We mustn’t overlook digital exclusion in the coronavirus pandemic


Written by Chris Ashworth, Head of Public Benefit, Nominet

Digital exclusion takes many forms. It’s something that Nominet has long been pre-occupied with, conscious of the negative consequences it has in a world and society that is becoming ever more ‘digital’.

The issue has been placed in sharper focus in these unprecedented times. As the UK responds to the COVID-19 outbreak, it became clear to the wider digital inclusion community that social distancing and self-isolation would have a serious impact on the people who are currently digitally excluded, but also have a knock-on effect to those who aren’t. As we all seek information and advice in these uncertain terms, how can we justify leaving the digitally excluded without access to the resources the rest of us can get at the touch of a button?

It is for this reason that we, in partnership with Snook, pushed for a rapid adoption of an idea that had been developing interest in the tech-for-good sector in recent months: ‘zero-rating’ essential digital services. Similar to emergency calls being free on any phone line regardless of your credit status, we wanted crucial websites to be free to access whether you have the data allowance or not. Considering the current escalating pandemic, we believed it was crucial to make vital websites – such as NHS online – freely available to all to help the country cope with these uncertain times.

And now it is, thanks to the rapid reactions and enthusiastic response from the UK’s major mobile operators and Government teams. If you have a mobile device but no data or credit, you will still be able to access the healthcare websites that you need for advice and information. Not only does this help those who would otherwise be left in the dark, it should also help ease the pressure on our health service, preventing people trying to attend their GP surgery or a hospital – or dialling 111 – as a means of getting information, potentially exacerbating things.

For those of us fortunate enough to not have to think twice about accessing the internet, it’s easy to assume that this change helps just a small number of people, but we are talking about up to one in ten people who face digital exclusion. And this isn’t just an issue in a pandemic; it’s an issue for life. Imagine you need to find temporary housing or face homelessness, or want to accept an invite to a job interview but don’t have credit to make the call. These are real life examples we’ve heard through research and working with partners at the sharp end of the voluntary sector, and just some of the reasons that digital exclusion needs to be taken seriously in today’s connected world..

One of the ways Nominet has already been trying to tackle these issues is through the establishment, with the Learning Foundation, of the Digital Access for All (DAFA) taskforce. With founding members including Lloyds Bank, Microsoft, Intel, Argos, BT, Carnegie UK Trust, Good Things Foundation, Computer Recyclers and Greater London Authority, we are charged with designing and delivering solutions to the problem of digital exclusion. To this end, we have started with pilots to help us better understand the barriers and so ensure we help those who need it in the best way we can, whether through providing tools and training, opportunities or simply free access to those most in need.

Digital exclusion is a hugely complex issue that affects a variety of people in different ways, and so will need a multi-pronged, collaborative and wide-reaching approach. It’s a massive challenge – that much is clear – but we welcome this move to offer zero-rate access to key sites during the pandemic. It’s a huge first step to generating greater awareness and recognition of the need to keep everyone digitally connected and able to access the benefits of a life online. No one should be left behind in our digital world, and this initiative is one of the many small ways we can make a huge difference to those who are currently excluded.

Originally published here.

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