The internet has been penetrated into all aspects of human life, profoundly altering the ways we communicate, behave and connect. It has enabled the growth of internet society. And the growth of many digital businesses in India has contributed to the internet economy, monitored by information and communication technologies.

According to the Web Foundation, the worldwide web is a public good and a basic human right, which should benefit all of humanity equally. The internet is a key component in setting up the infrastructure necessary to smooth the transition from a physical to a digital citizenry across the world.

The enlargement of an online community is far steeper and broader than a physical community. People might present a challenge to physical citizenship; it is equally hard to trial digital citizenship to all.

The Internet Society in a 2017 report maintains that the internet allows people to develop and join new communities, and eliminates geographical barriers to make connections. The report estimates that around 53% percent of the world population was offline in 2017, and it was mainly the rural regions of the world that were left out.

This has reasonably contributed to the sharp rise of a digital divide, or digital discrimination. Their personal freedom to express and rights on internet were suspended and put on the hold.

Although the internet has enabled us to hear from hitherto excluded social and political communities, it is losing its purpose of bringing about substantial changes for human advancement. The internet has emerged as a new instrument to sustain business edifices, power structures and the supremacy of select brands.

The government must employ strong measures to arrange for free and affordable internet to maximise participation in digital India. Instead of doing that, however, governments are promoting the culture of internet shutdowns across the country. In 2019, governments in India ordered internet shutdowns more than 100 times, more than any other formal democracy, including the shutdown in Kashmir which has lasted over six months.

In terms of infrastructure, certainly the goal of digital citizens and digital participation is gaining momentum. India has close to 1,162 million mobile phone subscribers and 1,183 million total telephones. In contrast to 2018, however, there was a sharp decline in the number of mobile and telephone subscribers in India in 2019. A major cause of this could be the deteriorating health of the Indian economy.

Last year Telecom Statistics India reported that telephone subscribers in rural and urban India number 514 and 669 million respectively. Given that most Indians live in rural areas, this shows a considerable disparity between rural and urban telephone subscribers, stopping a sizable part of the rural population from existing in the online world.

The Internet and Mobile Association of India found in 2017 that only 40% of mobile internet users in urban India were women, while in rural India, women mobile internet users were only 33% of the total. These inequalities are wide and may be getting wider, a notable obstruction to the purpose of digital equality and participation.

The IAMAI also found in 2019 that two-thirds of internet users in India are between 12-29 years old, showing that those in older age groups are still underrepresented online. This exclusion may hinder older people’s ability to decipher fake news and other business or political propaganda online.

The Web Foundation published a report card on Women’s Rights Online which found that in the poorer areas of New Delhi, only a few women who are online use the internet to look for important information on their rights (17%) or search for a job (29%) or voice their opinions online (8%). The report argues that to minimise this gender gap in India, governments should provide free internet access to the public.

Given the expense of smartphones, laptops, and other mandatory gadgets, the digital divide is explicitly emerging in India, which might result in massive gaps to internet access and affordability. A heavy cost to access and use the new technology will set the stage for this digital discrimination to continue. Digital illiteracy will also persist among excluded groups. This should be a cause of grave concern to all of us.

Ironically, the government and large corporations claim to be manufacturing the background at breakneck pace for Digital India without addressing these unrelenting problems. These emerging issues due to digital gaps must be addressed timely, or an inclusive, just, affordable and sustainable internet society will remain a chimera.

Mohammad Irshad is assistant professor of philosophy at the Indraprastha College for Women, University of Delhi, and Arnisha Ashraf is assistant professor at IMS UNISON University, Dehradun.

Cover photo: Time for a selfie