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Digital Divide And Lack Of Access


Lack of Internet Access Undermines Freedom of Speech and Expression

                                                                                                  * Osama Manzar and Shivani Lal

When one comes across the words ‘digital rights’, one cannot help but associate them with words like hierarchy, privilege, entitlements, diversity, human rights and division. Digital rights are rights of the people to access and use digital tools and technologies. They mean universal and equitable opportunities for all to be able to make meaningful use of the digital tools available to them. So, the context of talking about equal access and digital rights arises from the fact that there still exists a reality where there is lack of universal and equitable access to digital technologies or the Internet for all.

This article aims to establish an understanding of how digital rights are human rights; and specifically, how lack of access to the Internet creates an unequal society in our times. It concludes by demonstrating that lack of access to the Internet affects all our other rights such as right to access and disseminate information, freedom of expression, association and assembly and rights to entitlements that are enabled by technology and the Internet.

Why do Digital Rights Matter?

Let’s take an example of a book which is a medium to receive and disseminate information and knowledge. Having access to books is our basic right. We do not think of access to books as a problem or an issue because it is not being denied to us, books are widely and equally available to all. They are a medium of information sharing, have always been and will always be. Similarly, Internet is a medium and has increasingly become one that we use not only to access or share information but also to express opinions, conduct business, entertain ourselves, form and find relationships and stay connected to our loved ones.

The lines between our online and offline lives are beginning to blur. We are constantly not only creating and consuming content and data, we are also becoming the data. When almost every part of our life depends and functions heavily on digital tools and the Internet, it is imperative to talk about our human rights as individuals online as well as our human rights that are affected by rights online.

Access to the Internet empowers us to exercise various human rights i.e. civil and political rights as well as economic, social and cultural rights. The resolution adopted in June 2016 during the 32nd session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) declares that human rights are unequivocally applied in the online sphere1 . It reinforces that access to the Internet is the basic necessity, which would enable the exercise of a whole host of other rights in online spaces. This particularly includes our right to access and disseminate information.

Governments across the globe are adopting digital technologies for information and service delivery of welfare and entitlement schemes. These services were earlier provided without the Internet, manually. Super-fast reach, no geographic limitations, affordability and lower requirement of manpower have been the major reasons for the governments to shift entirely from offline management of services to online.

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Therefore, equitable access to the Internet and digital tools is critical to access entitlements such as ration, Right to Information (RTI)2 and livelihood schemes like Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA)3 , among others, that are now exclusively digitally enabled services.

Digital Divide: Haves and Have-nots

Digital divide can be defined as an unequal environment created by division of people falling in two extreme categories based on the ones that have access to digital technologies and the ones that don’t. This further expands to divisions based on those having the adequate skills or literacy to make meaningful use of access and the ones that do not4 . Today 65.2% Indians do not have access to the Internet5 . Only 17% Indians have smart phones, and most users are accessing the Internet on their phones for the first time6 .

Urban mobile Internet users constitute about 262 out of 306 million mobile Internet users in India while rural India constitutes 109 million mobile Internet users in 20167 . There are about 250,000 panchayats (village councils) in India encompassing some 650,000 villages and almost all of them are living offline lives 8 . Evidently, the opportunities available to urban population puts them at a privileged position than the ones in rural areas, setting a clear divide in access to the Internet and related technologies.

The Government of India (GoI) launched the Digital India initiative in 2015 with the vision of empowering the country digitally. During the launch event, GoI recognised digital access as a human right9 . Additionally, the National Fibre Optic Network (NOFN) plan was initiated in 2012, to provide high-speed broadband connectivity to 250,000 village councils by December 2016, by laying 700,000 km of optical fibre cable by that time. The National Telecom Policy (NTP), 2012, also notes that telecom and broadband connectivity are basic necessities like education and health, and encourages working towards ‘Right to Broadband’10 . Despite these developments, the implementation of these initiatives is substandard — the cables are yet to be laid in the pipes and servers are not available at the access points11 .

Annual cost of Internet Usage in Dhani Poonia:

Due to lack of availability of internet access points/centers in villages at convenient distances, people do not only spend money on Internet services but also during the commute to these centers. According to a study12, a small village like Dhani Poonia (under Jhaadsar Chhota panchayat in Churu district of Rajasthan)

  9. Digital India Programme, Government of India,
  10. National Telecom Policy 2012, Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, available at: NTP-06.06.2012-final.pdf
  11. "For 800 million citizens, Modi's Digital India highway is a bridge to nowhere",, May 26, 2016, available at: http://
  12. Tiwari, A. (2016). Internet Exclusion Study. Unpublished raw data.

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spends upto Rs.1,76,598 annually to access the Internet (165 households). The study shows that on an average each household spends 5.4 hours on the Internet annually, which is 890 hours for 165 households; and at least 10 households spend nine hours annually on the Internet. Therefore, nine hours could mean loss of nine hours of wage work for these villagers, with some of them earning as less as Rs 200 a day. These people are living below poverty line and are losing money and resources on accessing the internet even though it is supposed to be provided for free or at nominal charges through the NOFN.

Poor and rural populations rely heavily on welfare and entitlement schemes offered by the Government. These services are now being run digitally, creating an interesting paradox by making lives easier and relatively difficult at the same time for the have-nots, for various reasons that will be discussed in later sections. To say the least, the people who have access and necessary skills to make use of this access can take maximum benefits of these digital services (haves) while the ones that cannot do so (have-nots) find themselves confused and at a disadvantage. This in turn leaves them vulnerable at the hands of middlemen who exploit them, creating further confusion and division.

Factors that Lead to Digital Divide

Internet brings equality, but is still percolated through a hierarchy of power, gender, economics, affordability and control. Socio-economic or structural inequalities that exist in offline spaces also reflect on human rights online. Factors such as levels of digital literacy, wage gap, age gap, geography and physical abilities play a role in determining if a section of the society is digitally excluded.

For example, only 9% of those with lower education levels are online, as compared with 38% who have higher education levels13. Digital literacy can be defined as the fluency or efficiency of an individual to be able to comprehensively access the digital tools and use the information available effectively. Access alone is not useful if the individual is unable to use the technology for their desired purpose. For example, most of the content available on the Internet is in English, while only 30% of Indians can speak or read English. On the other hand, only 74.04% population is literate in India, according to the 2011 Population Census. Therefore, even if access is provided, lack of digital fluency is a challenge that leaves most at a disadvantage.

Chanderi Weavers on the Internet

DEF has been making efforts in Chanderi (Madhya Pradesh) since 2010 through digital literacy, skill building and e-commerce trainings online for the weavers’ community. The objective is to enable them to maximise their business and visibility through the Internet. Along with providing necessary trainings and orientation towards using the Internet, DEF has also connected every household in the village to the Internet through broadband. In six years, almost 3,500 weaver families have discarded designing on paper to adopt CAD/ CAM software, learnt to use e-commerce platforms for sales, and have adopted social media tools for marketing and promotion of their handloom products.

The ambitious NOFN plan with a budget of Rs.700 billion to connect every panchayat through a 100-mbps line was designed to provide pipeline for affordable Internet connections in rural India where they don’t have an option of choosing an Internet service provider (ISP) and Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) is the only choice available. However, Bharat Broadband Network Ltd (BBNL) has only been able to lay incremental network cables across 139,582km (as of May 2016). While the government claims to have reached 61,000 gram panchayats (out of a total of 250,000), only 7,000 of them have a working network 14 .

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As many as 72% women in India do not have access to the Internet or any kind of digital technologies. Gender discrimination remains one of the major barriers in access and usage of technology in India15 . Women face more familial and societal censure than men for using mobile phones or the Internet16. However, the provision of infrastructure and devices alone will not increase women’s access. Multiple barriers need to be simultaneously addressed to address this divide. These include women’s exclusion from technology education, lack of digital skills, social norms that favour men and financial and institutional constraints, among other reasons17.

In some villages of Uttar Pradesh18, Rajasthan19 and Gujarat,20 khap panchayats21 have banned young and unmarried women from using mobile phones. These actions further restrict women’s access not just to digital technologies but also to information, speech and expression.


Access to digital technologies and the Internet is fundamental to our lives today, it is fundamental for us to practice and protect citizenship, which is gradually also being looked at as digital citizenship. We’ve established that the lines between our online and offline lives are blurring, allowing the structural inequalities that exist offline to also reflect online. These structural inequalities manifest themselves online in terms of access to digital rights and how these rights are perceived and practiced. Denial of access to the medium that facilitates right to exercise freedom of expression, seek or disseminate information, conduct business, seek livelihood, communicate and participate in democracy results in denial of human rights, which is not limited to online sphere.

The right to have a voice of the dissent, independent opinion, exchange of information, ideas and access to communication to analyse those ideas, in order to make informed decisions constitutes freedom of expression, which lies at the core of principles of democracy. To exercise this freedom of expression, we need a communication medium. This communication medium that was earlier provided by analogue platforms like radio and TV has now been replaced by digital platforms such as the Internet, and unequal or disproportionate access to Internet results in unequal participation in democracy by haves and the have-nots.

Osama Manzar is the Director and Founder, DEF ( Shivani Lal is a Senior Associate, Research and Advocacy, DEF (

*Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF) works with underdeveloped and marginalised communities and people living in socio-economically backward conditions by empowering them through technology. It advocates for the protection and promotion of human rights on the Internet.?

Volume: Vol. XXXV No. 4
October-December, 2016