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What is the right goal for digital inclusion?

Most tech observers agree that digital inclusion is important, but the digitally excluded can have quite different views on what they want

You would be poorer, have less access to public services, be unable to access most of the content you usually consume, see and hear from fewer of your friends, and possibly be unable to do your job, if you didn’t have internet connectivity. It is hard to imagine a day without it.

Given that Tim Berners-Lee famously said that the web “is for everyone”, it is easy to assume that the goal for digital inclusion would be: “This should be for everyone.”

But the Broadband Stakeholder Group’s (BSG) recent research into digital inclusion brings a pause for thought. As one of the interviewees said of internet access: “I like simplicity and I think it’s too much like hard work... I don’t feel like in my life that I am totally missing out on something.”

This was a 54-year-old woman who had not been online in the previous 12 months, and, by and large, that is a choice she has made.

So, is the goal that all those who can be online should be? Or rather, should those who want to be online, be able to? This might seem pedantic, but it changes the focus entirely of where industry and government need to concentrate their efforts.

When it comes to the government’s stated ambition, its Digital Inclusion Strategy objective is that “everyone who can be digitally capable, will be”. We have made significant progress since that strategy was published in 2014, with recent non-internet use falling from 15% to 10% of the adult population. But, as with any push towards universality, it keeps getting harder the further you go.

The BSG’s research of non-internet users showed the scale of the attitude challenge: 75% felt they did not miss out by not using the internet, and 79% believed they were unlikely to use the internet in the future. When prompted, security, safety and privacy concerns were cited most by non-users, with 76% saying this, closely followed by lacking the required skills (70%) and having no interest in online services (70%).

We are faced with a significant number of people who are offline, either having no interest or no motivation to get online. Half (51%) felt proud that they did not use the internet – so it’s hard to see what carrot or stick would shift them from their belief. Indeed, when asked to imagine that, by 2023, all television access would have to be through the internet, just 37% of those currently offline said they would change their mind.

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What about those who want to be online, but can’t? Money plays a part, as does skills, although whether this could be addressed if there was sufficient interest is an open question.

But there is also the question of physical access. Data from the Office for National Statistics shows that only 75% of those who self-register as disabled are recent internet users – far below the average. Our research shows that they are constrained to a greater degree, with 34% of those citing a physical barrier to internet access wanting to go online.

The difference between those being able to access the internet but won’t, and those wanting to go online but can’t, therefore leads us to different areas – the former on a “carrot and stick” approach, which seems unlikely to yield the desired impact; the latter a focus on removing financial barriers and empowering those with physical challenges with improved access to technology or innovations in voice-based usage.

Finally, we need to consider wider societal challenges, such as loneliness. Clearly, for many, the internet helps them stay connected with people and make new connections. But if someone’s only face-to-face interaction is withdrawing their pension from the Post Office, is it really in our best interest to force them online for that service?

Ultimately, we must take a step back and view digital inclusion more holistically. We will be conducting further research in this area and I encourage all from industry, government and the third sector to consider the objectives we are setting ourselves to ensure we address the needs of every citizen.

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