By Ellen Helsper and Dorota Kaczuba

Following the Expert Meeting on the subject of Digital Inclusion and ICT policies, we compiled this dossier to bring together key documents for anyone interested in the present and future of digital inclusion of UK information and communication policies and its international background. The dossier organizes links to these resources as follows:

  1. Key UK policy documents
  2. European policy context
  3. Definitions of digital inclusion
  4. Key Academic publications
  5. Policy questions?

1. Key UK policy documents

1.1. Delivery model for a Superfast Broadband Future – Report published May 2011

The most comprehensive document published so far by the Government on the subject of the broadband delivery policy. Supplement to the policy paper ‘Britain’s Superfast Broadband Future’ (see 1.3), addressing the ways in which the Government plans to arrive at its goals.

The definition of key performance indicators remains at a non-quantifiable level.

1.2 ICT strategy 2011 (Cabinet Office) – Report published March 2011

This document sets the plans of the current government to develop IT-based communication services with the citizenry in an attempt to catch up with the possibilities offered by modern technology and e-government trends.

The most direct reference to a strategy related to digital inclusion can be found on pages 18-19 (point 45), although this is still not linked to concrete, quantifiable actions or deadlines:

“Therefore, the Government will work to make citizen-focused transactional services ‘digital by default’ where appropriate using Directgov as the single domain for citizens to access public services and government information. For those for whom digital channels are less accessible (for example, some older or disadvantaged people) the Government will enable a network of ‘assisted digital’ service providers, such as Post Offices, UK online centres and other local service providers.”

1.3 Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) – Report published December 2010

After the coalition government took office, ICT policies were reshaped into a ‘broadband delivery‘ scheme and transferred to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).

The ambition of this government is to provide the UK with “the best broadband network in Europe” within the term of office of the current Parliament., Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s policy promise, stated in public speeches, is to provide 90% of homes and businesses with access to broadband speeds of at least 2MBps by 2015. The policy document does not, however, establish tangible indicators of success, only a draft overview of its components that will take into consideration the parameters of speed, coverage, price and consumers’ choice.

The concrete modalities of policy implementation remain unclear besides the intention to build on market mechanisms and the private sector, making public money available (£530m) and a desire to involve local communities.

1.4 Martha Lane Fox initiative – Race online 2012

This is an initiative to mobilise grass roots organisations with the aim to increase internet use among the British population. It promotes a positive social role for ‘digital champions’. Becoming a digital champion implies enhancing internet use in one’s direct social environment: family members, neighbours, colleagues. By mobilizing social capital, the government expects to find a low cost solution to the digital exclusion problem.
The programme does not define what using the internet means in terms of frequency, breadth and sustainability of use. While Martha Lane Fox is in close contact and has open access to many levels of government the initiative is independent of, and therefore not accountable to, government or policy strategies.

1.5 Previous Inclusion/ICT policies

1.5.1 Digital Britain – Report published June 2009

The current BDUK policy’s predecessor, Digital Britain, set initiatives that have been discontinued, for example Universal Service Commitment or Next Generation Access Fund.

1.5.2 Digital inclusion action plan (DCLG)- Report published October 2008

In 2009 the rhetoric on access policies was oriented more towards inclusion and social aspects, embedding the concept of digital exclusion into more general social exclusion policies and seeing the technology as an instrument towards social cohesion and equity.

2. European Policy Context

The EU Digital Agenda is the EU strategy for the development of ICT, contextualised as facilitating recovery from the economic crisis as well as contributing towards EU social development. As part of the Europe 2020 economic reform package, it was adopted with the appointment of the Barroso II Commission in May 2010 and is led by Commissioner Neelie Kroes. The most recent EC press release on the status of the European Digital Agenda was published after the first European Digital Assembly on June 16 and 17 and included the launch of a scoreboard for the progress of the policy implementation in all the EU Member States (See the UK country profile for broadband penetration).

2.1 Closing the Digital Gap: Social Inclusion.

Digital Inclusion is an integral part of the Digital Agenda’s seven ‘pillars’. One of them is called Enhancing E-skills and covers actions aimed at closing the digital gap through improving accessibility and digital literacy.

“150 million Europeans – some 30% – have never used the internet. Often they say they have no need or that it is too expensive. This group is largely made up of people aged 65 to 74 years old, people on low incomes, the unemployed and the less educated. In many cases the take-up gap is due to lack of user skills such as digital and media literacy, not only for employability but also for learning, creating, participating.” (Digital Agenda for Europe)

The EC report published along with the scoreboard data concentrates on the development of the digital competencies among Europeans, with only a small section adopting a full inclusion perspective.

2.2 Superfast Broadband

Superfast broadband, emphasized also by the British government initiatives, is yet another – separate – pillar of the Digital Agenda.

“The Europe 2020 Strategy has underlined the importance of broadband deployment to promote social inclusion and competitiveness in the EU. It restated the objective to bring basic broadband to all Europeans by 2013 and seeks to ensure that, by 2020, (i) all Europeans have access to much higher internet speeds of above 30 Mbps and (ii) 50% or more of European households subscribe to internet connections above 100 Mbps.”(Digital Agenda for Europe)

According to the data provided by the EC within the scoreboard: countries with the highest fixed broadband penetration are Netherlands and Denmark, reaching almost 40%, with UK approaching 35%. Countries with the lowest diffusion are Romania and Bulgaria at the rate of ca. 15%.

3. Definitions of digital inclusion

Often definitions of digital inclusion are not as concrete as they should be in terms of when someone could be considered included. The definitions that follow at least mention the range of issues that come into play.

According to the Delivering Digital Inclusion Action Plan (DCLG, 2008) Digital Inclusion: “…requires people to have the motivation, skills and opportunity to engage in technology. (p.9) […] The best use of digital technology, either directly or indirectly, to improve the lives and life chances of all citizens and the places in which they live.” (p. 14)

A discussion paper produced by Becta (now defunct) argued that ” …digital divides involve a complex web of interconnected social, economic and cultural factors that cannot be fully captured by a definition that focuses solely on access or ownership” ( p.4)

Warschauer argues in an academic paper (2001) that digital inclusion policies should consider: “..the wide range of physical [i.e. technological access], digital [i.e. content or uses], human [i.e. literacy and education], and social [i.e. community and social networks] resources that meaningful access to ICT entails.

4. Key Academic publications

Attewell, P. (2001). The first and second digital divides. Sociology of Education, 74(3), 252-259.

Haddon, L. (Ed.). (2011). The contemporary internet. in L. Fortunati, Gebhart, J. & Vincent J. (Eds.) Participation in Broadband Society Series. Brussels (BE): Peter Lang.

Halford, S., & Savage, M. (2010). Reconceptualizing digital social inequality Information, Communication & Society, 13(7), 937 — 955. doi:10.1080/1369118X.2010.499956

Hargittai, E., & Walejko, G. (2008). The participation divide: Content creation and sharing in the digital age. Information Communication and Society, 11(2), 239-256.

Livingstone, S., & Helsper, E. (2007). Gradations in digital inclusion: Children, young people and the digital divide. New Media & Society, 9(4), 671-696.

Loader, B. (1998). Cyberspace divide: Equality, agency, and policy in the information society. In B. Loader (Ed.), Cyberspace divide: Equality, agency, and policy in the information society. (pp. 3-18). New York: Routledge.

McCreadie, M., & Rice, R. E. (1999a). Trends in analyzing access to information. part I: Cross-disciplinary conceptualizations of access. Information Processing and Management, 35(1), 45-76.

McCreadie, M., & Rice, R. E. (1999b). Trends in analyzing access to information. part II: Unique and integrating conceptualizations. Information Processing and Management, 35(1), 77-99.

Norris, P. (2001). Digital divide: Civic engagement, information poverty, and the internet worldwide. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.

Selwyn, N. (2004). Reconsidering political and popular understandings of the digital divide. New Media & Society, 6(3), 341-362.

Selwyn, N. (2006). Dealing with digital inequality: Rethinking young people, technology and social inclusion. Cyberworld Unlimited? Conference, Bielefeld.

Van Dijk, J. A. G. M. (2005). The deepening divide: Inequality in the information society. Thousand Oaks, CA, USA.: Sage.

Warschauer, M. (2004). Technology and social inclusion: Rethinking the digital divide. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

5. Pressing policy questions

The three simple questions below all require concrete action points and promises; not only goals and ambitions but also implementation strategies are needed.

The answers will be complex and if they are to be successful they need to build on the participation of a range of actors including government. The market or third sector will not be able to deal on their own with an increasingly entrenched group of digitally excluded individuals. The policy answers have to be based on and integrated with other (social and economic) policy areas.

  1. How and at what pace can universal access to high quality, high speed broadband be realistically implemented? Is an aim of 100% access realistic or should a policy strategy consider incorporating concrete plans for intermediaries?
  2. Which policy goals in relation to digital skills can be set up and which guarantees can be built in so that the most disadvantaged younger and older individuals are reached by these?
  3. Which priorities can the government set for broad and sustainable engagement with ICTs by all sections of the population, which sectors besides education and employers should be involved in this?

The main question that needs to be answered before any of the above can be addressed is what responsibility and accountability is the UK government willing to take on in the areas of digital access, skills and engagement.