The Digital Divide And The New Caste System

Access To The Internet and Data Privacy Are Creating A Digital world of "Haves" and "Have Nots"

While access to “information and communications technology (ICT)”, such as computers, smartphones, WiFi, and the internet generally, have brought a wealth of knowledge, accessibility, and connectedness to the global community, it has also bifurcated this same population. (Dutton, William H. 2013).

The importance of creating greater digital-access equitability on a global, scale is vital and remains a new but growing issue. The digital divide, “affects how we work and what we work toward, how we connect with each other and with whom we connect, and how we make decisions and with what information (Servon, Lisa J., 2002).

The question of access to ICT is not merely two-pronged: the digital divide is not simply between those with access to internet and those without. Yes, there is the literal, tangible question of access, but there is a more clandestine division occurring as well, one which separates users on economic, racial, social and geographic lines.

“Rather than simply thinking about the so-called digital divide in binary terms—a person either has access to the Internet or not, is either a user or not—it is better to recognize that individuals, organizations, and countries may be differentiated by online experiences and abilities beyond core technical access” (Dutton, William H. 2013).

According to recent findings by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), access to ICT is most widely prevalent in advanced economies and precipitously lower in developing nations. Indeed, “countries in sub-Saharan Africa, followed by many in emerging and developing economies in Asia, are among those with the lowest access to the Internet despite being world leaders in mobile money transactions” (García-Escribano, Mercedes 2020).

The global ramifications can’t be overstated. As access to ICT in certain countries continues to grow, advances in technology become greater and digital learning continues to amplify, the gap is widening further between the “haves” and the “have nots”.

So much of this divide is based on income and average household spending power to afford ICT. “Income inequality and inequality of opportunity may worsen—even in advanced economies—because disadvantaged groups and people who live in rural areas have more limited Internet access” (García-Escribano, Mercedes, 2020).

In this way, the digital divide is not only one of income, but geography. Those living in urban areas, with access to higher paying jobs are, therefore, able to invest in their continued digital literacy, whereas someone in a more rural area with less income and access, and less digital infrastructure, will simply not have the same opportunities for growth and, by virtue, fall behind. 

“The digital divide is now recognized as an international issue. (The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development)OECD countries account for over three-fourths of the world’s Internet users. In virtually all countries, Internet users tend to be young, urban, male, and relatively well educated and wealthy. In short, the diffusion of technology both within and between countries has been extremely uneven.” (Servon, Lisa J., 2002)

This finding is extremely telling. It establishes the typical internet user as young, educated, male and relatively wealthy. This means that access to the internet and technology associated with accessing it, is divided on very tangible demographic lines.

Put simply, “socioeconomic status, such as educational background and income, are strongly related to disparities in ICT access” (Dutton, William H. 2013).

It’s ironic how something like the internet which is, by nature, free and entirely open for us by the public, is actually extremely divisive along traditional socioeconomic lines. One also can’t talk about socioeconomics without addressing race, which plays a big factor in the digital divide.

“Even though all racial groups now own more computers than they did in 1994, Blacks and Hispanics now lag even further behind Whites in their levels of PC-ownership and on-line access… White households are still more than twice as likely (40.8%) to own a computer than Black (19.3%) or Hispanic (19.4%) households.” (Lader, Wendy; McConnaughey, James W., 1998).

This has a detrimental and widening effect on every aspect of life. Without equal access to ICT, non-white communities cannot access things like hiring sites to get jobs. These groups also, then, don’t have the option to work from home at any point and are forced to seek out entirely on-site careers, which require a commute.

With entirely on-site positions, the employee is bound to their job in a way that a person with work from home capabilities is not. Commuting costs times, it costs gas and vehicle upkeep for those with cars, and for those on public transit, there is an even greater time commitment. If an employee can’t work from home and that person is sick and can’t physically come into work, then that employee loses however many days of pay until they’re better and this loss of income can be detrimental, in some cases.

Also, without early access to ICT, the job market is automatically narrowed in adulthood. Communities without a base knowledge of computer programs, such a Word or Excel, will be overlooked in favor of a person who’s had experience in these programs, which, per Lader and McConnaughey, would mean that more of these traditional, steady office roles are likely given to White internet users.

In considering Lader and McConnaugheys findings, then, it would stand to reason that, as White access to ICT continues to grow, and access by Black and Hispanic communities is lessened by comparison, then it stands to reason that the digital divide is spilling over into the realm of work opportunities, income, and therefore, access to housing, insurance, education, and family planning. Without access to the internet and a job with consistent income, the overall ability to support oneself and one’s family becomes more difficult, if impossible. As the divide grows, White families continue to grow in wealth and opportunity as Black and Hispanic careers and families are being left behind.

“In the realm of early research on the adoption of personal computers, studies showed that socioeconomic factors such as income, education, and occupation of the head of household were important predictors of having this resource in the home” (Dutton, William H. (2013).

This means that the divide is seemingly generational. If the head of household does not have ICT access then the threat of passing that lack along to their children is high.

It’s also worth noting that this problem is specifically divided on racial lines and is not divided on traditional gender lines. “While the gender gap in basic Internet access has disappeared in some countries such as the US, Sweden, Japan, South Korea, Singapore (Ono and Zavodny 2007), and the United Kingdom, gender differences in skills and usage have persisted over time” (Dutton, William H. 2013).

While in certain cases, disparities in access between genders are persisting, they are not necessarily widening in the same way as racial lines of access have been, globally.

The system has seemingly no safeguards or governance for racial equality and certain companies are tapping into data privacy and security to further exploit the digital divide. 

In looking at the case study of Facebook’s Ethnic Affinity Ads, one sees how access to the internet, and, concurrently, data sharing and privacy can be weaponized by major digital-only companies on a massive scale.

It’s not new that, essentially, all online businesses accumulate user data to serve them targeted ads and drive revenue via these ad purchases on their highly trafficked sites.

Facebook, however, took this targeted ad system a step further by introducing Ethnic Affinity Ads, wherein it allowed, “advertisers to target specific groups — or, apparently to exclude specific groups — using huge reams of personal data the company had collected about its users” (Angwin, Julia; Parris Jr., Terry, 2016).

By changing the system from targeted ads, based off user data, and changed it to an ad-serving system that allowed for entire groups to be excluded based on assumed ethnic leanings, Facebook managed to segregate data, ads, and access on its planform.

“The ubiquitous social network not only allowed advertisers to target users by their interests or background, it also gave advertisers the ability to exclude specific groups it calls ‘Ethnic Affinities.’ Ads that exclude people based on race, gender and other sensitive factors are prohibited by federal law in housing and employment” (Angwin, Julia; Parris Jr., Terry, 2016).

In Angwin and Parris Jr.’s article, the authors take a practical approach in demonstrating the racist leaning underpinnings that Ethnic Affinity Ads allow users to practice. 

In the article they take out an ad targeted to recent, new homebuyers and are able to adjust the ad to, “excluded anyone with an ‘affinity’ for African-American, Asian-American or Hispanic people (Angwin, Julia; Parris Jr., Terry, 2016).

Such blatant prejudice would seem highly illegal; however, Facebook was relatively manipulative in their wording for Ethnic Affinity Ads.

Indeed, what makes the practice so nefarious is that it attempts to intuit racial identity based off the ads with which users interact on the site and seeks to put together a racial profile based off this data. It’s a way of skirting the issue of racial profiling while simultaneously making sweeping “data-backed” generalizations about users race.

As Shannon Bond explains, “to be clear, the targeting options are not based on a user’s demographics or personal attributes, but on whether they have interacted with content on Facebook that is related to specific topics.” (Bond, Shannon, 2021).

In this way, Facebook is avoiding any implications of racism or data misuse. The company can illude any claims at racial-specific profiling by saying that they’re merely doing what all companies do and serving ads based off what that user previously clicked on.

If ITC access inequality represents a tangible, visible aspect of the digital divide, Facebook’s Ethnic Affinity Ads shows the other, more insidious side of the coin that can be exploited more surreptitiously using non-visible internet metrics like data and user privacy.

Facebook generates a reported annual $86 billion USD in revenue (Bond, Shannon, 2021) from ad sales, so the question becomes one of how to regulate a non-traditional, non-brick-and-mortar-style business from socially, racially, or gender discriminatory practices.

“Internal governance, or corporate self-regulation, has frequently proven inadequate to the task. But the development of external rules and regulations for digital platforms faces some distinct challenges.” (Flew, Terry, 2021).

Meaning, that while the companies themselves can’t be trusted upon to self-govern, the question of external governance may be equally difficult. The same can be said for greater ITC connectivity; one cannot simply force governments to budget for and then create access to greater internet-supported infrastructure.

Mercedes argues that, “government support, for instance by ensuring the Internet investment is complemented with universal electricity access, is essential…Policies should also be geared to closing the Internet gap for firms. Broadening small businesses’ access to financial products such as loans will allow these firms to undertake productive investments in information and communications technology” (García-Escribano, Mercedes, 2020).

As for greater data-privacy governance, and policing discriminatory practices based off that data, there exist varying degrees of regulation, usually varying, globally, by country.

For example, the EU implements a system called General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), while the US relies on a number of patchwork acts including The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Act and the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA). China, historically unconcerned for the individual freedoms of its internet users, has, as of 2021, passed the Personal Information Protection Law (PIPL), the nation’s first data privacy law, which seeks to protect user information for individuals and businesses.

Despite differing forms of attempted regulation and the drive for greater access, “the stark reality is that achieving privacy is especially difficult for those who are marginalized in other areas of life” (Boyd, Danah; E. Marwick, Alice, 2018).

All these acts and networks vary and all concern themselves with the freedom versus security conundrum in the ongoing march toward a more egalitarian internet.

Equitability among race, gender, economic and social tiers is highly dependent on access and until governments from emerging to established economies decide to invest in their infrastructures to create greater connectivity while also ensuring that said connectivity comes with data privacy and non-discriminatory practices, it seems the digital divide is only set to grow more chasmic.


Angwin, Julia; Parris Jr., Terry, (2016) Facebook Lets Advertisers Exclude Users by Race, ProPublica

Bond, Shannon, (2021), Facebook scraps ad targeting based on politics, race and other ‘sensitive’ topics,

Boyd, Danah; E. Marwick, Alice, (2018), Understanding Privacy at the Margins: Introduction, University of Southern California p. 1158

Dutton, William H. (2013), The Oxford Handbook of Internet Studies, Oxford University Press

Flew, Terry (2021) Regulating platforms, Polity, ch.3

García-Escribano, Mercedes (2020) IMF blog online)

Lader, Wendy; McConnaughey, James W., Falling Through The Net II: New Data On The Digital Divide, National Telecommunications and Internet Administration).

Servon, Lisa J., (2002) Bridging the digital divide: technology, community, and public policy, Blackwell Publishing, p.1-2

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