In my research regarding Internet ethics, I have run up against a term I have encountered before: The Digital Divide. Essentially, the digital divide portrays how many of the world’s citizens (not only the undeveloped or “Third World” nations, but also those in the lower levels of the socio-economic strata of wealthy nations) are not connected to the “information super-highway.” Although this could be due to a number of factors, the common denominator is money. At the personal level, the poor in a rich nation may have access to the Internet if only they could afford the service and equipment while on a cultural or national level, there is no access at any price due to lack of infrastructure. Now, all this seems to be more about economics, globalization, politics (both international and national) and status than it does with ethics.
But when one speaks of status or standing or, more generally, value, one is speaking of ethics. The questions here are many. The so-called digital divide is a fact; and the variables that create and maintain it are just as real. We are not dealing here with what is or is not, but rather, what is right and what is wrong. Or, in this case, stated more plainly: Is this fair? It’s the same question, really. Inasmuch as ethical considerations with the Internet are concerned, does communication technology create a new underclass, or does it merely amplify that which already exists? In one textbook I have been assigned, the subtle but real slant is that communication technology is as important to humanity as clean water and electricity. In this light, Internet access is absolutely an ethical concern. Or is it?
Let us look first an obviously humanitarian concern: Clean water. Few could argue that this is important to eliminate needless disease and human suffering throughout the world. It is a basic human need and one that, ethically speaking, we as a species should be in favor of, at the very least. Never mind logistics or whose responsibility it is - just as a matter of principle, does anyone not “deserve” clean drinking water? Okay, then, reasonable people agree. What about electricity? This one is a little stickier, ethically speaking. Although arguing for clean water is a relatively easy sell, the same cannot be said of electricity – and I know there are those who would argue fervently that it is equal in importance and therefore, an ethical issue.
Where electricity is essential for clean water, I’ll grant it, but otherwise no, it is not necessary nor is it an ethical issue. Electricity makes life more comfortable, it is not, however, essential to life. In other words, it is clearly not in the same class as clean water. Since communication technology is much farther up the continuum than electricity, it, too, is not an ethical issue. And as much as free speech is an inalienable human right, access to various mediums is not – not even among the wealthiest. I cannot take my message down to my local newspaper and say, “Here, print this.” I can, however, pay them to print it, but not just any old way I want it – it would be clearly identified as an advertisement. No amount of money (theoretically) can get my message printed with all the credibility of an actual news story. I know that there are myriad examples of ethical rules being broken in journalism, but that is exactly the point – these are the ethics. Access to a particular medium is not an ethical question.
And by extension, so goes communication technology. Before the telephone was invented, nobody had one. It was many years before the telephone was available to the masses. In many places in the world, it is still not. Is this fair? In some senses, no, but in respect to what one needs to lead a life without unnecessary risk or danger – in terms of humanity – yes, it is as fair as it has always been. Should we, the “haves,” strive to help those less privileged than ourselves? From a personal ethical position, yes; but is there a responsibility to get all the billions of “have-nots” onto the information super-highway? Not necessarily - it is not that cut-and-dried. There are far more pressing concerns than to call communication technology essential to being part of humanity. It is questionable as to whether it even makes life better. We have done quite well without for thousands of years; just because we enjoy the pleasures (and the pains) of instant availability – and despite the fact that some cannot now "live" without it – the Internet is not an essential human need. Not here. Not anywhere.