Digital marginalisation

July 2018

Helping someone understanding paperworkMatthew Gillman MBCS, a statistical programmer at King’s College London and member of the BCS ICT Ethics Specialist Group, reminds us that not everyone has access to computers or the internet.

The internet is very useful. You can use it to order merchandise, renew library books, request a repeat prescription, pay your road tax. It’s amazing how much things have changed in the last 20+ years in the UK, and indeed elsewhere.

But spare a thought for those who are unable, or unwilling, to embrace the internet, or even computers of any form. The government aims to increase broadband coverage1, which is a worthy aim. And it also seeks to make services ‘digital by default’. But we need to think more broadly about such things.

If your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Or: ‘If you’re a software professional, every problem looks like it needs a digital solution.’ In many cases that is so. But it’s not the whole picture.

The Government Digital Inclusion Strategy2 states: ‘We need to provide more than just access. We need to equip the whole country with the skills, motivation and trust to go online, be digitally capable and to make the most of the internet.’ Unfortunately, this fails to address the needs of those who cannot (or do not wish to) use the internet.

Horror stories

A report by Citizens Advice Scotland3 has some horror stories about people being denied benefits as they are unable to access the internet. And, often these problems are due to disability or poverty.

Another factor is age. Although there are plenty of ‘silver surfers’, on the other hand, there are many older people who do not wish to use computers at all. And why should they be compelled to? Surely, they should be accommodated if they wish to use paper and pen, or the telephone?

An example here is financial products, e.g. savings accounts. Many only operate online. Others can be operated by telephone, but require opening online. This means, if someone without access to a computer wishes to use such products, they either need to find someone they (hopefully) can trust to do it for them (is this even legal?) - or miss out.

Libraries often allow internet access. However, this again assumes that people will be comfortable with the technology and willing to use it. It also may be unsuitable for the many people who do not live near to a library. And libraries are closing.

Resilience

It should also be remembered that the UK relies increasingly on the internet as a way of doing things. Yet we have heard stories about how disastrous a major cyber-attack could be, and indeed has been already (e.g. the NHS falling victim to the WannaCry malware in 2017).

To deal with such events, as well as cyber resilience and recovery, we need alternative methods of communication (paper, telephone) to remain and be acceptable.

A recent study4 found that, as the use of mobile phones in India has rapidly increased, health services have adapted to this. Unfortunately, in doing so, those who do not have a mobile phone have been disadvantaged. Let’s make sure that the same thing does not happen with the internet.

References


Image: Getty/RyanJLane