It’s time for a rethink. Policies and initiatives that take digital by default as a starting point ignore the complexity of the field they manoeuvre in. Worse, they lead to a real danger that a large part of the population will become digitally excluded by default. That should not be acceptable in a country that wants to be Europe’s information society frontrunner, says LSE’s Ellen Helsper.

The Narrowing of Digital Policy

Currently, government involvement is characterised by a ‘hands off’ approach, deferring responsibility to the RaceOnline initiative led by Martha Lane Fox; a consortium that brings together a plethora of different companies, organisations and individuals all aiming to get the last 20% of people online. With this, responsibility for online inclusion has been taken out of the government’s hands.

Things have not always been this way. UK digital policy previously involved much more government involvement. It included policies and initiatives geared towards guaranteeing infrastructure for all and improving opportunities for digital participation. Key policies and research were situated within several government departments (e.g. DCLG, DfES, The Cabinet Office, BIS, and the regulator Ofcom).

Currently, the most obvious involvement from government is in promoting superfast broadband on the existing infrastructures through the Department of Culture, Media and Sport and acquisition of employment related digital skills through the Department of Business, Innovations and Skills. This means policy has been situated outside the social, educational, cultural and political sphere and is therefore not able to address the motivational and socio-cultural factors that so strongly predict engagement with ICTs.

The social digital reasons for exclusion

It is clear that encouraging social digital behaviour goes beyond ‘getting people online’ and should equally involve opportunities to improve skills, motivation and engagement in a wide variety of opportunities available on digital platforms. It is unclear how successful digital inclusion initiatives in the third and government sector have been in creating equalities beyond access. One of the ways in which this might be examined is by looking at how reasons behind digital exclusion have changed over time.

Non-Users of Internet (Source: Oxford Internet Survey Data, 2005-2011.)

 

The figure shows that while in 2005 only 50% of the non-users indicated a lack of interest as a reason for not being online, while in 2011 disinterest was a reason for 88% of non-users. Simultaneously, the other reasons (i.e. a lack of access, costs being too high and a lack of skills) did not decrease very significantly in importance.

What the figure does not show is that those who indicate that a lack of access or high costs is a reason for their disengagement also indicate that they lack the skills and that they are not so interested in what’s online. In 2005, there were quite a few non-users who gave a single reason for their lack of engagement with ICTs (i.e. either access or costs or skills or motivation). This means that there are now more people than 5 years ago that have compound reasons for being excluded.

Implications for policy 

The above means that policies and interventions that focus at providing access are less effective in 2011 than they were in 2005. While in 2005 organisations like the UK Online Centres might have been able to ‘lure’ people into their centres by offering free computer use and free digital skills classes this offer is now less likely to be enough to motivate those who are excluded to engage with ICTS.

The digital by default policy implicitly assumes that once services and content are online, people will (have to) use them and that, at the point of ubiquitous and uniform access, the level of take up will be equivalent for everyone. If this assumption is wrong, and I here argue that it is, the policy is likely to be costly both in economic and social terms. Those currently excluded lack not only high quality access but are also unmotivated and unskilled individuals and are therefore less likely to be able to take full advantage of the range of opportunities available online. Extra support for a high use group of individuals will be needed if aspects of inclusion other than infrastructure and skills are not built into digital inclusion policies.

This is not the first time this argument has been made, but the changing landscape, in which the digitally excluded have become more entrenched in their exclusion and are facing multiple, cumulative barriers to exclusion unlike those faced by previous generations of digitally excluded individuals, means that the argument needs to be made even more forcefully than before.

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This series is connected to The Social Digital Symposium that will take place on 22 March 2012 at the London School of Economics, from 10:30 am – 3:30pm, organised by the LSE Media Policy Project and UK Online Centres. For more information about the event, contact peter.farrell@ukonlinecentres.com.