The digital divide is widening - and the top tech firms are not helping!
Less than 14 per cent of world’s major technology companies are delivering on digital inclusion, reveals a new study.
The World Benchmarking Alliance’s (WBA) latest Digital Inclusion Benchmark assessed 200 tech companies from around the world, looking at whether they are enabling greater access to digital technologies, improving digital skills, reducing usage risks, and ensuring inclusive and ethical innovation.
The findings of the WBA, a non-profit organisation holding 2,000 of the world’s most influential companies accountable for their part in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, show that far too few tech companies are using their power for good.
Only 27 out of 200 businesses achieved a score of at least 50 per cent on key criteria, as per its research released during the World Summit on the Information Society Forum.
The best performing companies across the benchmark were Telefonica, Orange, Deutsche Telekom, Apple and Microsoft. Some of their leading practices include running skills programmes for women and girls, and making clear commitments to data privacy and child protection.
Across all companies, Alibaba, the Chinese multinational e-commerce business, showed the highest increase in score (from 16/100 to 41/100 this year, a 150 per cent increase), due to improved transparency through a dedicated ESG report, engagement with the Digital Inclusion Benchmark this year, and initiatives to provide online and offline classes on digital literacy for the elderly in China, and a partnership with an African non-profit to teach computer programming to 1 million women across the globe.
Since the first Digital Inclusion Benchmark was published three years ago, there are clear signs that holding companies accountable through benchmarking and stakeholder influence – alongside practical support – is helping to drive progress.
Of the 150 companies included in previous benchmark iterations who were also assessed this year, the average score increased by 6.8 per cent.
In addition, 13 of the 100 companies included in the first benchmark made commitments to ethical artificial intelligence (AI) principles, following collaboration with WBA’s Collective Impact Coalition for digital systems – a group of investors, civil society leaders and other stakeholders providing practical support to businesses wanting to improve their digital inclusivity.
Yet worrying gaps in company action and accountability remain, as per the report.
As a result, many people across society are at risk of missing out on the positive power of digital access. This includes people in developing countries, individuals on low incomes, people with disabilities, ethnic minorities, and rural communities. While 95 per cent of the world has the theoretical potential to access the internet, almost half the global population is offline due to limited digital skills or affordability issues.
“As the global community increasingly relies on digital access for work, education, health and finances, the consequences of digital exclusion are starker than ever. The digital divide is a huge problem, and we need tech companies around the world to step up to address it,” said Pauliina Murphy, WBA's Engagement & Communications Director.
She added that tech companies have the potential to make a profound positive difference – from helping communities to connect and cooperate to ensuring safe access. “We need every business to act on this responsibility. With the pace of change across the sector currently too slow, policymakers and investors must help to raise the bar.”
The World Benchmarking Alliance’s research also suggests that some companies are still disguising the truth behind their data.
Many companies use vague text to describe their commitment to cybersecurity, AI ethics, child online safety and data privacy. In addition, some suggest they are providing a Global Reporting Initiative disclosure – an independent standards organisation that aims to increase transparent reporting – yet their response does not meet the requirement.
The report highlighted that encouraging companies to commit to protect human rights and assess their digital risks could help tackle some of the tech industry’s biggest problems. Many challenges for the sector – such as children’s digital rights, ethical AI and data privacy – are human rights issues.
“As the digital sector is largely unregulated, high-level social commitments to human rights, decent work and acting ethically are critical to help hold companies accountable and increase progress,” it added.
With tech companies holding huge influence, the WBA is urging digital companies – and the policymakers and investors who can shape their behaviour – to take rapid action that ensures a fair and safe digital system for people around the world.
Image source: WA