In today’s interconnected world, access to the internet has become essential for economic, social, and educational growth and opportunities. Yet, despite this global growth of digital technologies, the UN reported that in 2021, nearly half of the world’s population lacked internet access. The population without access to the internet in ‘developed’ countries and ‘developing’ countries stands at 13% and 53%, respectively. The Covid-19 pandemic and its consequences on the ways in which we move, communicate, and interact, has drawn growing attention to this digital divide and reinforced the need for equitable internet access. In Sri Lanka, like many other countries, there exists a significant gap between urban and rural areas when it comes to internet access and digital literacy. This divide not only hinders progress but also impacts individuals’ grasp of digital rights. In this blog , we discuss a high-level analysis of the urban-rural gap in terms of the digital literacy divide, and how addressing these issues is vital to empower all Sri Lankans to fully exercise their digital rights.
The Urban-Rural Gap:
Sri Lanka’s urban areas, such as Colombo, enjoy relatively better internet infrastructure and connectivity compared to rural regions. Urban sectors often have higher population density, which attracts investments in internet infrastructure. Comparatively, rural areas do not attract nearly as much investment, resulting in compounding challenges such as limited connectivity and fewer service providers. This urban-rural gap in internet access creates a digital divide, limiting rural residents’ ability to exercise their digital rights fully. In 2021, 72% of the urban population were digitally literate while the rural and estate sector recorded digital literacy levels of 55.2% and 38.2%, respectively. Further, the majority (36.5%) of the computer owned households in Sri Lanka were from the Western province. The lowest availability was reported from the Eastern province (11.9%). As shown by these statistics, the urban-rural gap in internet access has created a digital divide with regards to equitable internet access, thus limiting rural residents’ capacities to navigate the internet as well as meaningfully realise their digital rights.
Digital Literacy Divide:
UNESCO defines digital literacy as “the ability to access, manage, understand, integrate, communicate, evaluate and create information safely and appropriately through digital technologies for employment, decent jobs and entrepreneurship. It includes competences that are variously referred to as computer literacy, ICT literacy, information literacy and media literacy”.
According to the 2021 World Bank Report, nearly 70% of those who do not use the internet in low and middle-income countries experience poor digital literacy, and these limitations appear to dominate in South Asia. The household surveys conducted in 22 developing countries in 2017/18 found that the reasons most frequently cited by people for not taking up data services are related to digital literacy (69%). This significant digital literacy divide in South Asia extends to Sri Lanka as well. The current landscape of digital infrastructure in Sri Lanka, where urban areas receive more internet access and facilities, has negatively impacted the country’s levels of digital literacy; this low digital literacy in turn contributes to the digital divide along lines such as socioeconomic class, geographical location, and gender. According to the 2021 Computer Literacy Statistics issued by the Sri Lanka Department of Census and Statistics, Sri Lanka has a digital literacy rate of 57.2%. While urban areas benefit from better facilitated educational institutions, technology exposure, and access to training programs, rural communities often lack these resources.
Limited digital literacy skills restrict individuals from understanding their digital rights, including privacy, freedom of expression, and access to information. Prioritising digital literacy skill building is vital as a digitally literate citizenry would be more motivated to access the internet, and in turn become empowered to learn, connect, and have informed engagements in a world where communication and access to information happen mainly via digital technologies. Moreover, it would provide the ability to claim educational, economic, entrepreneurial and political opportunities that may otherwise be unattainable
Implications for Digital Rights:
The lack of internet access and digital literacy has profound implications on the awareness of digital rights among Sri Lankans.
- Limited access to information: Without reliable internet access, individuals in rural areas struggle to access information, news, and educational resources available online with consistency. This hinders their ability to stay informed and engage in meaningful civic participation. This was especially true during the Covid-19 pandemic, when digital technologies became crucial for the continuity of schools, businesses, and other public and private services. Seemingly overnight, there arose a requirement to possess, access and operate digital devices to maintain almost all aspects of life including shopping, banking, and healthcare. This led to the awareness of the importance of digital literacy for daily living. Many people were subjected to this in an environment where proper awareness of digital rights, safety, and privacy was not common knowledge, which led to many being left vulnerable to false and unreliable information.
- Restricted freedom of expression: Digital platforms provide spaces for individuals to express their opinions, voice concerns, and engage in public discourse. Over time, social media networks have grown to become powerful and influential spaces that can create tangible social change through engagement and mobilisation. The lack of digital literacy would mean that people are not made aware of their right to freedom of expression within the digital space. Without digital literacy skills and access to the internet, individuals would not only be excluded from conversations that affect them, but would also hesitate to exercise their freedom of expression online. Good digital literacy skills would allow citizens to freely and mindfully engage in civic discourse, and empower them to resist situations and discourses in which they feel unsafe. This is especially important for countries like Sri Lanka where civic space is heavily surveilled and freedom of expression is often threatened.
- Privacy and data protection concerns: The lack of awareness about privacy settings and data protection practices can make individuals vulnerable to online threats and privacy breaches. The lack of proper digital literacy training leads to a poor understanding of their rights in the digital realm, causing Sri Lankans to unknowingly compromise their personal data and privacy.
Bridging the Divide:
Addressing the urban-rural gap and digital literacy divide is crucial for empowering individuals to understand and exercise their digital rights fully. Here are some key steps that can be taken:
- Infrastructure development: Digital infrastructure development enables the growth of communication and information sharing methods that are collaborative. Given that urban sectors are known to enjoy higher levels of infrastructure and digital literacy, expanding internet infrastructure in rural areas should be a priority in order to bridge this disparity and ensure inclusive connectivity. Due to the lack of interest and potential use, private companies are often reluctant to provide infrastructure to rural areas. In such cases, the State should incentivize digital infrastructure. This includes improving connectivity, establishing more internet service providers, and leveraging technology such as satellite internet to reach remote regions. This will help boost the digital infrastructure deployment in the country and contribute to bridging the divide.
- Digital literacy programs and public awareness campaigns: The implementation of comprehensive digital literacy programs across the country will equip individuals with the necessary skills to navigate the digital landscape. These programs should be accessible in schools, as well as publicly accessible spaces such as community centers and libraries, focusing on both rural and urban areas. Attention should be paid to bolstering digital literacy among groups that are likely to be excluded or have limited access to such resources such as women entrepreneurs especially in rural areas. Such awareness and education will lead to reducing vulnerabilities and equipping individuals with fair opportunities. Further, public awareness campaigns can be conducted to educate individuals on digital rights, data privacy best practices, and responsible online behaviour which will empower them to protect themselves while participating confidently in the digital space.
- Collaboration and partnerships: Poor digital literacy and inequitable access to data infrastructure is a global issue. Therefore, it is important for governments, non-governmental organisations, private sector entities, and international stakeholders across the world to collaborate to bridge the digital divide. By pooling resources and expertise, we can ensure sustainable progress toward digital inclusion and the protection of digital rights.
The digital age we live in is full of promise and possibility for individuals and communities who have access, literacy and training to safely and effectively utilise digital technologies. Yet, this blog has highlighted how the ground realities in many developing countries including Sri Lanka point to a considerable digital divide. The time has come to spend time and resources on digital infrastructure development and digital literacy training. This should include proactive measures by the State to ensure fast, fair and effective rollout of digital infrastructure. Such steps would help bridge the digital divide and ensure that individuals are not left behind in a rapidly moving digitally dominated world.