The Internet has changed our lives for the better in so many ways: we can talk to our grandparents on the other side of the world in an instant, we can access the combined knowledge of the world in one place, and listen to 30 million songs with the touch of a button… but there are downsides, as a new report from the World Bank has found.
The 'digital dividends' that we've mentioned above, including economic growth and increased access to education, are unevenly distributed. For those who can't access the Web, social inequalities could be exacerbated, widening the divisions between the haves and the have-nots. If some countries gain access to technologies such as artificial intelligence way before others, the report posits, then it could be hugely damaging for those left behind.
"To deliver universal digital access, we must invest in infrastructure and pursue reforms that bring greater competition to telecommunications markets, promote public-private partnerships, and yield effective regulation," writes Jim Yong Kim, the president of the World Bank Group. "The full benefits of the information and communications transformation will not be realised unless countries continue to improve their business climate, invest in people's education and health, and promote good governance."
Around 60 percent of the planet remains offline, according to the report, although efforts such as Google's Loon Project and Facebook's Internet.org initiative are looking to reduce that number. Even in the richest and most developed nations, only 3-5 percent of the population is employed in the technology industry - another imbalance which needs to be addressed to ensure the benefits of a connected Web trickle down to everyone rather than the privileged few.
As The New York Times reports, the World Bank is calling for governments and Silicon Valley companies to consider a competitive marketplace, worker skills, new job creation, and accountability for agencies alongside the spread of Internet access - getting the world online will not be enough on its own to ensure the Internet's benefits reach all 7 billion of us on the planet.
"The digital revolution is transforming the world, aiding information flows, and facilitating the rise of developing nations that are able to take advantage of these new opportunities," said World Bank chief economist, Kaushik Basu. "While these achievements are to be celebrated, this is also occasion to be mindful that we do not create a new underclass. With nearly 20 percent of the world's population unable to read and write, the spread of digital technologies alone is unlikely to spell the end of the global knowledge divide."
The report did point to many positive impacts of the digital revolution, however, including digital ID systems for those without paperwork, a huge drop in the cost of sending money in countries such as Kenya, accessibility technologies for those with disabilities, and increased numbers of entrepreneurs. The next challenge is to make sure the benefits are evenly distributed.