The Internet may be a great source of empowerment for the disenfranchised — if they’re allowed to have it. A new study that examined the Internet access of excluded ethnic groups within countries found that groups subjected to political exclusion were significantly less likely to have Internet access.
The findings, published in the journal Science, show that Internet access, like other valuable resources, can be controlled politically and distributed unfairly.
In some ways, the Internet has opened educational and political opportunities to people who otherwise have limited access to resources. Once-inaccessible documents can now be found with a click or a tap; individuals with a common cause can find one another online and foster political movements.
“In the wake of the Arab Spring, the Internet has often been portrayed as a ‘liberation technology,’ ” the study authors wrote. “Specifically, it has been argued that the Internet fosters transparency and accountability of nondemocratic governments.”
But this idea assumes that those marginalized people — those who might stand to benefit the most from Internet access — are getting that access in the first place. The scientists wondered whether, within nations, the politically marginalized groups were getting left behind.
“In most developing countries, governments are the major, if not the only, provider of telecommunication services,” the authors wrote. “At the same time, in many of these countries, politics operates along ethnic lines, so that one or more groups hold political power at the expense of other, marginalized ones. This allows Internet technology to be implemented in a way that benefits certain groups while neglecting others.”
The researchers looked to the Ethnic Power Relations database, which logs politically relevant groups and their access to state power from 1946 to 2005. (This includes both the groups that have wielded power and those that have found themselves subject to it.)
Then they estimated Internet availability among those groups by pinpointing active Internet subnetworks, which accounted for roughly 256 Internet addresses apiece. This simplified the process by reducing the amount of data the researchers had to process, and it eliminated certain privacy issues that crop up with studying individual IP addresses.
The researchers controlled for a number of factors that could affect ethnic groups’ Internet access, including level of development, geographic location and urban-vs.-rural settings.
They found that ethnic groups that were excluded from political power had only about 60 percent of the Internet access that favored groups did. They also found no evidence that democracy alleviates this tendency. If a country with a democratic political system excludes certain groups politically, those groups also experience this “digital discrimination.”
— Los Angeles Times