appear to be the antithesis of net neutralist and a distortion of markets."

"Nevertheless," it adds, "some defend the practice as a means of extending internet use in low-income countries."

Hugh Langley

Hugh Langley is the ex-News Editor of TechRadar. He had written for many magazines and websites including Business Insider, The Telegraph, IGN, Gizmodo, Entrepreneur Magazine, WIRED (UK), TrustedReviews, Business Insider Australia, Business Insider India, Business Insider Singapore, Wareable, The Ambient and more.

Hugh is now a correspondent at Business Insider covering Google and Alphabet, and has the unfortunate distinction of accidentally linking the TechRadar homepage to a rival publication.