During His Majesty’s recent visit to India, the Government of India and Bhutan reached an agreement to accelerate the implementation of the Third International Internet Gateway. This agreement includes a concessional rate from GOI to reduce the cost of operations for the gateway. This is a significant development for Bhutan, as the country is currently undergoing a digital transformation. However, there are still many challenges that need to be addressed at the grassroots level. Legislators and policymakers must focus on key areas to ensure the success of our National Digital Identity initiative.

The rights of information, freedom of speech, expression, and opinion are fundamental rights under the Constitution. The right to information encompasses the ability to access information, which is crucial in today’s digital age. Access to reliable, affordable, and connected digital services is necessary for individuals to exercise their right to information fully and embrace a digital society. Despite Bhutan’s implementation of e-governance decades ago, the country still faces challenges in internet accessibility, affordability, and reliability. The internet in Bhutan is not only expensive but also has poor connectivity that has not improved over the years. The problem of multiple loans being taken out on a single piece of collateral, selling of the same plot of land to multiple buyers, frequent breakdowns in online financial services, and almost defunct G2C services are a few examples.

According to a recent study report, only 40 percent of people worldwide have access to affordable internet, while the remaining 61 percent in countries with below-average indices are overpaying for their internet services. The study also revealed that Bhutan is one country where there is a significant gap between rural and urban areas in terms of internet accessibility.

The GSMA Mobile Connectivity Index 2022 further highlights the disparities in internet affordability and consumer readiness between Bhutan and other countries. Bhutan’s affordability rate is only 60.7 percent, while consumer readiness is at a mere 61.6 percent. In contrast, Estonia boasts an affordability rate of 76.7 percent with consumer readiness at 91.8 percent, while Australia has an affordability rate of 83.9% with consumer readiness at 95.2 percent.

Recently, Kuensel reported: “Ironically, as Bhutan strives to become an ICT-driven society, the digital divide – the gap between those able to benefit from the digital age and those not so – appears to be widening.”

The digital divide refers to the inequality that exists between those with access to digital technologies and those without. In today’s rapidly advancing technological landscape, many people still struggle to afford or access vital resources such as internet connectivity, computers, and smartphones. The consequences of this gap are far-reaching, leading to growing disparities in education, employment, and overall quality of life.

Estonia is a prime example of successful digital transformation in recent years. The country recognized that improving digital infrastructure and implementing policy reforms were crucial, but they also understood the importance of establishing a strong regulatory environment that would instill trust in users. Estonia enacted several laws, such as the Digital Signatures Act, Archives Act, Population Register Act, Personal Data Protection Act, Information Society Service Act, etc. to ensure the security and reliability of their digital systems.

Thus, it is imperative for legislators and policymakers to establish a comprehensive and robust regulatory framework for data security and privacy including provisions of reliable, affordable connectivity for all users. These regulatory mechanisms must also institute accountability for any shortcomings.   

Sonam Tshering

Lawyer, Thimphu

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are author’s own.