LOOK UP A DEFINI–
tion of the digital
divide and you will
not find information
about patents, trademarks or copyrights. Nor will you find a photo of a
trade official or an international bureaucrat. Instead,
the explanation will focus on cheap computers,
mobile phones and free Internet. There may be some
discussion of the skills necessary to use these technologies.
Such definitions are only telling half the story, in
part because they attribute the divide to scarcity of
resources. But the digital divide also persists because
of the rules that govern information exchange, limiting
the capacity of developing economies to gain from the
boom in the Internet and other digital technologies.
Political and economic factors constrain the possibilities for equality in the knowledge-based economy. Some of these factors stem from the prevalence
of business models rooted in exclusive forms of intellectual property (IP) as well as in the global enforcement of these regulatory norms.
For many wealthy governments and private investors, IP has historically provided investment protection and an incentive to innovate. However, for
lower-income countries and their citizens, IP functions more like a regressive tax on progress—a barrier
blocking equitable entry into the network society.
Brazil and the United States have become global
standard-bearers for opposing approaches to knowledge-based economic growth. Their differences have
fed into far-ranging disputes over the fate of governance in the network society and the relationship
between states, markets and citizenship in the digital age. In that process, however, an unlikely consensus has developed, resulting in large part from the
convergence of the interests of high-tech companies
with those of emerging, powerful economic players
Aaron Shaw is a research fellow with the Cooperation Research Group at the Berkman Center
for Internet & Society at Harvard University
and a PhD student in the Sociology Department
at the University of California, Berkeley.
such as Brazil. As governments and corporations
around the world search for new sources of development and innovation, they should consider how to
take advantage of this convergence to promote both
equitable and profitable outcomes.
The Other Digital Divide:
Development in the Information Age
Contemporary debates over access to knowledge and informational goods originate in
the historic shift to a so-called “
post-indus-trial” economy, in which economic growth
is driven by the production of and access to
informational goods. These goods are everywhere.
They include books, software, medicine, music, and
movies, as well as the related goods and services that
go along with them. Since the middle of the t wentieth
century, this sector has been dominated by developed
countries. The use and reproduction of most of these
knowledge-based goods are governed by intellectual
property (IP) laws. In theory, IP laws aim to balance
private incentives for innovation with the social benefits that unlimited access to new ideas and technologies bring. The laws guarantee that copyrights, patents
and trademarks provide innovators with a temporary
monopoly over new ideas, making it easy for innovators to benefit financially from their inventions. Then,
after a period of time specified by law, the monopoly
expires, making it possible for society as a whole to
gain access to the benefits of innovation.
The resulting bargain between private profits and
public access led to the growth of an immense informational economy of firms and individuals who rely
on intellectual property for their income. This is especially true in the wealthy developed countries that
make up the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Since the early 1980s,
according to the World Bank Development Indicators
database for 2008, international IP-related revenues
have grown steadily in every OECD country, both in
raw terms and as a percentage of countries’ GDP. 1
The growth of IP-dependent industries has benefited many people in richer, developed countries, but
economic globalization has brought such companies
and their government protectors into conflict with