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Is Internet service reaching marginalized groups?

American Association for the Advancement of Science

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IMAGE: Global map of active Internet subnetworks for the year 2012. This material relates to a paper that appeared in the Sept. 9, 2016, issue of Science, published by AAAS. The... view more

Credit: Map by Nils B. Weidmann, background from Natural Earth

Politically excluded groups suffer from lower internet access compared to groups in power, a new study reports. This effect cannot be explained by economic or geographic factors, the study's authors say, but seems to be more about governmental influence. Despite the recent expansion of the internet, which has prompted some to coin the internet a "liberation technology," researchers are unclear how broader provision of internet services has changed across societal groups, particularly in countries where governments are the only internet provider, or where politics operates along ethnic lines. A better understanding could help inform whether this technology can truly empower politically marginalized populations, as some have claimed. Here, Nils B. Weidmann and colleagues set out to test whether less politically favored ethnic groups were systematically deprived of internet access by governments. Using the Ethnic Power Relations database - which identifies politically relevant ethnic groups and their access to state power from 1946 to 2005 - Weidmann et al. zeroed in on groups with little or no power. They approximated internet availability among them using a method that pinpoints active internet subnetworks. By building in controls, they sought to exclude the possibility that a group's level of internet availability was related to economic status or geography, ultimately finding that, for individuals in the same country, being an excluded political group led to significantly lower internet penetration rates. The results suggest that even in democracies, if certain groups are excluded politically, their level of "digital discrimination" could be comparable to that of non-democracies.

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