Access and education crucial in the age of the smartphone

In the past decade, there has been a boom in mobile phone subscriptions, jumping from fewer than one billion in 2000 to six billion in 2012. Seventy-seven per cent of those subscriptions are now owned by individuals in developing countries. Digital access, on the other hand, trails far behind with only 35 per cent of the world actually online. But this is likely to improve, particularly with the rise of smartphones, which currently make up about a quarter of the 4 billion phones in use globally.

Even with expected improvement in technology and falling prices of production, increasing mobile access relies on more than simply lowering the prices of handsets. Lack of access to a mobile phone is tied to factors such as gender and economic inequality. In developing countries, for example, women are 21per cent less likely than men to own a mobile phone.

India has a high rate of mobile penetration, with 76.8 per cent of its 1.2 billion population using mobile phones. Gender norms also have a role in whose hands mobile phones fall into, as only 28 per cent of India’s mobile phone owners are women, versus 40 per cent for men.

Lower prices are expected to help make smartphones more accessible in India, as they currently only account for 10 million of the estimated 960 million mobile phone users in the country.

While Brazil has a high mobile phone penetration rate (99.8 per cent), the massive economic divide contributes to some of the challenges in mobile access in the country. According to a recent study, many residents of Brazil’s slums (favelas) share phones or steal them because of the outrageous prices of mobile phones and unfamiliarity with technology. The country also has the third-highest rates for mobile services in the world. Smartphone penetration in Brazil is at about 14 per cent, and will only increase if the price of mobile services and handsets decrease.

The United Kingdom has its own divide, with smartphone penetration at 51.3 per cent. However, ownership of a smartphone does not necessarily mean that the owner understands how to use it. Many users only use them to simply make phone calls and send text messages. Users might be unaware that their rights may be diminished through filtering and blocking that automatically comes with many smartphones in the UK. This only shows how important it is to build literacy around technology across the globe. Access also does not simply rely on prices, it also relies on 3G infrastructure.

Thanks to improved mobile phone technology, and improved networks, more people will be online, bringing us a step forward in not only increasing mobile access, but also bridging the digital divide — and that increase in availability only makes it more important to protect free expression online.

Sara Yasin is an Editorial Assistant at Index on Censorship

Smartphones, filters and free expression

A recent World Bank report, Maximizing Mobile, offers some startling facts on the spread of mobile technology.


“…in some developing countries, more people have access to a mobile phone than to a bank
account, electricity, or even clean water. Mobile communications now offer major opportunities to advance human development—from providing basic access to education or health information to making cash payments to stimulating citizen involvement in democratic processes.”

There are now over six billion mobile phone subscriptions in  the world: even allowing for the many multiple subscribers, it’s feasible that everyone in the world who wants a mobile device will have one in the near future.

It is more appropriate to say “mobile device”, because the days when these things were used mainly for the making and receiving of phone calls is long gone. “Phones” are now used for a variety of purposes. This is particularly true in the developing world, where, in large swathes, desktop technology has been bypassed, and feature phone and smartphones now fulfil a huge amount of functions.

Smartphone sales were up 43 per cent in the second quarter of this year, despite a 2 per cent decrease in the overall sales of mobile devices.

While this boom is happening all over the world, a debate is raging in the UK which could have a significant effect on access to information in the developing world. Mobile phone companies here routinely filter web content considered “sensitive” for under-18s. Earlier this year, the Open Rights Group report Mobile Internet Censorship: What’s Happening and What We Can Do About It noted:

“We think there are a number of serious problems with how these systems work. These include a lack of transparency, mistakes in classifying sites the difficulty of opting out of the filtering. Together, these problems mean that people often find content blocked when it shouldn’t be.”

Well quite. On my own previous phone contract, I was unable to view this very site, which, while occasionally discussing controversial topics, is not exactly a hotbed of vice.

Sensitive information we now can get blocked also includes health advice, a massive issue in the developing world. If we accept the blunt instrument that is smartphone filtering, then there is no reason why phone companies would not make the technology universal. Which may be acceptable in the developed world, with our myriad ways of accessing information. But in parts of the world dependent on the mobile device, we could be denying information to people who need it most.