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The global digital divide

Many people believe that Internet access should be a basic human right: everyone should have equal access to the information and opportunities available from Internet-connected computers.
Unfortunately, there's an uneven distribution in access to computing devices and the Internet. Some people have no computing device at all, some people have high-speed Internet on their home computer, and many are somewhere in the middle. This difference in access is referred to as the digital divide and is often due to socioeconomic, geographic, or demographic factors.

The statistics

Let's start off by looking at the "global digital divide," the differences between all the countries of the world.
This animation of IP address usage in 2013 gives us a feel for the differences in access to the Internet across the globe:
An animated GIF of a world map with colored dots blinking on and off. There are few colored dots in Russia, Africa, the middle of Australia, the Amazon jungle, parts of Canada, and parts of China.
Created by a botnet of 420,000 devices. Image source: Wikipedia
But to really understand the global digital divide, we need to dig deeper and look at the statistics for each country.
This visualization shows the percentage of individuals using the Internet in each country in 2016:
A map of the world with each country colored based on its percentage of individuals accessing the Internet.
Chart source: OurWorldInData.org
In Norway, 96% of the population used the Internet. In Somalia, the percentage drops to only 2%.
This next map visualizes the average speed of Internet connections in each country in 2019:
A map of the world, with each country colored based on its average Internet speed. Countries like Sweden, the United States, and Spain are shaded darker, indicating that they have a faster speed, whereas countries like Chad and South Sudan are lighter meaning the have slower Internet speed.
In Yemen it would take an average of 30hrs, 1 minute and 40 seconds to download a 5GB movie. In Taiwan, it would take only 8 minutes.
🤔How fast is your Internet connection? How would life be different if your connection was much faster or much slower?

The reasons

For every country, the
needed for high-speed Internet is an economic investment, either by the government or by Internet carrier companies. Why is it that some countries or companies make that investment, and others do not?
The most obvious answer is money: not all countries have the budget to build Internet infrastructure. But there are other factors at play as well.

Geography

Internet connections require physical infrastructure; cables between connected buildings and cables connecting one geographic region to the greater Internet.
Multiple geographic factors make it harder to wire up a country:
A large country. Taiwan has the highest average speed in the world but it's also one of the smallest countries. Brazil has a low average speed but is also 237 times larger than Taiwan; they need more physical infrastructure to cover all that area.
The outline of the country of Brazil next to the outline of the country of Taiwan.
An island nation. Tonga is a nation of 76 islands in the Pacific. They had very slow Internet speeds until 2013, when a 514-mile fiber cable was installed. When that cable was accidentally severed by a ship, the islands lost Internet for 12 days. Small island nations often have less connections to the Internet than large land-locked nations. start superscript, 1, end superscript
A map of the Pacific ocean and the nations around it, with many lines connecting nations.
Each line represents an underwater cable, together forming the larger Internet. Image source: Submarine cable map
Difficult terrain. In the country of Nepal, residents can easily find high speed Internet in the capital city of Kathmandu. However, it's much harder to bring the infrastructure to the many mountainous regions of Nepal, so the average Internet speed is still quite slow. squared
Satellite map of the country of Nepal
Image source: Google Maps
🤔In what ways could developed countries help other countries improve their Internet infrastructure? How does one country benefit from another country's ability to use the Internet?

Government restrictions

The Internet is a powerful vehicle for communication and freedom of expression, empowering its users to communicate with other people across the globe and express their opinions. Sadly, some governments feel threatened by that freedom of expression and take efforts to restrict access to the Internet.

Internet black holes

The country of North Korea has been almost entirely cut off from the global Internet for the entirety of its existence. In 2015, Secretary of State John Kerry remarked that North Korea had the "lowest rate of access in the world and the most rigid and centralized control." cubed
A satellite image of China, North Korea, and South Korea at night. The region of North Korea is completely dark except for the lit up capital city.
A satellite image of North Korea in 2014. The country is barely visible at night due to its limited electricity. Image source: NASA
There is just one Internet Service Provider in North Korea, and that ISP is a joint venture between the North Korean government and a Thai company. There are only 1,024 IP addresses allocated to that ISP, limiting the number of possible connections between North Korea and the rest of the Internet. Access to the Internet is said to be restricted to government officials and foreigners. start superscript, 4, end superscript
As of 2016, there were only 28 publicly available websites hosted on North Korean IP addresses, compared to more than a million websites from the neighboring South Korea. start superscript, 4, end superscript
Screenshot of rodong.rep.kp with a listing of articles titled "Supreme Leader's Activities"
A screenshot of one of the few North Korean websites available on the global Internet. It features daily news about the country's leader and is available in both Korean and English. Image source: rodong.rep.kp
According to sources inside North Korea, there is a nation-wide
called Kwangmyong that provides access to a few thousand websites. Since there are very few computers outside the capital city of Pyongyang and most of the computers there are found in government-controlled buildings, it's estimated that only 10% of the population has even used Kwangmyong.
Since there is no easy way to communicate with North Korean citizens, we don't know how many North Koreans know about the existence of the global Internet and how much larger it is than their local intranet.
Photo of a room full of North Koreans in front of desktop computers
A computer lab in Pyongyang, North Korea. The computers give access to the North Korean intranet called Kwangmyong. When this photo was taken in 2014, the computers were using Windows XP and Internet Explorer 6.0. Image source: Bjørn Christian Tørrissen

Internet shutdowns

In other countries, governments are finding ways to shut down an already booming Internet, particularly during times of civil unrest.
In November 2019, the country of Iran shut down access to the Internet after a series of protests about rising fuel prices. NetBlocks.org monitored the network connectivity in Iran and found that access hovered around 5% for five days.
A graph of network connectivity in Iran created by Netblocks.org software. The x-axis goes from November 14 to November 26, and the y-axis goes from 0% to 125%. The graph starts at 100%, dips a few times over the first two days, then dips all the way to 5% for 5 days, then gradually rises back to nearly 100%.
Image source: NetBlocks.org
NetBlocks.org called the Iranian shutdown "the most severe disconnection tracked by NetBlocks in any country in terms of its technical complexity and breadth." start superscript, 6, end superscript
Since Iran is a large country with multiple ISPs and Internet protocols are designed to be fault-tolerant, it isn't easy to simply shut off the Internet. The initial dips in the chart above may have been the first attempts by Iranian ISPs to bypass their own system's fault-tolerant recovery mechanisms.

Internet kill switches

Some countries are nervous about how difficult it is to shut down the Internet and are trying to implement a "kill switch", a single shut-off mechanism for the entire country's Internet traffic.
Photo of a wall of dials and switches, where one switch says "Internet" next to a sign that says "Internet switch must be on at all times."
A switch on an airplane to turn the Internet off. Some governments would like a switch for their entire country. Image source: Trammell Hudson
Russia is one country that's made recent progress towards a kill switch, with a 2019 law that allows the government to shut down access to the Internet "in an emergency."
To make a kill switch technically feasible, the law requires all ISPs to route traffic through government-controlled points and to install software that can monitor and filter traffic using "deep packet inspection" technology. Russia also plans to build its own DNS system, so that it is no longer dependent on foreign hosted DNS servers to resolve domain names. start superscript, 8, end superscript
Illustration of deep packet inspection technology: a network of routers across Russia, with government eyes watching the lines between the routers, and only government controlled routers at the borders of the nation.
If the Russian government succeeds, then they will both be able to shut off their citizen's access to the global Internet while maintaining access to Russian hosted websites. Russian council chairman Leonid Levin says:
“It's more about creating a reliable Internet that will continue to work in the event of external influences, such as a massive hacker attack.” start superscript, 9, end superscript
Not all the citizens of Russia are convinced, however. When the law was first drafted in March, a series of protests broke out over Russia. Activist Sergei Boiko said this to one of the protesting crowds:
"The government is battling freedom, including freedom on the Internet, I can tell you this as somebody who spent a month in jail for a tweet." start superscript, 10, end superscript
🤔Are there any situations in which you would be comfortable with your country's government restricting access to the Internet?

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