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Growing the Internet 19 November 2020

COVID-19 Magnifies Inequality in Internet Accessibility

New Survey Reveals Increasing Dependency on the Internet and Urgent Need to Close the Digital Divide

Washington, DC – 19 November 2020 – As the global surge in Coronavirus continues, the Internet has become a critical part of daily life. In a new public pulse survey from the Internet Society, nearly 80 percent of respondents indicated that the Internet has become much more important in their lives as a result of the pandemic. Accessibility and reliability were listed as the most important aspects of the Internet. However, the majority of respondents were unaware of the extent of the digital divide – only one in four knew that almost half the world population lacks access to the Internet.

The survey was conducted in the United States and the United Kingdom–two of the countries hardest hit by COVID-19– to gauge consumers’ use of the Internet and their shifting perceptions of the Internet during the pandemic and was commissioned by the Internet Society, a global nonprofit promoting the development and use of an open, globally connected, and secure Internet.

“The Internet is keeping people connected, informed, working, innovating and learning, and its importance has been magnified due to the pandemic,” said Jane Coffin, Senior Vice President, Internet Growth, Internet Society.  “However, we are finding that many people are unaware of the extent of the digital divide, and the significant barrier it poses to those who don’t have access to this indispensable tool.”

Three-fourths of respondents in the United States and the United Kingdom say the Internet is critical in keeping them connected to friends and loved ones, and that COVID-19 has made access to the Internet critical to their daily lives. The Internet was viewed by respondents as the most important technology, surpassing the importance of mobile phones, laptops, video streaming and social media. Two-thirds said their Internet usage increased “somewhat” to “a lot” for tracking news and information, and around half increased their reliance on the Internet for access to health information and telemedicine.

Education disrupted

As the first wave of COVID-19 spread around the world, more than a billion children worldwide were sent home in a matter of weeks, ostensibly to continue classes online. Yet schools struggled during those first weeks of the pandemic as they confronted the realities of disparate access to technology and connectivity for their students. Fifty-six percent of U.S. respondents strongly agreed their children would not be able to continue their education without home Internet access. This issue is taking on renewed importance as countries welcome the new academic year and work out back to school plans.

Lack of awareness of the digital divide.
  • When asked to rank the most important aspects of the Internet, well over half of respondents ranked reliability as first, with access following as a close second.
  • But only one in four in the United States and United Kingdom know that almost 50 percent of the world’s population does not have access to the Internet.
  • Fifty-two percent of Americans in the survey assume that no more than a quarter of individuals in the world lack Internet access. 
Who is responsible for the Internet? Not many know.
  • The vast majority of respondents in the United States (84 percent) and the United Kingdom (83 percent) say they agree the Internet should remain open and not managed by a single entity – well over half say they strongly agree with this.
  • A majority of those polled viewed Internet Service Providers as responsible for managing secure and reliable Internet access over tech companies, governments or nonprofits. Eighty-seven percent of respondents said ISPs were somewhat to extremely responsible for such access. 
Working from home was not the main use of the Internet.
  • Three-fourths of respondents in the United States and the United Kingdom say the Internet is critical in keeping them connected to friends and loved ones, and that COVID-19 has made access to the Internet critical to their everyday lives.
  • Over a third of respondents in the United States (39 percent) and the United Kingdom (44 percent) say working from home does not apply to them.
  • Americans making $100K+ are more likely to say that their increase in Internet usage has been to work from home (46 percent). Likewise, respondents in the United Kingdom making ₤100K+ are increasing their Internet usage a lot to work from home (55 percent).

“A healthy, thriving world will depend on a healthy thriving Internet,” added Coffin. “However, the survey results show us that there is work to do in raising awareness of the digital divide and educating consumers that improving access to the Internet is not just the responsibility of Internet Service Providers. This can only happen if governments, the Internet technical community, private sector and civil society work together to ensure the Internet is open and available to all.”

An infographic and the full results and methodology of the Internet Public Pulse Survey are available at:  https://cfdev2.internetsociety.org/resources/doc/2020/insights-from-2020-public-pulse-survey/.

The Internet Society also outlines policy recommendations to consider as the pandemic response continues, which are available for download here. 

About the Internet Society 

Founded in 1992 by Internet pioneers, the Internet Society (ISOC) is a global non-profit organization working to ensure the Internet remains a force for good for everyone. Through its community of members, special interest groups, and 120+ chapters around the world, the organization defends and promotes Internet policies, standards, and protocols that keep the Internet open, globally connected, and secure. For more information, please visit: internetsociety.org.

Media Contact:

Allesandra deSantillana
Internet Society

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