E-Exclusion and the Gender Digital Divide

AUTHOR
Georgia Foteinou

ABSTRACT

In the era of the digital revolution most governments around the world adopt relevant technological strategies and try to construct the so called “e-government”. However, what should be done is not obvious and the decision to follow the strategy of the most developed countries is not always a wise choice. What should be taken into account is not only the technological infrastructure and the citizens every day needs but also the specific cultural and legal environment and the future trends, otherwise the evolution of e-Government may be a path which leads society backwards.

The modern European society faces a number of challenges caused by many factors (social, economical, political) and the evolution of ICTs in the social and political life accelerates the process of change. But, where this process leads and how we can measure the results? Billions of euros are spent every year for e-Government infrastructure, while the European Governments still haven’t found an effective way to measure the results. The e-Government Economics Project (eGEP) recommends three value drivers for the measurement of impacts and outcomes of e-government: efficiency, democracy and effectiveness. Also, states that “metrics for the public value potentially generated by e-Government should not be limited to quantitative, financial impact” and suggests the adoption of other qualitative indicators, such as users’ satisfaction. This qualitative evaluation of e-Government raises other basics questions, such as: is it possible to measure democracy and how? And what actually means “user’s satisfaction”. Has this expression the same meaning for someone who lives in Turkey and someone who lives in Norway? And of course we have to determine and define who the users are: are the citizens? are the politicians or the employees in public administration? Are the women or the men? Is there a gender dimension in e-Government? Which is the basic view of the system and in what way do we classify the citizens into users categories; according to which attributes and characteristics?

The research reveals that the gender dimension is present on e-Government systems and sometimes may lead to what we call “Gender Digital Divide”. The most impressive is that this Digital Inequality may co-exist synchronously with an official governmental policy for the alleviation of this inequalities. Why a governmental policy may be contradictory to another is a political issue, but the ability to examine the results of these policies may unveil that the ICTs is a tool for other purposes other than the social welfare. For example ICTs may be a tool for the empowerment of women or instead a tool for applying extensive control over women, and of course what is ethically right and what is legally right is up to a specific sociopolitical environment. There are no general ethical rules and the problem emerges in a such multi-cultural and multi-national area as Europe. The nations are not unified but the systems sometimes should be integraded.

This paper presents the case of the Greek TAXISnet and the social implications of this e-service. TAXISnet (taxation information system) is the most successful Greek e-Government system which offers services directly to the citizens through a web site. A variety of services concerning taxation issues are fully available electronically to the public while the system exploits existing information infrastructures [Stamoulis et al., 2001]. It has extremely high rates of usage in enterprises (which reach 80% of the Greek enterprises) and the highest rates in citizens, comparing to other Greek e-services. Actually, this service is the only well-known e-Government service in Greek population and probably its great performance is the reason why e-Government services in Greece have satisfactory usage rates, compared to other EU countries (although they are still under the average EU rates).

TAXISnet had an overall budget of 60m euro and it was funded by the Greek Government and the European Union. Until today it remains an efficient and well running information system which saves millions of euros every year for the Greek government [Stamoulis et al., 2001]. However, a recent evaluation regarding the social aspects and the citizens’ satisfaction of TAXISnet revealed that the system has many weaknesses. This is due to a lack of support for people with disabilities, for immigrants, for foreigners and for other social groups [Terzis & Economides, 2006]. Moreover, the system does not permit actual access to any married woman although it gives “access rights” to them. The man – the husband – has alone right and responsibility to use the system and to declare the family income. The Greek tax law which was fully implemented in the case TAXISnet caused a number of gender-related issues and brought to the fore gender inequalities from past years.

The women pay of course their taxes and give details for their personal income and property to their husbands but they have no right to access the system and to see the tax declaration which concerns their income. This happens because the husband’s personal data are fully protected by the Greek law. Hence, the spouse has no right to see it. But what is happening with her personal data and why an e-government system eternalises a social inequality? What are the implications of this policy?

Of course the official statistics concerning the e-Government usage in Greece show that there is a gender dimension and the gender digital divide is evident, but in what degree that’s a social attitude and in what degree is the result of a governmental policy? The consequences, positive and negative, of a governmental policy may be huge. Can we consider Greek TAXISnet as a successful digital service? It has of course substantial economic benefits for the citizens, but it is contradictory to principal ethical values. The citizens do not “feel equal” when they access the service, because what someone can or cannot do depends on his or her gender.

The main conclusion is that the aforementioned e-service exacerbates the existing discriminations and we can even suppose that it creates new ones by preventing young, highly educated women from using e-Government. The potential female users of e-services are wealthy, well educated women who, until recently, had never felt what really means gender discrimination. Moreover, this case study indicates that many factors can produce biased statistical results, because of a lack of understanding of the context of use.

REFERENCES

Huyer S. & Siloska T. (2003) “Overcoming the Gender Digital Divide: Understanding ICTs and their Potential for the Empowerment of Women”, Instraw Research Paper Series No 1.

Stamoulis D., Gouscos D., Georgiadis P., Martakos D., (2001), “Revisiting public information management for effective e-government service”, Information Management & Computer Security, vol. 9(4), pp. 146-153

Hacker K. & Mason S. (2003) “Ethical gaps in studies of the digital divide”, Ethics and Information Technology, vol. 5 pp.99-115

Floridi L. (2001) “Information Ethics: An Environmental approach to the Digital Divide”, Philosophy in the Contemporary World, vol. 9, No 1, pp.1-7.

Foteinou G. & Pavlidis G (2009), “Ethical Aspects of e-Government: Social Actors, Politics and the Digital Divide”, proceedings of the Eighth International Computer Ethics Conference, Corfu 2009.

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