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Digital Inclusion

Digital Inclusion is social inclusion in the twenty-first century. Digital Inclusion “ensures that all individuals and disadvantaged groups have access to, and skills to use, Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) and are therefore able to participate in and benefit from today's growing knowledge and information society” [1]. Digital Inclusion is interdependent and interrelated to cybersecurity to ensure the online activities of all individuals, governments and communities are realized in a secure, private and reliable manner.

Jump to: Home, Data Governance, Security, Safety, Stability & Resilience

Laura O’Brien


Digital Inclusion ensures that all individuals and groups have access to and skills to use digital technologies irrespective of one’s intersecting identities. Such identities include, but are not limited to: age, ancestry, colour, race, citizenship, ethnic origin, place of origin, disability, education and employment, family and marital status, geographic location, gender identity, gender expression, language, religion, sex, sexual orientation and socioeconomic status. Those who are excluded from this vital twenty-first century platform are at a disadvantage because they are unable to (1) access information online and (2) learn the necessary technical skills to participate in and derive the benefits from the digital realm.

Digital Inclusion arose as a solution to addressing Digital Literacy and the Digital Divide. Digital Literacy is defined as “the skills and abilities necessary for access once the technology is available, including a necessary understanding of the language and component hardware and software required to successfully navigate the technology” (Jaeger et al., 2012, p. 3) [2].

Simply put, Digital Literacy ensures that all people have the necessary skills to navigate and access information online. Digital Divide refers to “the gap [...] between individuals for whom Internet access is readily available and those from whom it is not” on the basis of age, ability, language, socioeconomic status, geography and other factors (Jaeger et al., 2012, p. 3) [3].

These two concepts originally resonated in the 1980s - 1990s to describe the inequalities experienced by those who do not have adequate access to ICTs. However, as digital technologies and social policies evolved, the concept of Digital Inclusion emerged to shift the emphasis on engaging society. Digital Inclusion therefore consists of forward-focused action to mitigate the significant and interrelated problems regarding the Digital Divide and Digital Literacy. For example, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a United Nations (UN) specialized agency, along with other institutions, have carried out a series of training programmes for indigenous leaders located in Latin America and the Carribbean [4].

These programmes ensure that indigenous communities receive proper training to support capacity-building processes for online engagement. Moreover, international experts have convened to discuss ways in which Indigenous languages can be revitalized and preserved specifically focusing on the use of ICTs [5]. Such initiatives are essential to ensuring that indigenous communities have access to exercise their rights online and to create and fully participate in knowledge societies.

Digital Inclusion encompasses five elements [6].

  1. First, an affordable, robust broadband internet service. For instance, as digital technologies evolve, dial-up internet is no longer considered a resilient internet connection to fulfill Digital Inclusion. In order to receive resilient internet access, individuals and communities must have access to stable, high-speed internet connections.
  2. Second, internet-enabled devices must meet the needs of the user. This ensures that each device -- whether a mobile phone or computer -- fulfills the needs of individuals regardless of age, ability and other identities.
  3. Third, access to digital literacy training (such as the ITU indigenous training programme described above).
  4. Fourth, quality technical support.
  5. Finally, relevant applications and online content designed to enable and encourage self-sufficiency, participation and collaboration.

The final element is particularly important for persons with disabilities, who have been historically marginalized from accessing and using ICTs which can foster self-sufficiency and participation within the digital sphere of society. International standards, such as those found in the Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons who are Blind, Visually Impaired or Otherwise Print Disabled, are therefore essential to advancing the comprehensive needs and interests of people with disabilities, online as offline [7]. Together, these five elements empower individuals and communities to fully participate in the digital realm.

Disciplinary Views


Digital Inclusion is a vehicle for social change. Digital Inclusion is rooted in the broader concept of social inclusion, which emerged in France during the transition from an agrarian to an urban society [8]. As the world initially experienced a further transition online, social inclusion extended from the labour market to the digital realm therefore fostering the concept of Digital Inclusion.

While Digital Inclusion is arguably more encompassing than earlier concepts, such as the Digital Divide, some suggest that Digital Inclusion is “still ambiguous since it may privilege the digital [i.e. physical connection and access to hardware] over other integral factors” (Nemer, 2015) [9]. However, new waves of research on Digital Inclusion have moved beyond examining access in simple physical terms, to underline the contextual phenomena surrounding digital technology. By understanding the context, Digital Inclusion can aim to provide more than just internet access. For instance, contextual factors demonstrate how Digital Inclusion can help ensure that individuals have access to public health information and services, which can improve an entire family’s or community’s overall wellbeing.

Policymakers are called upon to promote Digital Inclusion, with a particular emphasis on rural, indigenous, and poor communities who have been historically marginalized all while incorporating a rights respecting framework. For instance, consider the Declaration of the 2001 World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related  Intolerance Declaration which “[u]rges States to ensure access to education and promote access to new technologies that would offer Africans and people of African descent, in particular women and children, adequate resources for education, technological development and long-distance learning in local communities, and further urges States to promote the full and accurate inclusion of the history and contribution of Africans and people of African descent in the education curriculum” (para 10) [10].”

Moreover, at the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) from 2003 through 2005, “human rights advocates sought to ensure the inclusion of texts supporting the view that rights should underpin governance of the information society” (APC 2009, p. 28) [11]. According to the Association for Progressive Communications (APC), “ICT networks -- like those for electricity and clean water -- can only benefit directly those who have access to them or to services that make use of them, or to services that make use of them” (APC 2009, p. 8) [12]. Given their essential role in enabling a range of human rights in the digital age, ICTs have become indispensable for all individuals and communities, and policymakers have the primary responsibility to ensure such universal accessibility.  


The internet recently celebrated its 50th anniversary. While the internet has evolved since its inception, its early development was not inclusive in practice. In its initial years “only 213 computers were connected” to the initial Arpanet network [13]. Yet as the internet rapidly developed, its creators strived for an “open architecture system” that it could easily integrate networks and nodes worldwide [14]. While these forms of openness and inclusion by design are essential to advancing Digital Inclusion, such efforts must coincide with substantive equitable opportunities for disadvantaged and marginalized people and groups across the globe. For instance, at the WSIS, advocates spoke of the need to better distribute the benefits of ICTs and incorporate developing countries into the development and design of modern digital architectures [15]. Digital Inclusion therefore calls on those designing, funding, developing, purchasing, distributing, and operating ICTs to continually innovate and demand more sustainable and inclusive digital technologies.  


Individuals, communities, and countries experience economic benefits when all individuals are online. On the micro level, access to the internet can improve education and employment opportunities to secure a job and develop the technological skills necessary to compete in the global market economy. On a macro level, Digital Inclusion helps build a country’s Gross Domestic Product and contribute to its overall economic development [16].

The World Bank recognizes that access to the internet is not enough. In the World Bank’s 2016 World Development Report: Digital Dividends, the World Bank calls for “regulations that ensure competition among businesses, by adapting workers’ skills to the demands of the new economy, and by ensuring that institutions are accountable” (p. 2) [17]. According to the World Bank (2016) “before the internet, some transactions were so expensive that a market did not exist [...] by reducing the cost of acquiring information and making more information available transparently, digital technologies can make new transactions possible” (page 9) [18]. With access and skills to use digital technologies, small businesses across the world, particularly small business located in developing countries, can participate directly on digital platforms all while reaching consumers and business partners worldwide. In turn, Digital Inclusion also ensures that “consumers are able to purchase a wider range of products and compare prices” (Race Online 2012 and PriceWaterhouseCoopers 2009, p. 3) [19].

Overall, these disciplinary views demonstrate how Digital Inclusion creates benefits at the individual and broader societal level. First, an individual who has access to and skills to use affordable, resilient, high-speed internet will be more likely to seek, receive, and impart information to benefit their economic, social, and cultural well being. Second, and interrelatedly, Digital Inclusion therefore ensures the broader benefits of tackling broader social issues while fostering economic growth for communities and countries worldwide [20].

Relationship to Internet Governance

Internet governance furthers the ultimate goals of Digital Inclusion. According to NETmundial Multistakeholder Statement, 2014 “internet governance should promote universal, equal opportunity, affordable and high quality internet access so it can be an effective tool for enabling human development and social inclusion” (p. 7) [21]. NETmundial specifically recognizes that “there should be no unreasonable or discriminatory barriers to entry for new users. Public access is a powerful tool for providing access to the internet” (2014, p. 7) [22].

The UN has identified the internet as a basic human right that should be extended to all citizens of the world [23]. In particular, the UN Sustainable Development Goal 9 (UN SDGs) explicitly encompass Digital Inclusion by calling on nation states to “build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation” in the technology sector [24]. The ITU’s World Telecommunication Development Conference (WTDC) established an effort to contribute to this UN SDG. The ITU WTDC (2018) specifically calls for “the need to achieve the goal of digital inclusion, enabling universal, sustainable, ubiquitous and affordable access to ICTs for all, including indigenous peoples, and to facilitate accessibility of ICTs for all, in the framework of access to information and knowledge” (p. 419) [25].

Various stakeholders have the power to advance Digital Inclusion worldwide. Network operators play a vital role in facilitating access, particularly to rural communities and developing countries because access to ICTs is a prerequisite for Digital Inclusion. Moreover, nations who adhere to the UN human rights framework have legal obligations to protect, respect and fulfill human rights both on and offline. This UN legal framework contains fundamental human rights provisions safeguarding the right to non-discrimination. Finally, civil society organisations play a role in developing solutions to facilitate the full inclusion of marginalized populations worldwide through the advancement of rights respecting tech policies and governance.

Current Status & Options

As digital technologies progress, Digital Inclusion must be at the forefront of such innovation. ICTs can facilitate Digital Inclusion by providing access to universal, affordable, high speed online platforms. Nonetheless, Digital Inclusion requires many more factors than access, use, and ICT capability. Other factors such as a “stable social and economic environment and the desire and motivation for change” are cornerstones to achieving Digital Inclusion for marginalized communities worldwide (Bure 2005, p. 126) [26].

Digital Inclusion therefore needs to consider the unique information and communication needs of marginalized groups in specific social contexts [27]. Growing attention is being drawn to previously ignored groups, such as women, rural populations, refugees, and persons with disabilities in order to assess their needs and interests operating in a digital society. While the ultimate goal of Digital Inclusion is to ensure that the other half of the population gets online, an emphasis has been made to prioritize sustainable access to the internet. Even the measurements of Digital Inclusion have broadened from the number of technological devices to existing bandwidth per individual to capture more inclusive and sustainable internet access for all [28].

Workshops at IGF2019

Tuesday, Nov 26

What operator model(s) for digital inclusion?

Sex work, drug use, harm reduction, and the internet.

Wednesday, Nov 27

Rethinking the Jobs of the Future for Vulnerable Populations

Closing the Digital Gap for Marginalized Communities

Towards equitable and sustainable community-led networks

Youth in IG for Internet ethics & digital inclusion

Community Networks: Opportunities, Challenges and Solutions

Internet Accessibility Empowering Persons with Disabilities

Do Internet services deserve a sin tax?

Accessibility for disabled people: new participatory methods

Thursday, Nov 28

Business Innovations Foster Digital Inclusion

What operator model(s) for digital inclusion?

Inclusion online, diverse knowledge: new rules?

IPv6: Why should I care?

Inclusion & Representation: Enabling Local Content growth

Digitally Skilling our Youth: Varied Global Approaches

Unlocking the Digital Potential of the DLDC Countries

Let there be data – Exploring data as a public good

Friday, Nov 29

Integrated Policy Framework Key to Realize Digital Inclusion

Sustainability of NRIs: Strategy for Future IGF

External Links

[1] 2020 Trust, Digital Inclusion definition, available online: <> referring to the definition of Digital Inclusion originally from Washington State University.

[2] Paul T. Jaeger, John Carlo Bertot, Kim M. Thompson, Sarah M. Katz & Elizabeth J. DeCoster (2012) The Intersection of Public Policy and Public Access: Digital Divides, DIgital Literacy, Digital Inclusion and Public Libraries, Public Library Quarterly, 31:1, 1-20 DOI: 10.1080/01616846.2012.654728.  

[3] Paul T. Jaeger, John Carlo Bertot, Kim M. Thompson, Sarah M. Katz & Elizabeth J. DeCoster (2012) The Intersection of Public Policy and Public Access: Digital Divides, DIgital Literacy, Digital Inclusion and Public Libraries, Public Library Quarterly, 31:1, 1-20 DOI: 10.1080/01616846.2012.654728.

[4] ITU, (2019) Promoting the Development of the Human Capacities of Indigenous Peoples in the Americas, available online at: <>

[5] United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs Indigneous Peoples, World Summit on Information Society important for Indigenous Peoples, 2015 12 16, available online: <> See also United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs Indigneous Peoples, International Expert Group Meeting on Indigenous Languages, available online: <>

[6] National Digital Inclusion Alliance, (2019) Definitions, available online: <>

[7] World Intellectual Property Organization, Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons who are Blind, Visually Impaired or Otherwise Print Disabled, 2013 06 27, available online at: <>

[8] See John Smyth, Social Inclusion, Oxford Research Encyclopedia, July 2017, DOI: 10.1093/acrefore/9780190264093.013.129, available online: <>

[9]  David Nemer, (2015) From Digital Divide to Digital Inclusion and Beyond: A Positional Review, The Journal of Community Informatics, 11(1)  available online: <>

[10] World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance Declaration, (2001) available online at: <>

[11] David Souter (Ed.), (2009), The APC ICT Policy Handbook, Alliance for Progressive Communications, available online: <>

[12] David Souter (Ed.), (2009), The APC ICT Policy Handbook, Alliance for Progressive Communications, available online: <>

[13] Oliver Burkeman, (2009), Forty years of the internet: how the world changed forever, The Guardian, available online: <>

[14] Esther Shein, Vint Cerf on Open Networking and Design of the Internet, The Linux Foundation, 2018 05 07, available online: <>

[15]  World Summit on the Information Society Geneva 2003 - Tunis 2005, Declaration of Principles: Building the Information Society: a global challenge in the new Millennium, 2003 12 12, Document WSIS-03/GENEVA/DOC/4-E available online: <>

[16] Race Online 2012 and PriceWaterhouseCoopers, Champion for Digital Inclusion: The Economic Case for DIgital Inclusion, October 2009, available online: <> at page 3.

[17] World Bank, World Development Report 2016: Digital Dividends, 2016 05, 17, available online at: <> at page 2.

[18] World Bank, World Development Report 2016: Digital Dividends, 2016 05, 17, available online at: <> at page 9.

[19] Race Online 2012 and PriceWaterhouseCoopers, Champion for Digital Inclusion: The Economic Case for DIgital Inclusion, October 2009, available online: <> at page 3.

[20] Government Digital Services, What is ‘digital inclusion’?, 2013 12 10, YouTube, available online: <>

[21] NETmundial, NETmundial Multistakeholder Statement, 2014 04 24, available online: <>

[22] NETmundial, NETmundial Multistakeholder Statement, 2014 04 24, available online: <>

[23] Bureau of Internet Accessibility, What is Digital Inclusion, 2017 07 22, available online: <> See also United Nations Human Rights Council, The promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the internet, 2016 06 27, UN Doc A/HRC/32/L.20 available online: <>

[24] United Nations, Sustainable Development Goals, available online: <>

[25] ITU, (2018) World Telecommunication Development Conference (WTDC-17) Final Report, available online: <>

[26] Claire Bure, Digital Inclusion Without Social Inclusion: The consumption of information and communication technologies (ICTs) within homeless subculture in Scotland, The Journal of Community Informatics (2005) Vol 1 Issues 2, 116-133, available online: <>

[27]  Ahmed Tareq Rashid, Digital Inclusion and Social Inequality: Gender Differences, Access and Use in Five Developing Countries, Gender, Technology and Development, Vol 20, 2006 Issue 3, 306-332, DOI 10.1177/0971852416660651 available online: <>

[28] Wikipedia, Digital Divide, available online: <>

Gender at the IGF

Baldeep Grewal

Ever since its conception, there has been a conscious effort by women’s rights activists to advocate for the cause of gender and its inclusion into the agenda of the IGFs. Initially, the main issues highlighted in this context were related to online violence against women, protection of digital rights of women and children, content regulation, censorship and sexuality rights. Creating access to the internet was a major theme from 2006-2009. The IGF provided fertile ground for really bringing gender rights into the formal conversation about internet governance. In 2007, the Dynamic Coalition on Gender was created where women’s organisations could create their own space. However, by the time IGF 2009 took place, there was growing discontent with women’s visibility in the workshops and their content. There was an urgent need for a tool that could be used for two things: to evaluate the IGFs’ engagement with gender and secondly, to encourage gendered perspectives that were missing in the workshops. It was in this context that the gender report cards (GRCs) were created.

What do the GRCs Look Like

With the efforts of the Association for Progressive Communications (APC), in 2011 as part of a pilot project, information was collected on the content of the workshops, the gender distribution among those present (participants, moderators and speakers) and whether gender was a central issue in the discussion. This information was to be submitted in the form of a ‘gender report card’. Initially, the report cards were filled out by APC members. From 2012 onwards, a mandate took effect under which workshop organizers had to submit this information within two weeks of the workshop to secure their slot at next year’s IGF. The reports that summarize the findings of the GRCs are published on IGF website and in the annual IGF report. The reporting language is English, and the report has to be in third person while protecting the identity of the speakers and participants.

It was expected that the GRCs will allow us insight into the figures that indicate gender sensitization at the IGF. They were considered a significant statistical resource that can be used to monitor the level of inclusiveness and diversity at the IGF. It was expected that over the years, we would not only obtain an archive of statistics but also vital data about the challenges and themes revolving around gender at the IGF.

What do the GRCs tell us?

The table shows the number of workshops that submitted gender reports, the percentage of women among speakers, the percentage of women among moderators and the extent to which gender mentions were a part of the discussions in the workshops.

Year How many workshops reported? % of women panelists % of women moderators Gender mentions in reported sessions
2011 16 46% Not counted Gender was the main theme in two sessions, marginal or not mentioned in the rest.
2012 89 Not counted Not counted Gender was the main theme in 1 session, considered relevant in 22% of sessions and not seen as related/relevant in 56% of sessions.
2013 100 41.6% 40% Gender was the main theme for 6% sessions, was mentioned in 37% sessions, and not seen as relevant or related in 57% sessions.
2014 89 40% 31% Gender was the main theme for 6% sessions, was mentioned in 25% sessions, and not seen as relevant or related in 68% sessions.
2015 107 37% 35% Gender was the main theme for 2% sessions, was mentioned or considered important in 42% sessions and not seen as relevant or related in 56% sessions.
2016 88 Inconclusive Inconclusive Gender was the main focus in 13% sessions, was mentioned or considered important in 64% sessions and was considered irrelevant or unrelated in 23% workshops.

Reporting: Clearly, the GRCs fostered increased accountability on the part of workshop organizers. The number of reporting workshops increased to over 5 times the initial number obtained in 2011. Now that gender had to be accounted for, workshop organizers too began to think about gender in the context of their workshops. A significant finding was that even as the number of reporting workshops increased, even at its best only around 50% workshops have been submitting the reports each year. And even in the reports that were received, many leave some categories incomplete.

Speakers: the percentage of women speakers across the years remained in the range of 37-46% with no major fluctuations. Some entries are marked ‘inconclusive’ because there was not a reasonable number of reports with information on speakers that could be used to draw a conclusion about women speaking at that IGF. Among the gender report cards received for IGF 2016, only 17 contained information on speakers. Not only does this prevent us from making larger conclusions for a particular year, the sheer contrast in the number of reports obtained for each respective year makes it difficult to compare their categorical results.

Moderators: moderation exhibits similar gaps in reporting. Women have constituted roughly 1/3rd of the total number of moderators at each IGF. At the same time, the fluctuations in the number of reports obtained for each year does not allow one to conduct further analysis, let alone arrive at indisputable conclusions.

The statistics for the gender mentions show us that gender definitely has its foot in the door at IGF workshops, though in varying degrees. There is a clear progression in terms of making IGF workshop themes and discussions explicitly gender-oriented. While there has been a rise in the number of workshops that considered gender as their main theme or of significant importance to the discussion, there is a corresponding fall in the number of workshops that do not include gender at all.

Were the GRCs able to meet expectations?

It can definitely be concluded that the GRCs have fulfilled the goal that had been expected of them in 2011. Apart from the insights and information that these reports have provided us, they have also allowed rapporteurs to add comments related to how gender was handled in a particular workshop and to make recommendations on how the sessions can be made more gender-sensitive.

The GRCs managed to both report and encourage an understanding of women’s participation that grew from women as spectators to seeing them as key-players in internet governance. It also helped that the GRCs became institutionalized in the IGF quite early on. At the same time, we have found that some things did hold back the real potential of this model. Not all workshops have been submitting reports or have been submitting incomplete reports which do not provide the true picture. While the GRC format is successful, actual reporting needs to be strengthened. Additionally, now that we have identified the areas that gender is yet to step into, we must send attendees to those sessions so that at least gender-oriented questions can be raised while we separately work towards getting more women on these panels.

What is the purpose of our research paper?

We have listened closely to what the GRCs tell us and what the discourse around gendering internet governance has been. Catching on to the problems areas that have been signaled by these sources, the study organizes this archive to draw meaningful conclusions. This is an attempt to take stock and review what it is that this initiative achieved and what still remains to be done. As part of the recommendations, I also plan to recommend a new model of reporting. This includes a suggestion that the GRC model should include information on the same categories but on both micro and macro levels. That is, we should have statistics for the number of women present as participants, speakers and moderators against the total number at each workshop and the IGF itself. This helps to represent information in terms of percentages. In addition to this, it is important that each GRC report contains information on what percentage of the total workshops submitted reports for a particular year. All of this will be included in a model of reporting along with a standard format that each yearly report should ideally adhere to so that comparison across years becomes easier.