The Four Billion People Still Not Online

It’s easy to forget that over half the world’s population still doesn’t have internet access.

Dec 11 2014, 4:15pm

​Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Image: ​neiljs/Flickr

​When the web was launched 25 years ago, it carried the potential of being a great equalizer: a place where everyone, no matter their background, could have a voice. But a quarter-century later and while internet access seems like something of a fundamental human right to some of us—an idea that we creator Tim Berners-Lee himself has voiced—over half of the world's population remains offline.

The Web Index, an annual report collated by Berners-Lee's Web Foundation assesses the state of web access and usage around the globe. The 2014-2015 version celebrates the "equality of opportunity" the web represents in some places—but lays down a harsh truth: that equality isn't equally accessible. Indeed, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) estimates that over 4 billion people still have no access to the internet at all.

And of course, those 4 billion aren't just randomly scattered across countries and demographics. Most are poor, female, and live in developing countries. Indeed, they're perhaps the ones most in need of having their voices heard.

"Current trends suggest that we now stand at crossroads between a Web 'for everyone,' which strengthens democracy and creates equal opportunity for all, or a 'winner takes all' web that further concentrates economic and political power in the hands of the few," the report states.

The Web Index rankings rate the "economic, social and political benefit that countries gain from the web," with Denmark in top place, followed by Scandinavian neighbours Finland and Norway (the UK, Berners-Lee's home country, comes in fourth and the US sixth, after Sweden). The bottom of the index sees Ethiopia in last place, followed by Yemen and Malawi. Notice a trend? As the report's authors note, there's a strong correlation between the web index score and the country's income per capita.

Nine in ten of the 4 billion not online are in the developing world

Nine in ten of the 4 billion not online are in the developing world. The reason is simple: a broadband subscription in a rich country costs one percent of average earnings. In the poorest countries, it's over 100 percent.

We've seen how cost can affect a digital divide even within comparably wealthy countries, so it's unsurprising that access should be so limited when you're talking about places where swathes of people are living below the poverty line.

The whole situation is rather chicken-and-egg, as increased access to internet has been shown to lead to increased economic activity. The report also notes that levels of education correlate with ratings of economic empowerment through the web.

Factors other than money also play a role. Women are less likely to be connected to men—ITU figures referenced in the report show that in developing countries, 16 percent fewer women than men are online. The trend follows through into developed countries, but at a lower rate; across the whole world, 37 percent of women use the internet and 41 percent of men.

Perhaps most worrying is that these trends don't show any huge sign of improvement. The Web Index suggests that growth in internet use is actually slowing down, with only a five percent increase last year across the countries surveyed. To be fair to those at the bottom of the pile, Ethiopia and Malawi were among countries that showed a significantly larger growth in access of 20 percent.

The digital divide is still strong, and universal access is top of the Web Foundation's list of recommendations. But even if you live in a country where internet access is pretty much a given, there's no scope to rest on your laurels. There's still net neutrality, surveillance, and censorship to worry about—all of which add to the threat of that "winner takes all" web.