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How to fight the digital divide? Prevent the ‘adverse digital incorporation’

Date: 12 October, 2022

Writer : Dr Zulkarin Jahangir, Farzin Mumtahena and Tanjim-Ul-Islam
Source : TBS Nnews

Reading Time: 9 Minutes

12 October, 2022
Writer : Dr Zulkarin Jahangir, Farzin Mumtahena and Tanjim-Ul-Islam
Source : TBS Nnews
· Reading Time: 9 Minutes

How to fight the digital divide? Prevent the ‘adverse digital incorporation’

How to fight the digital divide? Prevent the ‘adverse digital incorporation’

Equality of opportunity for everyone in their access to basic resources and fair distribution of income has been the crux of Bangladesh’s independence under the leadership of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Thus far, Bangladesh has been steadfast in its growth trajectory in terms of income, and at the same time, has seen improvements in several human development indicators.

The government has ensured the provisioning of services and opportunities that enabled the country to achieve tremendous success in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Now, it is striding towards further development that is more sustainable and inclusive, and at the heart of this process is rapid digitalisation.

Digital expansion has been transforming the lives of the Bangladeshi people in multiple spheres. However, not everyone is enjoying the fruits of this digital development to the same extent.

There is a digital divide that is holding back large fractions of the population, especially the marginalised. The government provisioning of equitable access to the digital experience is now of utmost priority to ensure that the disparities in our society are not widened.

Digital inclusion: A basic human right

According to the declaration on the right to development, it is the state that has the primary responsibility of creating an enabling environment for its citizens for the realisation of the right to development. Development has to be of quality, and it has to be rooted in human rights – the inherent rights, freedoms and opportunities of every individual irrespective of gender, nationality, ethnicity, colour, religion, language or social status.

We can define basic rights as all the rights concerning people’s primary material and non-material needs. As needs have grown, so has the definition of these rights. Today, basic rights and digital inclusion have become closely blended. Access to digital technologies has enhanced citizens’ ability to participate in society. Technology can facilitate access to public services, health, education, financial inclusion, trade and commerce, media communication, and transportation – all of which ultimately enhance people’s capabilities.

Consequently, those without access to digital technologies are deprived of said opportunities.

Lack of adequate resources, connectivity, and information prevents individuals from participating actively in the democratic life of their own country and from enjoying their fundamental rights, such as the right to health, the right to be informed, or the right to work (Saraceni, 2020).

As with any other fundamental right, it is the responsibility of the state to ensure that everyone can exercise their right to digital development equally. Thus, providing and expanding access to digital services for all is becoming a priority, particularly for fast-growing economies like Bangladesh. Otherwise, the discriminatory effects of the digitalisation process will overtake its prospects.

Preventing unfavourable digital inclusion

Ensuring digital inclusion, although necessary, is not sufficient.

Social exclusion in the e-society occurs at multiple dimensions and results from types of capability failure other than the mere deprivation of technological usage (Zheng and Walsham, 2008). Heeks (2022) argues that exclusion-based discussions and analyses should now move beyond the ‘haves’ vs. ‘have nots’ related to technology access, as a majority of the Global South’s population have mobile phone and Internet access.

Drawing from the concept proposed by Sen (2000), he introduces a new perspective linking social inequality in the digital context to ‘unfavourable inclusion,’ which he refers to as ‘adverse digital incorporation.’ Sen distinguishes between two conditions through which deprivations can arise: one where some people are being left out, and another where some people are being included but in unfavourable terms. According to (Zheng and Walsham, 2008), these can be thought of as active exclusion and passive exclusion, respectively.

The main idea of ‘adverse digital incorporation’ is that inclusion in a digital system may enable a more privileged group to extract disproportionate value from the resources of another, less-advantaged group.

Heek’s demonstration of this concept can be observed within the gig economy of Bangladesh. The rapid emergence of the platform-based gig economy has changed the lives of many in this country and became a popular choice for workers because of the regular cash flow and flexible working hours. However, they continue to face unfair labour practices and lack protections afforded to employees and find themselves earning below the living wage necessary to fulfil basic needs (Fairwork, 2021).

According to the Fairwork report, 16 out of 103 workers of ridesharing platforms interviewed were working at a net income deficit due to work-related costs, high platform fees and the commissions taken by intermediaries. This, in a sense, is unfair extraction of value by one group from the efforts of another.

Another illustration of adverse digital incorporation would be the exploitation of vulnerable groups, particularly women and children on social media and other online platforms through cyber harassment, forced pornography, bullying, and abuse (Heeks, 2022).

The perpetrators – the traders and users of such illegal content – are gaining from their activities while the harms, security risks and other costs of incorporation are being disproportionately passed on to marginalised individuals.

The victims, although included in the digitalisation process, are adversely affected as a result of participation. The incidence of violation of human rights in digital spaces clearly underscores that the provision of digital justice is as important as the provision of digital technology.

Problems of unfavourable inclusion emerge from the asymmetry of power and control (Hickey and Toit, 2013). The party with greater socioeconomic or political power can exploit and extract positive value generated by the inclusion of the less-advantaged group, exacerbating existing inequalities between the two (Heeks 2022).

This occurs because the distribution of power is such that there is no rule of law especially in developing countries (Khan and Roy, 2019).

For instance, digital identities are powerful tools for ensuring formal rights. The Adhar system of India, a widely used example in digital literature, has been revolutionary in its ability to deliver public services to citizens. It is also an instrument that can enhance the violations of human rights.

In absence of a rule of law – ie, when the law is not enforced regardless of the identity or power of the violator – the information made available due to digitalisation can increase the asymmetry of power.

A study conducted on fraudulence in the Mobile Financial Service (MFS) sector in Bangladesh revealed that people from disadvantageous social and economic profiles are less likely to have their problems unresolved when they complain of being defrauded (Rahman, 2022).

Unresolved cases are higher among rural MFS agents, less educated agents and those who have received no formal training. This is another case of adverse digital incorporation, arising from an unequal and weak rule of law.

Advantageous digital provisioning

Digital transformation has picked up speed during the Covid-19 pandemic, revealing its possibilities as well as the risks it brings. With restrictions in movement, most services and communications shifted to digital spaces, and households, businesses and governments have had to adapt to new technologies in a short time.

But not everyone was equipped with adequate skills, resources, or the means to utilise digital platforms during the crisis, revealing the dangers of digital exclusion. However, discussions of exclusion and unfavourable inclusion in understanding digital inequality are overlapping to a great extent. Theory and evidence suggest that inclusion alone will not suffice.

In an increasingly digitalised post-pandemic future, inequalities will worsen in absence of appropriate and affordable digital infrastructure. Heeks (2022) recommends ‘advantageous digital incorporation,’ which is the design of digital interventions that specifically reduce existing inequalities, considering the characteristics of asymmetric power. It would ascertain that people’s vulnerabilities are neither shaped nor deepened by the usage of ICT.

The outcomes of sustainable digital development will reach every citizen equitably only if we can ensure the provision of quality digital services that everyone is entitled to, and the upkeeping of their rights and well-being in these digital systems.

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