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Eradicating digital poverty in the UK requires concerted effort from industry, government and civil society, according to the first-of-its-kind evidence review into the state of digital poverty.
The evidence review assessed five “determinants” of digital poverty – devices and connectivity, access, capability, motivation, and support and participation – and recognises that digital poverty is the result of multiple, compounding and intersectional forms of inequality.
It found that digital poverty is a much wider issue than simply having a computer or being “online”, noting that widening differences in connection, devices, skills and experiences all play a crucial role in exacerbating existing inequalities and social divisions across the UK, as well as introducing new ones.
The review was conducted by the Digital Poverty Alliance (The DPA), a charitable coalition of public, private and third sector partners working to end digital poverty. It was founded in 2021 by the Learning Foundation, Currys and the Institute of Engineering and technology (IET).
“Absolute measures of being ‘on-’ or ‘offline’ are increasingly less salient than relative differences in quality and affordability of connections, number and type of devices, and the experiences and outcomes people gain from the digital world,” it said.
“In highly digitised societies like the UK, differential or relative access – such as differences in speed, reliability and hardware – have a significant impact on an individual’s degree of digital inclusion or exclusion.
“Beyond simple access alone, digital poverty is also determined by a constantly shifting digital landscape, characterised by planned obsolescence of hardware and software. This rapid, constant change in terms of what is required to participate fully in the digital world leaves people behind if they have out-of-date technologies and skills.”
On the second determinant of access, the review noted that disabled adults make up a disproportionately large proportion of adult internet non-users (56%), primarily due to developers design choices and the prohibitive costs of many assistive technologies.
“Digital design often stops short of incorporating the social model of disability, which explains how people are dis-abled by barriers (physical and social) in society, not by their differences,” it said, adding that this model points to the social responsibility of building spaces and technologies that are inclusive from the outset.
According to review author and public engagement researcher at the Ada Lovelace Institute, Kira Allmann: “Eradicating digital poverty will depend not only on bolstering digital access and skills among the least connected, but also on cultivating a digital economy and tech sector underpinned by diversity, inclusivity, accessibility, privacy, safety, fairness and equity.
“This is a radical shift in how we need to think about digital poverty going forward – at this point, it’s far more than a question of simply getting more people online, it’s a question of ensuring that digitisation doesn’t deepen inequalities or introduce new forms of inequality for us all.”
To overcome issues around digital poverty and inclusion, the review lays out five policy principles: digital is now an essential utility, and therefore a basic right; accessing key public services, like social security and healthcare, online must be simple, safe, and meet our needs; and that digital should fit into people’s lives, particularly the most disadvantaged, not be an additional burden.
The last two principles are that digital skills should be fundamental to our education and our training throughout life; and that there must be cross-sector efforts to provide free and open evidence on digital exclusion.
Each of the policy principles comes with a number of initial recommendations. For example, on treating digital as a basic right, the review suggested the introduction of “sustainable social tariffs on all broadband providers for people on low incomes” and the introduction of a legal right to internet access and digital infrastructure.
On accessibility it said that basic, inclusive design requirements should be enforced for all essential services, and that there should be a mandate for all major cross-sector digital services to provide sustainable “assisted digital support” where people’s needs are triaged at point of need.
Other recommended interventions include comprehensive digital literacy training in schools and throughout life, and the need to conduct further research that shows the real, lived experience of living in digital poverty.
These five principles and the evidence gathered will now be used to guide the formation of a National Delivery Plan, pulled together by the DPA community and experts, that sets out clearly what actions need to be taken by who – and by when – to end digital poverty by 2030.
“Digital poverty is a persistent problem that is both the product of and a contributor to societal inequality, and it will not go away on its own,” said the review.
“Tackling digital poverty will require connected policies, interventions and research agendas across the public and private sectors and at national and local scales that put digital equity at the heart of the UK’s societal future.”