A deep dive into Taiwan’s digital inequality


A deep dive into Taiwan’s digital inequality


Date: June 24 (Thu.) 2021, 14:00-16:00(on live)

Location: Online service only


  • Wu, Chyi-In, Deputy Director, Institute of Sociology, Academia Sinica


  • Rong-Guey Ho, Professor (retired), Graduate Institute of Information and Computer education, National Taiwan Normal University
  • Yu-Shiou (Clarence) Chou, Chair, Taiwan Association for Human Rights
  • Shiu, Wen-Wei, Head of Digital Equality Advancement Office, Ministry of Education


Session details

According to the 2021 World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report, the COVID-19 pandemic has left societies and economies damaged, widened existing disparities within communities and between nations, and disproportionately harmed certain sectors and societal groups.

In Taiwan, the Internet use rate in rural areas is not much different than in non-rural areas, according to the Taiwan Internet Report 2020. But does this mean that Taiwan does not have the problem of digital divide? It is explained in the WEF Global Risks Report that digital inequality means fractured and/or unequal access to critical digital networks and technology due to unequal investment capabilities, lack of necessary skills in the workforce, insufficient purchase power, government restrictions and/or cultural differences. The biased algorithm embedded in social media platforms, the widening gaps between the technical haves and have-nots within and between countries, and the states’ inability to regulate, thus closing the division, can all contribute to worsening the digital inequality. In this session, we will try to understand the context, factors, and ramifications of Taiwan’s digital inequality.


Deputy Director Wu from the Institute of Sociology, Academia Sinica, opened the session with a brief introduction of today’s topic. In the past, digital inequality was seen as an equivalent of the digital divide. Therefore, discussions in Taiwan regarding digital inequality were solely focused on access, namely, whether the disadvantaged groups have the device to access the Internet and is the infrastructure there for them to utilize.

As the Internet infrastructure reached almost full coverage within the country, we realized that access is not the only issue when it comes to digital inequality. How do we expand the digital opportunities and ensure they are enjoyed by all, as well as the plan and operation of digital education, are now the major discussion points of digital inequality.

As the country pushes and plans to move forward with its digital development strategy, we should keep in mind that digital development should happen inclusively. During today’s discussion, Deputy Direction Wu hopes the panel can first diagnose the current digital inequality in Taiwan from their perspective, followed by suggestions of how we can act to narrow the gap. The suggestions can be directed to the state government, society, communities and organizations, or to any individual. After all, we all have an obligation to advocate and realize digital equality.

In order to facilitate the discussions, Deputy Director Wu also prepared some basic questions. The first set of questions aims to analyze the structural problems of Taiwan’s digital inequality:

  • How do we understand Taiwan’s digital inequality in addition to the statistics of Internet use rate in rural areas and non-rural areas?
  • How can the government, industry leaders and civil society collaborate to address issues derived from digital inequality without harming innovation and technology development?

The second set focuses on the action:

  • How do we prevent privacy violations in the digital environment? Namely, how do we protect privacy in the new digital society?
  • How do we prevent the government or business from monopolizing digital technologies and applying them in bad faith, i.e., developing and enforcing surveillance technologies?

Deputy Director Wu hoped that, after today’s discussion, the panel, with the audience, can come up with some viable solutions, or at least some kind of action plans, to the problems.

The first panelist was Professor Ho, who recently retired from the Graduate Institute of Information and Computer Education at National Taiwan Normal University. Prof. Ho has been a part of the Ministry of Education’s Digital Application Promotion Project in Remote Areas for decades.

Observing from his long and practical experiences in promoting digital development in the country’s rural area, Prof. Ho has developed his own definition of differentiating digital inequality and digital divide. For Prof. Ho, digital inequality means a group of people is intentionally restricted from or taken away their digital rights or access. On the other hand, digital divide is a phenomenon that can be observed objectively. In his opinion, digital inequality does not exist in Taiwan because there are no enforced laws or regulations limiting any group of people’s digital rights in the country. He made it clear, however, that this was his own made-up definition that is open to discussion.

Prof. Ho’s definition meant that he would only be sharing the digital divide he has observed over the years of participating MoE’s Digital Application Promotion Project in Remote Areas. In 1986, Richard. O. Mason identified four areas of information ethics in which the control of information is crucial:

  • Privacy

Long been considered “the right to be left alone,” privacy has been deemed difficult to satisfactorily define. Fundamentally, privacy is about protection from intrusion and information gathering by others. Typically, it has been defined in terms of individuals’ ability to personally control information about themselves.

  • Accuracy

As computers now dominate in corporate record-keeping activities, whether the information is accurate or correct becomes critically important.

  • Property

The question of intellectual property rights is one of the most complex issues society faces. IP rights raise substantial economic and ethical concerns such as unique attributes of information itself and the transmission methods. Any individual item of information can be extremely costly to produce in the first place. Yet, once produced, that information has the elusive quality of easily reproduced and sharable. On top of that, this replication can happen without destroying the original. This makes information hard to safeguard since, unlike tangible property, it becomes communicable and hard to keep to one’s self.

  • Accessibility

Accessibility, or the ability to obtain the data, is critical to any individual in modern society. Users must have physical access to online information resources, meaning they must access computational systems. Second and more important, they then must gain access to information itself.

The four areas are commonly referred to as “PAPA”. Prof. Ho considered the four areas useful metrics of assessing and understanding the digital divide in Taiwan. From his experiences, digital divide does not only exists between countries but also within countries, even within cities. He observed that eliminating the digital divide was an endless task. We have to always put in the utmost effort, but the divide will inevitably reemerge and widen as technology evolves.

According to Prof. Ho, in the early days, digital divide in Taiwan was mainly contributed by the neglect from the policymakers. The uneven distribution of resources between cities and the rural area has been a longstanding problem in the country, and the digital divide is only a new way of demonstrating this existing issue. One of the government’s more effective and realistic initiatives, Prof. Ho thought, was establishing Digital Opportunities Center (DOC) across the rural areas. He has visited many DOC during his tenure at MoE and has seen how many DOC served multiple purposes ranging from Internet Cafes, information hubs for immigrants, and after-school child-care.

Prof. Ho criticized that when implementing programs to narrow the digital divide, the administration often focused on meeting the Key Performance Indicators (KPI). He stressed that determining the digital divide by measuring the gap between the have and have-nots of digital devices has long been obsolete. It is meaningless to meet the KPI of a device per person if those who have the device don’t know how to use them. Capacity building and education are much more needed and meaningful in the rural area when it comes to the digital divide.

The second panelist was Yu-Shiou (Clarence) Cho from Taiwan Association for Human Rights. A lawyer in practice, Cho analyzed the question from a legal perspective. He started with the communication legislations in Taiwan, questioning whether lawmakers have yet caught up with the pace of technology advancement. More importantly, can the current legislation protect us from the potential harm digital technology imposes on society and its people?

He reviewed the Statement on Communication Rights of United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and Article 19, noting that very few existing legislation can clearly define what ‘communication right’ entails. The lack of a universal definition of communication rights creates an interpretation vacuum, leaving the law enforcement implementing the law according to their understanding and imagination of the text, ultimately leads to the inconsistent practice of the same set of regulations.

Commenting on the digital divide in Taiwan, Cho argued that we should not downplay the still-existing gap between rural and non-rural areas. Households in rural and remote areas still suffer from poor connection quality due to insufficient infrastructure. Inequality is only more pronounced when we look at the social, cultural, and linguistic disadvantages that continue to handicap children, immigrants, and the elderly—the majority of the population—in the remote and rural areas.

Sharing anecdotes from his experience working as a human rights lawyer, he noted that accessibility is a real issue and mostly because it is extremely contextual. It is almost impossible for a person to understand the pain of not be able to access something without being disabled him or herself.

Cho also touched on the broader impact digital technology has on modern society. He referenced Shoshana Zuboff, professor emerita at Harvard Business School, and her theories about surveillance capitalism, arguing that we should take the negative aspect of digital technology seriously.

Are there any tangible solutions? Cho suggested that removing the competition disadvantages the big tech has posed to its counterparts is the first step. He noted, however, that we should pay extra attention when defining the scope of regulations, tiptoeing the fine line between ensuring fair competition and curbing innovation. Regarding closing the digital divide, he suggested we rethink how to redistribute the resources and distribute tasks more evenly.

Professor Shiu has been working with the Ministry of Education to advance digital equality in Taiwan, especially in terms of education, for years. Agreeing with his fellow panelists, he was not happy with the administration’s focus on accessibility, particularly when accessibility, according to the government’s KPI, was narrowly defined as access to digital devices and Internet connection. These metrics might have been working in the early stage of digital development, but we will be losing the bigger picture if we still hold on to it.

Digital transformation is the only thing now everyone talks about, and it has also become the slogan of our government. We can not ignore, however, that digital transformation also creates a new kind of digital divide, and the disadvantaged groups could once again be left behind if we do not tackle the issues timely and correctly. He agreed the legislation is still lacking far behind the advancement of technology and was glad that more people with legal backgrounds like Cho are getting involved.

Another important point Shiu raised was that digital rights had become a human right. Historically, the Taiwanese government’s digital policies and programs have promoted digital equality as some kind of social benefit for the disadvantages. Seeing digital rights as one of the basic human rights helps us to identify gaps and blind spots that were neglected in the past; it is a critical step for our country towards true digital equality.

In his final remarks, Cho reiterated that, while all points raised during the session about digital equality and closing the digital divide were valid and insightful, and it is undeniably important that we start seeing digital rights as a fundamental human right, we have to accept that there will always a group of people in the society that will never become ‘digital.’ How to assist this group of people to live in a digital environment as conveniently as others, and with zero percent of less dignity, will be our future homework. Only when our digital society can embrace and support those who are not ‘digitalized’ can we talk about inclusiveness. This is also the true meaning of digital rights as a basic human right.

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