The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

1 in 3 people around the world have never used the Internet, a U.N. report estimates

Abdolghani Jamshidi, an Afghan refugee, uses his cellphone in Iran on Oct. 10. (Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto/Getty Images)

Around 37 percent of the world’s population, or 2.9 billion people, have still never used the Internet — and most of them live in developing countries, according to an estimate from a U.N. agency for information and communication technologies.

This is despite the pandemic leading to a “covid connectivity boost” in which the number of people who accessed the Internet rose to around 4.9 billion this year, up 17 percent from 2019, in part because school closures and searches for health updates pushed more people online, the International Telecommunication Union said.

The “unusually sharp rise” from 2019 is “good news for global development,” it said, but the data still shows that the “world’s poorest [are] being left far behind.”

The coronavirus pandemic has exposed a deep digital divide, for schoolchildren and employees in particular, as lockdowns pushed lessons and some jobs onto the Web.

Remote learning is deepening the divide between rich and poor

In the United States, millions of students and some of their teachers struggled without Internet at home, more so in rural and poorer parts of the country, prompting efforts to unlock funding to help families, schools and libraries provide virtual education.

Around the world, a generation of poor children also found themselves shut out of learning and at risk of falling behind because they could not afford an Internet connection, let alone a laptop.

The latest connectivity numbers show progress during the pandemic, said Doreen Bogdan-Martin, the director of the agency’s telecommunication development bureau. However, she added, across the U.N.’s 46 least-developed countries, which include Afghanistan, Yemen, Niger and Mozambique, “almost three quarters of people have never connected,” facing obstacles such as poverty, illiteracy or limited electricity.

The divide is prominent in rural parts of these countries, where residents are four times less likely to go online than in urban regions, but it also runs along gender lines, leaving four out of every five women in the least-developed countries offline.

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