The Progress of Nations (Women in The Digital Age)

Nilanjana Sanyal
Posted March 4, 2014 from India

“I picture it like Judgement Day,' he says finally, his eyes on the water. 'We'll rise up out of our bodies and find each other again in spirit form. We'll meet in that new place, all of us together, and first it'll seem strange, and pretty soon it'll seem strange that you could ever lose someone, or get lost.” ― Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad

I feel deeply obliged and truly honored sharing my thoughts and message with my sisters worldwide on this upcoming special occasion of “International Women’s Day”.

My encounter with the World Wide Web started in the year 1998. This was the year I lost my paternal grandfather as also a scholarship to a leading school in the UK. As if that wasn’t enough my food was drugged and a man broke into my room in the middle of the night. My best friends at the organization in Orissa, India (a desperately poor state in an equally impoverished nation) Kate from New Zealand, Maya a PIO from Australia and Judith from the Netherlands were all absent from the hostel at that point of time. Obviously, I had a severe emotional breakdown of sorts which was to finally lead to a powerful 17-year old life struggle restricting my mobility in a most overwhelming manner up to the present day.

As far back as the year I mentioned, it was amazing to observe my colleagues and indeed best friends Kate, Maya and Judith using what they each called a “Laptop” and it looked most unfamiliar. Yes, like a screen connected to a keyboard which opened like a flip phone. Straight “Out of The Blue” as I could recall. I could see them tying on the keyboard but then they were from the “developed world” and I happened to be a developing country national.

I was filled with nostalgia, after all despite all my education and language skills, I could not operate a simple device which in common parlance would be called a “notebook”…Kate made sincere efforts to teach me, but the entire concept of computing went beyond my limited understanding.

After all, that was the year everything went wrong with me. But life had to go on, with or without the power of artificial intelligence. With my entire emotional and physical harangue, it took me several years before my father, a SAP (IT) professional could teach me whatever I could incorporate with the blessings of the Almighty.

With time, my closest friends went back to their respective countries, and I was filled with even more nostalgia. Particularly computer nostalgia. But then, way back in 1998, how many in India had access to basic services of food, clothing, shelter, health and sanitation and education leave alone an information economy?

That was the year 1998…

In 2014, Internet penetration in the country might not have crossed 16% of the population, but in absolute numbers this percentage worked out to nearly 10 times the population of Australia.

By October, the nation had crossed the 200 million mark, said a report released by the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IMAI) and IMRB. The report estimated 243 million internet users in the country by June 2014, overtaking the US as the world's second largest internet base after China.

The US currently has an estimated 207 million internet users, while China has 300 million. The 205 million internet users that the IMAI reports for India are not all active users (those who use the internet at least once a month). "There is every reason to believe that they will turn into active users in the near future," says Nilotpal Chakravarti, associate vice-president, IAMAI.

While Indians primarily use the internet for communication, largely in the form of email, social media is also an important driver of internet use in India. This facet of the IMAI report can be corroborated with data from other sources such as Facebook, according to which India had 82 million monthly active users by June 30, 2013, the second largest geographical region for Facebook after the US and Canada. Facebook does not operate in China.

Internet penetration in India is driven largely by mobile phones, with some of the cheapest and most basic hand-sets today offering access to the internet. India has 110 million mobile internet users of which 25 million are in rural India. The growth of internet penetration in rural India is driven largely by the mobile phone; 70% of rural India's active internet population access the web via mobile phones. This may have to do with the difficulty in accessing PCs.

Forty-two percent of rural India's internet users prefer using the internet in local languages. The high prevalence of content in English is a hurdle for much of rural India.

College-goers remain the largest users of the internet in India, followed by young men.

While the IMAI report paints an optimistic picture of internet use in the country, another report by the Broadband Commission for Digital Development, ranked India 145 of around 200 countries for the percentage of individuals using the internet.

Chakravarti, however, insists that India's performance when it comes to internet penetration is an achievement, given the country's current infrastructure.

Developed nations such as the United States had witnessed the origins of the internet as far back as the 1960s. Arpanet was the first real network to run on packet switching technology (new at the time). On the October 29, 1969, computers at Stanford and UCLA connected for the first time. In effect, they were the first hosts on what would one day become the Internet. The first message sent across the network was supposed to be "Login", but reportedly, the link between the two colleges crashed on the letter "g".

Email was first developed in 1971 by Ray Tomlinson, who also made the decision to use the "@" symbol to separate the user name from the computer name (which later on became the domain name).

Michael Hart gained access to a large block of computing time and came to the realization that the future of computers wasn’t in computing itself, but in the storage, retrieval and searching of information that, at the time, was only contained in libraries. He manually typed (no OCR at the time) the "Declaration of Independence" and launched Project Gutenberg to make information contained in books widely available in electronic form. In effect, this was the birth of the eBook.

Arpanet made its first trans-Atlantic connection in 1973, with the University College of London. During the same year, email accounted for 75% of all Arpanet network activity.

1974 was a breakthrough year. A proposal was published to link Arpa-like networks together into a so-called "inter-network", which would have no central control and would work around a transmission control protocol (which eventually became TCP/IP).

1977 was a big year for the development of the Internet as we know it today. It’s the year the first PC modem, developed by Dennis Hayes and Dale Heatherington, was introduced and initially sold to computer hobbyists.

1978 was also the year that brought the first unsolicited commercial email message (later known as spam), sent out to 600 California Arpanet users by Gary Thuerk.

By 1987, there were nearly 30,000 hosts on the Internet. The original Arpanet protocol had been limited to 1,000 hosts, but the adoption of the TCP/IP standard made larger numbers of hosts possible.

Also in 1988, Internet Relay Chat (IRC) was first deployed, paving the way for real-time chat and the instant messaging programs we use today.

One of the first major Internet worms was released in 1988. Referred to as "The Morris Worm", it was written by Robert Tappan Morris and caused major interruptions across large parts of the Internet.

1989 witnessed the launching of the AOL.

1989 also brought about the proposal for the World Wide Web, written by Tim Berners-Lee. It was originally published in the March issue of MacWorld, and then redistributed in May 1990. It was written to persuade CERN that a global hypertext system was in CERN’s best interest. It was originally called "Mesh"; the term "World Wide Web" was coined while Berners-Lee was writing the code in 1990.

1990 also brought about the first commercial dial-up Internet provider, The World. And Arpanet ceased to exist. In the same year, World Wide Web protocols stood finished. The code for the World Wide Web was written by Tim Berners-Lee, based on his proposal from the year before, along with the standards for HTML, HTTP, and URLs.

In 1991, the first web page was created.

In 1993, both the White House and the United Nations came online, marking the beginning of the .gov and .org domain names.

Google went live in 1998, revolutionizing the way in which people find information online.

In 2003, Skype was released to the public, giving a user-friendly interface to Voice over IP calling.

Also in 2003, MySpace opened up its doors. It later grew to be the most popular social network at one time (though it has since been overtaken by Facebook).

The term "social media", believed to be first used by Chris Sharpley, was coined in the same year that "Web 2.0" became a mainstream concept. Social media–sites and web applications that allowed its users to create and share content and to connect with one another–started around this period.

YouTube launched in 2005, bringing free online video hosting and sharing to the masses.

Twitter launched in 2006. It was originally going to be called twittr (inspired by Flickr); the first Twitter message was "just setting up my twttr".

The biggest innovation of 2007 was almost certainly the iPhone, which was almost wholly responsible for renewed interest in mobile web applications and design.

The first "Internet election" took place in 2008 with the U.S. Presidential election. It was the first year that national candidates took full advantage of all the Internet had to offer. Virtually every candidate had a Facebook page or a Twitter feed, or both.

We’re already into the year 2014, and things are changing at this very moment. India is going to the polls. And the internet will have the inevitable power of swaying the elections either way.

The very tough situation within India is the fact that there is a divide, actually massive gap, between the rich and poor so much so that according to Kenneth Keniston, professor of Human Development at MIT, 60 million Indian children do not even go to school each day. So for them is it really the question about working with ICTs (Information Communication Technologies), helping to bridge the digital gap, or is it simply getting a proper education? But, when a person shifts their focus towards the 3%, or fewer, of the Indian population that is or can be connected then are we not just widening the gap?

Gender barriers are real. One in five women in India and Egypt believes the Internet is not “appropriate” for them. On average across the developing world, nearly 25% fewer women than men have access to the Internet, and the gender gap soars to nearly 45% in regions such as sub-Saharan Africa.

Bridging the Internet gender gap: • Boosts women’s income and income potential. Across the surveyed countries, nearly half of respondents used the Web to search for and apply for a job, and 30% had used the Internet to earn additional income. • Increases women’s sense of empowerment. More than 70% of Internet users considered the Internet “liberating” and 85% said it “provides more freedom.” • Enabling Internet access for more women and girls in developing countries promises immediate, and immense, benefits. Seeing another 600 million women online would mean that 40% of women and girls in developing countries, nearly double the share today, would have access to the transformative power of the Internet. And, it could potentially contribute an estimated US$13 billion to US$18 billion to annual GDP across 144 developing countries.

The dangers are nevertheless real: • In one case, a young Indian woman with an Engineering degree found that her family preferred she not use the household computer, for fear that – as a woman – it would break if she touched it. • In Egypt, a relatively well-off young homemaker described not using the internet because her family didn’t allow it, fearing her exposure to pornographic websites. Another story recounted by a mother and teacher in Uganda reveled in the new convenience of accessing the Internet on a mobile phone, after years of struggling to reach the expensive internet café and avoiding using it at night, raising concerns of “safety”. • Globally, there are 4.6 billion people who do not yet use the Internet for a variety of reasons, including cost, availability, and need. In developing countries, there are far more men than women online, and the reasons for this Internet gender gap often have more to do with culture and environmental factors than anything else. These three stories represent just a few challenges faced by millions of women in developing countries today. Although the Internet is often hailed as “The Great Equalizer,” allowing everyone with a connection access to libraries worth of information in an instant, the unfortunate and perhaps surprising truth is that access is not distributed equally to one segment of the population in particular: women and girls. • In partnership with Intel Corporation, Dalberg recently published Women and the Web, a groundbreaking study on the Internet access gender gap in the developing world. The study found that more than 200 million fewer women have access to the Internet in developing countries than men. This equates to a gender gap of nearly 25%, meaning that for every four men in the developing world who have access to the Internet’s opportunities and benefits, only three women have that same access. But the gender gap is not uniform across all countries or regions. In Latin America, the gender gap is a relatively modest 10%, while in sub-Saharan Africa the gender gap approaches 50%. • Cultural norms and family expectations, such as those described above, represent just one key reason behind the gender gap. Surveys conducted across Egypt, India, Mexico and Uganda by Dalberg’s partner GlobeScan indicate that women also hesitate, or are explicitly prohibited, from using the Internet for reasons including affordability, lack of familiarity with technology, and in many cases, a pervasive sense that the Internet is just not relevant to their lives. More than 40% of women non-users surveyed in Egypt said that they were “not interested” in using the Internet, and 40% of those in India said they “didn’t need access to it.” • Yet the data on the benefits that women (and thus, society overall) can realize through increased Internet use is clear. The study found roughly 80% of female users reported that Internet access had improved their education and studies, and more than 30% said Internet access led to more income. But just as critically, the study found that Internet access can be a platform for women’s empowerment. • “Exposure to people outside their community, and their ideas, tells women: your background is not the prime factor in determining what your possibilities are,” described Emilie Reiser with Digital Democracy in Haiti. • In all of these nations, women reported pervasive “privacy” concerns while accessing the net, either at home or in a cyber-café which are largely owned by men. • Increasing “access” represents an annual growth opportunity of nearly $20 billion and a market opportunity of up to $70 billion, in sales of Internet-enabled devices and accompanying services. This is above and beyond the education, income, and empowerment benefits that could be realized by women and from there, their households and communities.

The global Internet access gender gap is truly a “prob-ortunity” – both a problem and an opportunity. The gender gap is a critical challenge that threatens to leave millions of women and girls behind in an increasingly globally connected world. But the opportunity to improve the lives of women and girls is tremendous and can be accelerated by working to reduce the Internet gender gap now.

The “Social Good Summit” held in New York in September 2013 centered on how technology and media can be utilized to improve people’s lives, and most importantly, on how we can work to make the world a better place by 2030. Certain important conclusions emerged out of the summit, such as technology can be harnessed as a tool for social good, further that there was an interesting connection between technology, development and public libraries.

These tools can be made available, but people need to build capacity on how to use technology to connect with others, to access pertinent information and to share ideas. And in low-resource environments, public libraries do exactly that and in turn, have a deeper impact on people.

By accessing the internet at a public library, users, especially women users can: • Search for job opportunities; • Apply for jobs; • Look up information (online) to start a small business; • Learn computer skills to promote and sell their products online; • Have a “space” to themselves where they can self-organize; • And in rural and remote peripherals, women can be empowered to generate income and provided a space for safe dialogue; • Access maternal health providers through the internet, mobile phones and video.

Globally, there are more than 315,000 public libraries, 73 per cent of them in developing and transition countries. The implications for social good are indeed enormous…

As a former Manthan Award South Asia nominee for ICT initiatives, I would incorporate the following suggestions to make the internet safer and more friendly and private for my women friends across the community: • Questionnaires and interviews devised especially for women users; • Advice on sensitive information such as personal information and identity; • Cyber stalking and identity theft often begins by malicious users identifying the user through identifying information provided by the user himself. It is important to remember that information posted online may be seen by more people than is originally intended. Social networks make it simple to inadvertently share details about oneself (address, phone number, birthday, etc.), so as a precaution, it is best not to input this type of information onto these websites. It is also a common occurrence for users to make the mistake of sharing small bits of information occasionally, and through the use of search engines and some research it is possible to piece these information together to identify the user. As such, avoid sharing personal information and personal history whenever possible. When creating usernames, websites, or e-mail addresses, avoiding using anything that reveals any useful information such as a year of birth. Passwords and PINs should never be shared under any circumstances; • Women-manned cyber-cafes; • A social networking site exclusively for women; • Creation of strong passwords and regularly changing passwords; • Anti-virus software; • Operating systems, anti-viruses, and any other programs should be kept up-to-date with the newest security updates in order to keep viruses and harmful software from taking advantage of exploits that have been fixed with updates; • Caution of the internet; • Parental Controls; • Public computers, as opposed to personal computers, may be physically accessed by anyone within reach of the computer. Because of this, it is inadvisable to do any processes that involve sensitive information; • Internet security for information about protecting data and avoiding malware. • Website reputation rating tools for information about website safety & trustability.

I still do not feel safe when I incorporate these precautions while accessing the internet.

With the anticipated increase in new women Internet users, Internet safety education must be a key component. We know that the more time you spend online; the more varied the sites you visit, the more at risk you are for online victimization. Everyone (male or female) is at risk for malware and other cybercrimes. And whether the concern is online scams or online fraud, we also need to educate the new user about how to control or limit exposure to content that is violent, pornographic, upsetting or culturally-inappropriate. Women, as the backbone of the family unit, are in a terrific position to help guide their children in on-boarding to proper and safe computer use and Internet access. Too often, even in the developed world, mothers fret they lack the same ease on the computer as their children. So they don’t get involved in setting limits or teaching their children the principles of Internet safety. Here, as we promote new users and new access, we can right that wrong in the developing world. Potentially, setting women’s computing knowledge as a priority can ensure a safer future generation of Internet users.

As we gather in a global community to recognize and celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8, we should continue this discussion of how we will push for more Internet access for our sisters worldwide. The economic connection is there. An Intel study proposes bringing government, technology companies and women together to expand women’s Internet access around the world. The study reports this could lead to economic opportunities of $50 to $70 billion. The young girl, who has Internet access, either in her home or in a community center, will have more options for her economic future. This will enable whole families to better weather future economic downturns. Innovations such as online college courses in the MOOC (massive open online courses) now widely available can ensure more than basic literacy for those with the drive to better their place through education. Whether women in these currently underserved communities use their new Internet access to learn new job skills, to reach for advanced degrees or simply to become a better citizen of her community, we know that increasing Internet access for our global sisters must be a concept we all work to promote, for the benefit of all.

The Progress of Nations is determined by the extent to which women and girls are educated and nurtured and technology most certainly has to play an important role.

Women bring fresh voices and perspectives and it is important that they be allowed to participate in decisions affecting their own lives and well as those of their children.

After all, it’s “silence that kills”…


Microsoft Office document icon a_tribute_to_nirbhaya.doc
WWW: Women Weave the Web

Comments 6

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  • kateindc
    Mar 04, 2014
    Mar 04, 2014

    So true! Access and safety for women must be taken into account as the Internet expands in users and importance.

  • Cali gal Michelle
    Mar 04, 2014
    Mar 04, 2014

    What an amazingly comprehensive article here, with so much history and information! I appreciate your notes on internet safetly, as many are learning to navigate the internet world and need to know how to protect themselves and their information. Thank you for this.

  • kellyannaustin
    Mar 05, 2014
    Mar 05, 2014


    I loved the bits where you speak from your own experience and reflect on the unique role India plays in the proliferation of internet users. The way you put statistics in a new light is so eye opening! I learned so much. Thank you.

    I'm grateful for your calls to action. If you were to choose, which one or two steps would be the most important for women and their safe access to the internet? I'm just a little overwhelmed by all then things we ought to be doing and thought I'd ask you how to narrow it down to start taking the first steps! :)

    In gratitude,

  • Sally
    Mar 12, 2014
    Mar 12, 2014

    Thank you so much for all of the information. It appears you did a lot of research which was very interesting to read and you really touched on so many important points. I really enjoyed reading everything and enjoyed that you addressed problems but also proposed solutions which I think is great.

    Thank you so much again for sharing.


  • Karly N
    Mar 26, 2014
    Mar 26, 2014

    Dear Nilanjana,

    Thank you so much for this detailed outline of issues women in India face with the internet, along with the potential opportunities that can arise from having access to it. You have done an incredible task of highlighting the difficulties and gender biases that are encountered, and have helped us all by providing the information we need to start working on creating a solution.

    I am so grateful to you for this work you are doing. Thank you so much!!



  • inetmom
    May 09, 2014
    May 09, 2014

    Dear Nilanjana -

    What an amazing overview of women's digital issues. This article is a must read for anyone interested in gender equity and digital access. I appreciate the face that you also outline recommendations. Many people see the problems - not everyone can suggest solutions. I believe when you speak about an issue, people listen better and can act upon the information if you give them suggested solutions. Yours are wonderful. I will pass them along.