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The Digital Divide: How Open Is The Web?

A Brief History Of The Open Web

The Digital Divide: In the late 1980s, a British scientist at CERN, a physics laboratory in Switzerland, spent his time finding a solution to optimize an information network between scientists at universities worldwide through a set of computers in a client-server architecture. His solution was very successful, and in 1993, its now-famous inventor, Tim Berners-Lee, put the software, dubbed the “World Wide Web,” into the public domain. Although in its early stages, the experiment was now open to the public.

Since its inception, the web has had the ambitious objective of opening access to information and knowledge. Bernes-Lee and early users in the scientific community bet that, as computer technologies grew and matured, they would become so affordable and ubiquitous that the web would become an inevitable avenue of information exchange. Now we can see that they were right about its impact and pervasiveness, but what about its affordability? How affordable is it to take advantage of the information available on this website? If we seriously reflect on initiatives in recent years to promote open access, we must ask ourselves how open the web is today?

The Digital Divide As A Matter Of Software

The conversation about the digital divide often revolves around hardware. Experts on the subject divide their attention between finding affordable ways to build the physical infrastructure to make it easy to connect to the internet and talking about how Moore’s law and cost-effective manufacturing materials can produce capable yet affordable mobile phones. The Digital Divide: Emerging markets. The discussion about innovation and hardware access is fundamental, but sadly, it is overshadowing the other half of the problem: the software.

Hardware is designed to run the software and beyond internet access. If the software is inefficient or overloaded, it will counteract the hardware’s capabilities. This problem occurs today, in large part, unintentionally because developers and web designers create and test their software (web pages) on high-end hardware and high-speed internet connections.

A web page is a digital document that describes, downloads, and joins various types of multimedia files (text, images, styles, data, video, etc.) for the user to view on one screen. However, these files are sent over the internet as digital packets of bits and bytes. The more information a file contains (high-resolution images, data sets, full-length videos), the heavier the digital package will be in terms of its weight, precisely, in bits and bytes. This creates repetitive cycles in which the “vehicles” (web pages and applications), moving through the “information highway” (the web), have been designed to operate on “highly optimized highways.”

Defining Internet Affordability: The Cost of Getting Connected

The Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI) uses the “1 by 2” measure to define affordable internet. This means internet where 1GB of mobile broadband data is priced at 2% or less of income average monthly. The Digital Divide: The United Nations Broadband Commission has adopted the “1 by 2” objective, the Economic Commission for the West African States (ECOWAS), Nigeria, and Ghana.

In its 2020 affordability report, the A4AI reported that while internet access is becoming more affordable, it is not progressing fast enough. According to this document, in 95 low-income countries studied in the report, “despite five years of decline in the cost of data relative to income, the average price of 1 GB of mobile data still represents 4% of monthly income average”. This is still twice the affordability goal set by the UN. While the UN’s “1 of 2” affordability goal sounds ambitious, and to some extent it is, the fact is a 1GB data plan doesn’t do much in terms of useful web interactions. The modern web has enabled rich and interactive digital experiences of video, 3D graphics, complex data, chat rooms, animations, etc. These features add to the value of the web but are generally heavy. For organizations committed to ensuring that data and information are publicly available on the internet, it is critical to ensure that the data cost of browsing their website does not become an inadvertent paywall for users.

IDB Invest. Org: A Case Study

IDB Invest is committed to economic growth and social inclusion, so you need to ask yourself how much it costs users to visit your website. Because there is no paywall on the website, nor is there a subscription fee, we may risk assuming that our site is free to users. However, the internet is made up of data, and users, especially those in developing countries, often pay to consume this data using plans charged by the megabyte or gigabyte. As we have already mentioned, the heavier a digital product is, the more data is consumed to access it and, consequently, the more expensive it is to navigate.

Our analysis found that the IDB Invest home page used to be three times heavier than the ideal average, mainly because it featured images that significantly increased user data consumption. To address this, we have implemented four technology strategies to lighten the data load on our digital products to reduce the cost of accessing our website:

1. Web P –

 We said goodbye to JPG and PNG images and welcomed WebP, another type of image format that provides superior compression for images on the web. Web images are reduced by 30% compared to their JPG and PNG versions. We have also automated this conversion at the CMS level, such that our editors and content creators upload JPG or PNG images, and the system converts them to WebP without a problem.

  1. HTML: 

A parallel strategy was to apply the <picture> element in the page’s HTML code, instructing the browser to load the most appropriate image, in terms of size and quality, for a user’s specific device.

3. SVG:

 We audit the images on our page and convert 2D graphics to SVG format. SVG images can be scaled up or down without losing quality or fidelity since the format is expressed in code. When designing and editing 2D images, we can export them as SVG, copy the code to the backend of the page, and translate the code into an image for users to see.

4. Lazy Loading / Delayed Loading:

 We save data by loading only essential images. In this technique, only the images are displayed in the page section in which the user is interacting, omitting the rest of the images on the page unless the user visits the rest of its sections. This generates less data consumption and therefore reduces the cost per visit.

Our home page loaded faster by following these strategies, and its cost of access decreased approximately 3.5 times. The impact on the cost of access varies by location, but the following table gives an idea of ​​how low the price per visit in 3 countries in the region: 


Beyond the physical infrastructure, which is a key element, it is also essential to stop and think about the real price of accessing web content and not assume that the lack of payment walls and subscriptions automatically makes something “free.” The degree of openness of knowledge, information, and data largely depend on removing or reducing as many access barriers as possible. The work related to hardware and software development must benefit the entire population. However, even if ensuring access to the most up-to-date hardware is a complex task, engaging in software design practices that suit different contexts is possible.

Yes, Tim Berners-Lee’s prediction was correct, and the World Wide Web has become an endless highway for the exchange of knowledge and information, but when it comes to the cost of access, there is still a long way to go. 

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