On September 18, the Valdai Discussion Club hosted an expert discussion, titled “How to Avoid Inequality in Access to the Digital Future”, dedicated to the technological gap between developed and developing countries. Oleg Barabanov, the moderator of the discussion, called digital inequality an extremely important topic and emphasised that this year the BRICS and G20 agenda was largely devoted to it.
Igor Ashmanov, President of Kribrum JSC, Member of the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights, pointed out that the digital divide is often understood as the difference in the access of ordinary users to certain digital technologies. Meanwhile, in his opinion, such access in itself should not be considered an unconditional benefit and the difference in it should not be presented as a key problem. More important, from Ashmanov’s point of view, is another aspect - the stratification between countries, and the lack of technology in developing countries. “The main thing is that developing countries will not be allowed into the technology club,” he noted, adding that most of the world receives technology from leaders in a “black box”. “If you use these technologies to give your citizens access to these platforms, then you have not overcome the digital divide, but have fallen into the state of a digital colony,” Ashmanov explained. According to him, in order to overcome the digital divide in the true sense of the word, a country needs to develop technologies itself, that is, create digital sovereignty.
Arvind Gupta, Chairman and Co-founder of Digital India Foundation, spoke about India’s experience preventing “digital colonisation”. He emphasised that the Internet was created as a public technology, and not a technology over which only a few select parties should have control. It is important for India that it does not turn into an instrument of influence of certain countries or corporations, as happened at a certain moment. To prevent this from happening in the future, India is creating a public digital infrastructure. “Now in India, we are talking about digital connectivity. We use conventional digital tools based on our own technology,” Gupta said, adding that India is establishing control over all applications, operating systems and devices used in the country. He urged other countries to learn from India's experience and not leave digital technology and access to data to others.
Jacques Sapir, Professor of Economics at the Paris Higher School of Social Sciences (EHESS) and Lomonosov Moscow State University, pointed out that in addition to the digital divide between countries, there is a digital divide inside countries, including those considered rich and developed, both geographically and related to the degree of development infrastructure, and, for example, generational, related to the level of education. He noted that often, particularly in France at the moment, increases in the cost of living and decreases in income serve as an obstacle to the spread of digitalisation. Speaking about the gap at the country level, he emphasized the need to develop common rules for the whole world, adding that monopolisation and attempts to dominate are very dangerous.
Rasigan Maharajh, Chief Director of the Institute for Economic Research on Innovation at the Tshwane University of Technology (South Africa), returned to the issue of the uneven distribution of science and technology around the world, recognising the serious imbalance between African countries and the rest of the world and the growing digital divide both between and within specific countries. Against this backdrop, Africa is constantly in need of transforming existing infrastructure or creating new infrastructure. Foreign capital coming to African countries is more often used for their exploitation than for development. As a result, a situation of neo-colonialism is created, when, despite formal sovereignty, state policy in many areas is actually controlled from abroad. To overcome this, he considers it necessary to work more actively at the BRICS+ level.
Radhika Desai,Professor, Faculty of Political Studies, Director of the Geopolitical Economics Research Group, University of Manitoba (Canada), is confident that if current trends continue, the digital divide, which has been on the international agenda since the beginning of the 2000s, will increase. She compared the socio-economic consequences of insufficient access to digital technologies with those of illiteracy in the last century. “Everyone who cares about the well-being of the whole world should think about how to close this gap,” she said. She believes important aspects of this include providing the world with electricity and industrial development, as well as improving education, without which digital development is impossible. In addition, in her opinion, private ownership of digital technologies remains a dangerous factor contributing to the growth of exploitation, and these technologies need to be transferred into the hands of the public.
Konstantin Pantserev, Professor at the Department of Theory and History of International Relations, Faculty of International Relations, St. Petersburg State University, analysed the relationship between the concepts of technological sovereignty and the digital divide. He noted that a state seeking to overcome the digital divide, but not having its own resources to do so, is in any case forced to resort to the help of leading world powers, primarily Western countries, which ultimately make it dependent on their technology. He looked at the African experience as an example.
According to him, digital technology was and is perceived by African countries as a key tool for economic development. At the same time, African countries do not have independent opportunities to create a developed infrastructure on their territory and build an innovative economy. As a result, despite starting with strict government regulation of the information and telecommunications sector, under pressure from the West (whose support they needed), they liberalized the technological sphere. As a result, almost the entire ICT industry of the continent came under the control of Western businesses.