First published in Canvas: March 30 2014
In our day, all efforts made to connect impoverished communities to the internet must be applauded; such is the value of the internet to the global community. In recent years, the United Nations has recognised this fact; in May 2010, it created the UN Broadband Commission for Digital Development, a joint initiative led by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Comprising of CEO and industry leaders, senior policy makers and government representatives, international agencies, and development organisations, the Commission’s main goal has been to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) set out by the UN in 2000.
The council has met numerous times in the last three years, most recently in Dublin. On that occasion, Denis O’Brien, the Chairman of Irish company Digicel, and co-founder of the Broadband Commission, declared that access to broadband internet was a human right, and that expanding internet services could act as a catalyst for lifting developing countries out of poverty, acting as a stimulant for economic growth, and joining together previously isolated communities. “The long-sought panacea to human poverty,” he stated, “may at last be within our reach in the form of broadband networks that empower all countries to take their place in the global economy, overcoming traditional barriers like geography, language and resource constraints.”
Also present at the Dublin conference was Ethiopian Prime Minister Paul Kagame. Kagame has prioritised broadband access in his time as Prime Minister, and an extensive roll-out of fibre optic cable has been completed. “For us in Rwanda,” Kagame claimed in Dublin “broadband and ICTs play a major role in the progress we have so far made…Broadband and ICTs contribute to our economic growth and help deliver more efficiently in education, health, finance and banking and other sectors.” In spite of these efforts, Ethiopia has one of the lowest levels of Broadband penetration in Africa; only 1-2% of the population has an internet subscription. Ethiopia is ranked 151 out of 157 countries in terms of ICT development.
In the same report “Measuring the Information Society (2012), Britain came fifth, behind Japan, Finland, Sweden and South Korea, and ahead of the United States. The report highlighted the “remarkable growth” in the smartphone market in 2011 which had caused Ofcom to talk of a “smartphone revolution.”  In 2013, 36 million adults (73%) in Great Britain accessed the Internet every day – 20 million more than in 2006 – and 21 million households (83%) had access to the internet in some form. Access to the Internet using a mobile phone more than doubled between 2010 and 2013, from 24% to 53%, and 72% of all adults bought goods or services online, up from 53% in 2008. In Britain, the internet is used for a wide variety of functions; from social networking (93% of 16-24 year olds) and telephone and video calls (40% of 16-24 year olds) to sending emails (89% of 25-34 year olds) and online banking (76% of 25-34 year olds).
Though these statistics place Britain at the forefront of internet development, the principle behind Denis O’Brien’s statement is as true for us as it is for Ethiopia. Access to the internet should be viewed as a human right for British citizens, for the same, and other reasons. As the internet has penetrated into our daily lives to a greater degree, it has become more vital that we stay connected so that we can participate fully and equitably in society. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the jobs market. More and more companies are choosing to advertise vacancies exclusively online. The University of Sheffield for example, encourages students to learn CV writing skills; yet it does not accept CVs as applications for its own vacancies. Application forms, even for entry level retail jobs, have developed into sophisticated interactive assessment environments, often time limited. If an applicant fails the assessment; they are not allowed to submit a CV, and in some cases, cannot apply again for six months; A tough sentence to endure for the sake of a shelf stacking position.
With demands rising on job seekers to apply for more and more jobs to qualify for Unemployment Benefit, it is crucial for job seekers to be able to access the internet; they are now mandated to sign up to the computerised Universal Jobmatch system, where their activities can be monitored. But according to the Office of National Statistics (ONS) 2013 Report, two thirds (67%) of unemployed adults had looked for a job or submitted a job application, and just over half of unemployed adults (54%) reported that they had looked on the Internet for information about education, training or courses. Importantly, approximately two thirds (67%) of those who were unemployed indicated that their computer skills were sufficient if they needed to start a new job. These statistics demonstrate that around a third of the unemployed are unable to access a computer to look for work.
The ONS report echoes the findings of the Go ON UK 2012, which found that around 16 million people in Britain lacked basic online skills (defined as using a search engine, sending and receiving emails, completing online applications and accessing information online.) The report also found that only a third of small and medium-sized companies in Britain had a digital presence, and that only 14% sold their products on line. The commissioner of the report, UK “Digital Champion” Martha Lane-Fox, stated the need for the country to be “fit for purpose” through the next decade and ensure everyone and every organisation has basic digital literacy…”This is not just about getting more people online, but about building the skills of those who are online.”
Lane-Fox has quickly become influential in government circles; she was given a Peerage in 2013 and sits as a crossbencher. In 2010, she published a report for the Government: “DirectGov 2010 and Beyond: Revolution Not Evolution,” which argued for a channel shift that will see public services provided “digitally by default.” On this line, the Government intends to make its new Universal Credit welfare payment “digital by default.” “Call it carrot or stick,” welfare reform minister Lord Freud has claimed “going digital by default is a powerful forcing mechanism…This is very convenient for those who can do it, though clearly there are many who have never done it before or feel very nervous about handling something like that.
“We want to make sure when we design tenders for outsiders to help, we make sure we are encouraging people to make that journey into independent use of the internet…it is not just that it is convenient for us to manage the system online – employers need people who are able to handle the digital world.”
Though inevitable, the transfer to “digital by default” services will be traumatic for a significant proportion of people, many of them young. It was recently found that more than a third of the poorest children do not have access to the internet at home, and that a similar number do not have a computer. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation similarly found that though young people may have access to the internet through libraries and via career services, sometimes free of charge, travel costs, and access time limits might prohibit them from doing a proper job search, meaning allowing insufficient time to search for vacancies, prepare applications and engage in correspondence. A careers advisor, interviewed for their report “Helping Unemployed People Find Private Sector Work, stated: ““They have no money; they haven’t got a computer. It takes over an hour to apply for some [jobs] and they get an hour free on a library computer so if they haven’t finished the application form, hard luck because, in some cases, they can’t go back.
In recognising these problems, Lane-Fox, as Digital Champion, created Go ON UK, a charity which aims to encourage the elderly, businesses and charities to get online, offering a computer and an internet connection for £159, with further reductions for those on benefits. Schemes like this need to be expanded, for when Denis O’Brien states that internet access is a human right, it is important to clarify that statement as universal. If internet access becomes a vital tool for interacting with society, then it is important that all members of society should be allowed to participate equally. If society is going to place conditions upon jobseekers that require the use of a reliable internet connection to be fulfilled, then society needs to those least able to fulfil them with the means to do so. ‘Jobseeking’ must be an equal playing field.