Risk of digital divide in Europe still very present, finds expert report
Despite the fact that more citizens are now using information and communication technologies (ICTs), there is still a real risk that Europe's knowledge society could become more, rather than less, polarised. This is the conclusion drawn by a new report produced by the European Commission in cooperation with a high-level group of Member State experts. The document analyses the trends in ICT access and use among different countries and social groups between 2001 and 2003, and suggests strategies to further reduce the digital divide. From the outset, the report notes that 'while exclusion from the Information Society does not by itself necessarily lead to social exclusion, it is broadly true that the socially excluded tend to have limited access to ICT.' For example, while many first predicted that ICTs would help overcome the disadvantages faced by people living in rural and peripheral areas, in reality the initial concentration of broadband access in major cities has exacerbated the division between rural and urban areas. Similarly, while the digital divide appears to be narrowing according to some indicators, for example gender, according to others, particularly those related to levels of education and income, there are few signs that the gaps are narrowing. Geographical disparities among EU Member States and candidate countries are still very much apparent. On the one hand, while Luxembourg and the UK have now joined the Nordic countries and the Netherlands with an Internet access rate of over 50 per cent, Ireland, Spain and France still fall below the EU-25 average of 41 per cent with a penetration of around 35 per cent, and Portugal and Greece lag further behind at around 21 per cent. According to figures for the newer Member States, Estonia and Slovenia both have Internet access rates above the EU-25 average, while the lowest levels of access can be found in the candidate countries - Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey. Interestingly, a significantly higher proportion of Internet users in the new Member States and candidate countries are able to log on at home and at work than in the EU-15 area. Turning its attention to socio-economic and demographic criteria, the report stresses that the rapid increase in Internet penetration has affected all age groups and socio-economic categories, but to markedly different extents. '[E]ducation, age and income appear to be the most important variables along which the 'digital divide' is configured. Gender related and geographical factors (rural/urban divide) show a still relevant, but relatively lesser influence on exclusion from Internet use,' it notes. While this would seem to support widely held theories on innovation diffusion, whereby 'access to technology is eventually extended to the vast majority of people, but with a different timeframe for different groups', the report's authors say that there are reasons to believe that ICTs follow a different pattern. 'As ICT diffusion progresses along existing socio-economic and demographic break lines, the exclusion from access and use can reinforce the relative disadvantage which originally caused the exclusion itself,' they argue. Hence, 'the risk that Europe will evolve toward a more polarised, instead of a more inclusive knowledge society is still very present.' To address this concern, the high-level group of Member State experts argues that coordinated public intervention at European, national, regional and local levels is still needed. Specifically, the provision of infrastructure and technology to underserved and remote areas is seen as being crucial, as are means of skills acquisition for those groups most at risk of exclusion. Finally, as the knowledge society is by definition a 'moving target', the report also calls for the establishment of adequate indicators and benchmarking to assess such policies, and recommends a more sustained effort for the collection and dissemination of good practices.