Information Inequality is a Global Issue

Access to information is a fundamental freedom. That’s the central theme of this year’s World Press Freedom Day, on May 3. The aim is certainly laudable, but is information access alone really enough? In a world where inequality in all forms is rampant, are we doing enough to ensure socially inclusive access to information? As it stands, access to information remains unequally distributed, particularly for already vulnerable populations.

This stark information inequality manifests itself in many different ways. Take gender: Women around the world are excluded in both subtle and overt ways from participating equally in the creation and dissemination of information. Globally, women occupy less than one third of full-time media and ICT positions, and even fewer work in senior leadership roles. Only 10% of news stories worldwide focus on women, and roughly 80% of “experts” interviewed are men. Beyond that, only 21% of women in developing countries have access to the Internet, which limits equitable educational and employment opportunities.

Worse still, when women take a role online, particularly as journalists, two out of three experience harassment. In many cases, this becomes so significant that they remove themselves from the conversation and self-censorship defeats information equality. We hear of this happening repeatedly from Colombia to Pakistan to Sri Lanka and beyond. As Colombian activist and lawyer Carolina Botero Cabrera recently told us, “We found that many [journalists] decided to leave online media altogether, especially those who were engaged in really sensitive issues, such as mining, bribes and corruption. They simply decided to erase their online profiles because the harassment they were being subjected to was so nasty.”

Another problem is language; access to information is obviously only meaningful if it’s linguistically appropriate. More than 55% of all websites are in English, yet only 24% of the global population speaks English as a first or a second language. Hundreds of ethnic minority communities risk being left behind because of insufficient information access in their own languages. The issue becomes more pronounced when languages are new to the online environment, such as Burmese with its non-standard alphabet.

Language can also be a complex barrier at local level, where countries are increasingly relying on online media and communications. Sri Lanka, for example, emerged from a brutal 27-year civil war in 2009 and has since been taking tentative steps towards a fragile democracy. It has two primary language groups, Sinhalese and Tamil. Very few people are bi-lingual and the media and information environment is deeply divided along linguistic lines; Sinhalese media for the Sinhalese population and Tamil media for the Tamils. In this island state the lack of access to a shared media keeps people locked into their own echo chambers, creating barriers to the much-needed dialogue and healing that must follow the end of the civil war.

A third factor that locks people into information inequality is censorship and surveillance. All too often, activists and journalists working in conflict zones or closed environments are compromised by state surveillance and censorship. While there are many very good tools that have been developed by the global open source technology community to provide excellent, secure communications, they remain difficult to use. In the heat of the moment, they are abandoned.

Last year, when President Kabila of the Democratic Republic of Congo announced that he would amend electoral law to extend his term, people took to the streets in protest. Kabila immediately responded with a brief shutdown of the Internet and a suspension of SMS services. 72 attacks against journalists were documented in 2015, with security forces responsible for more than half of these attacks, according to a report by Journaliste en Danger, a Congolese press freedom organization. Many journalists responded with self-censorship to remain safe. So whilst on paper DRC is committed to key principles of press freedom and information access, the living reality is often very different.

Beyond simply growing access to information, we are calling for a reduction in global information poverty for the world’s most vulnerable and underserved populations. This means building equitable access to meaningful information that is robust and hard to unravel. This means ensuring market incentives and good policy are in place to ensure a diversity of voices in any given community. This means promoting information inclusion for historically excluded groups such as women, ethnic and religious minorities and LGBTI populations. This means ensuring access is as safe and secure, and that governments are held to account on their commitments.

If we neglect to pay attention to the growing gap between those who have access to trusted information that enables them to advance in their lives and those who do not, the broader global inequalities that we care about will only deepen.

(This story was originally posted on Medium.)