27 Jan 2019

The #FallingStarsChallenge on social media brought to the forefront an old debate with a new twist – one about rising inequality and its display on the internet.

A lot of the recent debate about the internet has focused on social media and how it is dividing societies. However, the general, more social and economic impact of the internet has largely been ignored.

The internet has always been hailed as a democratic force, a leveler of sorts, by its virtue of providing equal access to learning and economic opportunity. But a closer look at countries that have been the fastest adopters of internet in the last two decades (India, Nigeria, Bangladesh, etc.) shows a different picture. Income inequality has increased in all these countries. A World Bank report too, says that the benefits of digital technology have not spread evenly.

India tops the countries with the highest income divide. The World Inequality Report, 2018 showed that in 2016, the top 10% in India had a 56% share in the national income.

Internet income inequality India

Reasonable people could disagree about the extent of inequality but the direction and speed at which this inequality is increasing is unmistakable.

So how exactly does the internet help increase inequality in India?

The biggest reason is economic. Internet usage is dependent on infrastructure. Connectivity and devices used to connect to the internet are unevenly distributed in India. This shows up in the internet penetration rate as well. In 2017, while the penetration rate was 65% in urban India, it was only 20% in rural India. Social issues also contribute to this economic divide. Even in urban centres, women and minorities have lesser access to the internet.

Another cause is illiteracy. Literacy levels are correlated with internet usage. 26% of people in India are illiterate, making the internet useless for them. Even the ones who are considered literate are unable to make use of the internet because of dismal reading levels.

Now, none of this is to say that the internet is a cause of the economic divide or illiteracy. However, the internet is surely helping widen this divide. Those who are well-educated and economically better-off are in a better position to take advantage of the internet. I observed this phenomena first hand as a volunteer for the ‘Internet Saathi’ social campaign, where I was a Google representative working with NGOs that were trying to improve internet literacy in rural Rajasthan.

The pace of technological advancement is so high that most people are always catching up. A new technology can be used to help those from the disadvantaged communities, help them overcome years of struggle and use technology to improve their lives. People do learn to use new technology, but by the time they do, the technology itself has advanced. One of the biggest example of this change was the move from desktop computers to mobile phones.

So, how can India fix this?

The biggest change that is required is building infrastructure that provides internet access to everyone. Mobile telephony is ubiquitous in India. India crossed the 1 billion mobile subscribers mark in 2016, but the number of mobile internet users was still 478 million in 2018. This points to a lack of internet connectivity. Service providers like Reliance Jio are helping bridge that gap to some extent but connecting users in rural India will not be profitable unless the government helps build the required infrastructure.

The second step is to invest in internet literacy, focusing on the disadvantaged - people in rural areas, women and minorities. Digital literacy should be made part of school curriculum. Similar to the government’s health program targeted at women in the last decade, an internet awareness campaign should be run for the rural population and women. The ‘Digital India’ initiative can not be focused solely on businesses when the human capital is not ready for the technological change.

For the Indian internet ecosystem, the focus should be on building a local language internet infrastructure. This means that protocols, tools and the technical know-how has to be available in local languages for non-English developers to make full use of the technology. A lot of the focus in India is on creating websites in Indian languages. However, creating non-English websites is not enough when the rest of the infrastructure is in English, and puts non-English speakers at a disadvantage.

There is an elemental but huge difference between the people who take advantage of the internet and those who don’t. The ones who do, learn to create and produce something of value using technology, rather than merely consume it.

This difference in the ability to create something valuable using the internet manifests itself as an ever widening income gap.