In 2005, 36 years after the invention of the internet, the world’s billionth internet user came online. At that time, analysts were forecasting another 10 years before we would see the second billion and another 25 years to get to the third. But today, just over 16 years later, we now have 4.7 billion people accessing the internet.
Different regions of the world adopted the internet at different speeds, but the common contributing factors to the incredible growth were the development of access infrastructure, the declining cost of mobile data, and the availability of more mobile devices. (See Hardware). The internet has become more affordable and accessible than ever before.
Yet, even with 65% of the world going online (2021), the need to provide an equitable and inclusive internet to everyone remains an unmet goal.
That is why, even as infrastructures improve and as we partner with other organizations to continue our efforts to increase connectivity, including laying subsea cables to extend internet access across the globe, and pioneering wireless optical communication technology in India and Africa, and even as entry-level devices have reached an inflection point in global distribution, there remains a silent but evident barrier that restricts a significant portion of the population from accessing the internet.
In a lot of countries where the next billion internet users are supposed to be coming online now and more so in the next two to three , many of them could not because of gender inequity. Across countries in Africa (see Growth in Africa), Asia, and South America, women are 30% to 50% less likely than men to use the internet (see Women). Globally, this inequity is consistent. The International Telecommunication Union estimates that the proportion of men using the internet is higher than women in two-thirds of all countries, and there’s no single reason why.
Across countries in Africa, Asia, and South America, women are 30% to 50% less likely than men to use the internet.
Global Research Report
To better understand the gap, we commissioned a global research report to gain insight into the gender experiences of novice internet users online. Our research spanned seven countries: Bangladesh, Brazil, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Nigeria, and Pakistan.
Based on this research, defining access within the ideas of infrastructure and devices proved inadequate. We identified some core challenges to equitable access and participation online and have found that factors like time, mobility, and restrictions imposed (as in conditional permissions to go online) are existing barriers to accessing the internet.
Data in the study shows that women’s time online is sometimes or often regulated. The expectation is for them to spend time attending to chores and other domestic abilities, and that to be seen surfing the internet is thought of as a waste of resources.
Additionally, the internet is sometimes perceived as a threat to women’s roles and reputations. In our study, well-meaning family members worry about women’s exposure to the broader world as well as their online safety. In many cases, the women themselves worry about these things. It’s important to remember that in some Next Billion User (NBU) cultures, even sharing a photo of oneself can carry negative perceptions.
If I go online in the middle of the night my boyfriend tells me, ‘Oh, I saw that you were online really late.’ ...Now I don’t go online much.
In other instances, women aren’t given money to buy data or allowed to go where there is free Wi-Fi. For them, access to the internet often requires travel to a physical place, especially in regions where internet penetration is low or unaffordable. The restriction in their mobility prevents them from reaching Wi-Fi hotspots, mobile money agents, and mobile data top-ups. We also found that the ability to step outside of the house, something taken for granted by many, was a challenge for a lot of women. And in some cases, they were even banned from using phones. More often than not, these are all subtle forms of limiting agency that inhibit access to the internet.
The internet’s expanding reach makes it a critical tool in achieving gender equity and empowering all women and girls. The less chance these women get to be online, the less value they see in doing so, and the less empowered they become. Some of them stop trying and regard the internet as nonessential in their day-to-day lives.
There are factors that are misconstrued as inherent to the internet, to access, and even to the smartphone device, which, when looked over or taken for granted, prevents us from bringing an equitable and inclusive internet to everyone.
Google recognizes that the UN has declared access to the internet as a basic human right. It remains a socio-political aspiration for many, but we also regard it as a shared social responsibility that the tech industry must support. (See Ecosystem).
As technology-makers responsible for guiding the direction of online apps and platforms, it is our job to address this challenge. We believe that a gender-equitable internet is good for everyone (See Knowledge), and when a diverse group uses the internet, the online world becomes relevant and useful to more people.
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