Tackling Digital Exclusion

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The publication of the annual set of Internet Access statistics from National Statistics has emerged again to almost no media or public interest. Yet in terms of age and digital exclusion, the findings are both fascinating and slightly depressing.


On the positive side, the survey reveals that over 18 million UK households (7 in 10) now have Internet access and 37 million adults (76 per cent of adults) accessed the Internet in the three months prior to interview.
 
Yet the report also paints a picture of an older population which continues to be excluded from the potential benefits of digital engagement. 64% of over 65s have never used the internet (and only a very small decrease in the percentage of non-users from last year) and whilst 73% of adults who used the internet, were online every day, of the over 65s, only 52% were going online every day or almost every day.
 
And in terms of the digital economy, older people remain much less likely than other ages to buy online, with only 21% having bought a product online compared with over 80% of those under 44.
 
But digital exclusion is an issue which is much more important than getting cheaper car insurance. Those who are not online are increasingly excluded from a wide range of public, private and voluntary sector services and digital inclusion is increasingly likely to compound other forms of social exclusion.
 
There is an “Invest to Save” argument for intervention. Unless government addresses digital exclusion, it will find that it is forced to continue to provide a wide range of services in non-digital formats. The potential cost savings for government by delivering services through technology could be completely wiped out by the costs of delivering offline services to the digitally excluded.
 
As part of its Digital Britain proposals, the Government has asked Martha Lane Fox to Champion solutions to digital exclusion.  Over the last five years there have been countless reports and recommendations setting out how to tackle the digital divide. Learning, access and motivation are undoubtedly part of the solution, but there are fundamental market issues where the Government and Ofcom may have to engage (and have historically been reluctant). The continuing direct and indirect age discrimination promoted by many website providers (in marketing and the occasional use of upper age limits) alongside poor practice in terms of web usability and accessibility must be addressed.
 
With such small increases in internet use by older people year on year, we cannot wait for the market to solve the problem and assume it will go away. For progress to be made it will be vital for Martha Lane Fox and colleagues not to be afraid of saying the unpopular to industry and government.
 
David Sinclair

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