Imbalanced access to communication technologies has generated new inequalities, according to Social Watch, a coalition of 400 NGOs in 60 countries.
Social Watch monitors government compliance with international commitments to development and gender equity. Its annual report, widely recognised as an independent study on social development, has just been released.
It says: "More than four-fifths of the people in the world do not have access to Internet and are therefore disadvantaged when it comes to making progress in production, education, and constructing full citizenship."
Social Watch points out that in the most backward regions "investment in new technologies is not geared to spreading them on a large scale".
Its study on this issue is titled "Information, Science and Technology: Digital Gap, People Gap". This is a reference to the widely debated 'digital divide' but is a hint that the divide is reflected among people too and also affects them.
It judged different countries on a range of select indicators-Internet users per thousand people, personal computers, telephone mainlines, scientists and engineers in R&D (per million people), expenditure on information and communication technology (as a percentage of the gross domestic product or GDP) and expenditure on R&D as a percentage of GDP.
Says the report: "For some years now, the experts have been talking about the new 'information society' (and more recently about the 'knowledge society'), and the challenges and dangers it involves."
But it suggests that the "capability to manage information" is increasingly important.
It notes that currently 40 percent of Canada and the US have access to the Internet. But in Latin America and the Caribbean the figure is only 2 or 3 percent. Narrowing this gap is a major challenge, it adds.
There is currently not "one digital gap" but several, it suggests. This is because people's access to current information systems "is conditional upon a series of factors".
People simply get "left out" from using the new technology because of factors like economic resources, geography, age, gender, language, education, cultural background, employment and physical well-being.
"Access to personal computers is a pre-requisite for access to the new sources of information," it cautions.
One billion Internet users on the planet is a "great success story". But the 80 percent still left out cannot be ignored too. UNESCO says 90 percent of Internet users are from the industrialised world.
Social Watch's report praises China for jumping from "almost no broadband subscribers" to 23 million in just three years. It says technological scientific development in a country "depends to a large extent" on government decisions.
It says: "It is clear that state investment is a key factor... This is what is happening in China, where the current surge in ICT has been underpinned by a big increase in state investment in R&D, which jumped from 0.83 percent of GDP in 1999 to 1.23 percent in 2002." This was giving China an edge not only in ICT but also in fields like biotechnology.
Also stressed was the amount of human capital that each country has in the form of researchers and scientists.
It says: "Put simply, a country's ability to take advantage of the new information systems is connected to its capacity to revalue its culture, traditions and values. This revaluation should involve full integration into the modern world."
Social Watch cautions that if a poor country cannot manage this, "It will remain as a receiver of information and it will be limited to a passive role in the information society".
Giving figures to measure the size of the digital gap, the study says: "In the most developed countries, there are 563 computers per 1,000 people; but in the most backward there are only around 25 per 1,000 people, which is to say there are 20 times more in the developed world. That is just one measure of the size of the digital gap."