Is digital a human right?

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If you’re reading this chances are you’re online. But did you know five billion others aren’t? Robert Armour investigates our right to get online

26th August 2015 by Robert Armour 0 Comments

Every Wednesday a 10.30am Phyllis Boyd grabs a coffee, fires up her laptop and spends the next six hours contacting friends and family via email, Skype and social media. It’s all new to the 78-year-old former seamstress who until a year ago was a self-declared technophobe. Now the world is at her feet and she’s convinced her life is better for it.

Phyllis attends the Silver Surfers at Clydebank Resource Centre, facilitated by the local group Get Online. Despite the title, any age group is welcome and organisers are increasingly seeing a range of age groups turning up at their weekly sessions and is now looking for bigger premises.

Most of those who join the group are already tech savvy according to co-ordinator Joyce Lamont, but often they are joining because they don’t have access to the internet rather than because they need to learn how to use it. This problem of access is actually increasing.

“This is an area of high deprivation and we find that one month people might have access to the internet then the next they don’t,” explains Joyce.

“It’s usually because they’ve not paid their bill having to choose between food or luxuries like wifi in their homes. So they come to us to get access – to catch up with emails and social media. It’s becoming an essential resource for many.”

In 2006, when these kind of records began, 17 million adults were accessing the internet. By 2014 that figure had increased to 38m, meaning 76% of all adults in the UK access the internet in some form.

With this remarkable growth in usage comes concerns. Research from the Tinder Foundation shows that those households who are least likely to be digitally connected are the very same households who are also likely to be struggling on a whole range of other measures of social and economic prosperity.

Then there’s the 20% of Scots who don’t have basic digital skills, meaning although they may have physical access to the internet they don’t have the ability or confidence to know what to do.

So as technology gets better and faster, the divide between those who are connected and those who are not grows ever wider. Put simply, digital technology is exacerbating already well-entrenched inequalities when it should be bridging them. So, how do we fix this problem?

Greater access to the means to access the internet is one solution. But dealing with those who do not have the skills or confidence to get online is another.

The Scottish Government is working with a range of organisations in a bid to close this digital divide, one of which is the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations.

In Scotland efforts to scale up and accelerate activity in Scotland are coordinated through a Digital Participation Programme led by the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations.

Chris Yiu (pic above), director of digital participation at SCVO, says that while the last 10 years has seen amazing growth in people accessing the internet, the challenge is to reach out to the remaining 20% who don’t yet have the skills or confidence to take part. 

The third sector’s role here is to get everyone involved, everyone participating. That means the public and private sectors too - Chris Yiu

For most people the digital world is instantly available through a variety of formats and platforms. But a truly inclusive society means supporting those who don’t have the ability or confidence to get online.”

The organisation is doing this in a number of ways but most importantly it is funding community projects which widen participation and inclusion at the local level, as well as managing the Scottish Government’s digital participation charter which brings together all sectors with the common aim of increasing inclusion.

“I think the third sector’s role here is to get everyone involved, everyone participating,” says Yiu. “That means the public and private sectors too. The greater inclusion, the greater benefit to all sectors. But the essential aspect is that everyone is committed to getting as many people access to digital as possible.”

Just last year Coll, in the western isles, got its first ever mobile phone mast. This won’t seem newsworthy to many, but for islanders it was like the wheel had just been invented.

Lack of a mast meant the entire island was cut off from the rest of the UK in terms of mobile communications. Now it’s like a new beginning.

“It’s great; we can now actually communicate via smartphones – an impossibility before,” says islander Peter Wane. “The young ones have never had it so good. We talk about digital inclusion but it does not go as far as subsidising rural areas to get access.”

Peter blogs on island life for Visit Scotland but has been frustrated at how digital inclusion has stopped at the mainland.

“It’s not just Coll,” he says. “We’ve been lucky. No network can get a signal on Skye, and the Hebrides is just impossible. Digital inclusion is not just about poor people; it’s about everybody.” 

But as online access becomes a modern right being able to use the web to your best advantage is an essential skill.

Ross McCulloch (pictured left), director of Third Sector Lab and founder of Be Good Be Social, believes some of the most innovative uses of social media are happening among charities and voluntary organisations in terms of campaigning and marketing. This now has to filter down to service users. 

The difficulty is a lot of organisations haven’t really strayed beyond seeing social media and the internet in general as a marketing device,” he says.

“While they see it as an effective tool to tell people what they are doing and enlisting folk to their cause, many don’t actually look to themselves and ask how social media can help the people they represent.

“Part of this is down to training, staff don’t believe they have the necessary skill set to make this happen, but it’s also just a matter of confidence and trust.”

McCulloch says frontline staff, who deal daily with clients and carry a lot of responsibilities, could be encouraged to tell interesting stories that would both market the organisation and involve clients and staff more.

“It’s all about engagement and interaction. Organisations need to look at themselves honestly to see if they are making the most of digital technology. Staff and clients can be their best advert.”

Connecting the world

Is digital a human right?

Kosta Grammatis, founder of ahumanright.org, sees having an internet connection as a basic necessity — a human right — for every global citizen.

Grammatis initially set out to raise $150,000 to purchase a disused satellite with the aim of using it to provide free internet service to developing countries.

Setting his sights on the TerreStar-1 satellite, a spacecraft the size of a school bus, which was launched in 2009 by a company that went bankrupt shortly after, theidea quickly grabbed the public’s attention.

However before the cash was raised, the satellite was sold leaving Grammatis with nothing but the residual smoke left from his pipe dream.

Not to be dissuaded, and not one to be put off by what most would see as insurmountable barriers, he’s now planning on something but just as ambitious.

He has set about moving an underwater fibreoptic cable 500km south of its planned route to enable the 4,200 island residents of St Helena, a British overseas territory in the south Atlantic ocean, to get online.

St Helena's only link to the outside world is a Royal Mail ship passing every couple of weeks that has travelled five days from Cape Town, South Africa and supplies all the goods for the island's community.

The only internet connection isn't fast either: the 4,200 people share a satellite link of 20 MBit/s. This compares to an average bandwidth of 12.7 MBit/s of a single UK home. So, internet access is not only slow but also very expensive.

An average St Helenian worker needs to spend one third of their salary (£108) for a so-called broadband plan with a modest data allowance of 5.5 gigabytes and a puny bandwidth of 1 MBit/s– which often won't be reached and which notably does
not actually fall under the definition of broadband.

As a consequence the people of St Helena are pretty much excluded from the benefits associated with today's information society. Grammatis, however, believes a little more consideration without much capital outlay can change the lives of the entire community and enable them to get online. 

“Routing the South Atlantic Express cable via St Helena would increase cable length byless than 100km but would involve costs of a few million pounds These costs have to be considered against an estimated lifetime of the cable of at least 20 years and the enormous social and economic benefits over this period,” he says.

Getting the world interested in a tiny island thousands of miles away is a big ask, and something many won’t be encouraged to dip into their pockets for. However Dunfermline-based Kelly McIntosh who campaigns for ahumanright.org says there’s a principle at stake.

“By raising awareness of this issue we also raise awareness of the work our organisation does across the world. It is about getting the message out there that whole countries could be far better off in terms of economic prosperity and physical wellbeing if they were more digitally enabled.

“St Helena is basically a test case for us. We want to spread the message that online access is a fundamental necessity to take part in this global society of ours.”

Funding available to help people get online

Community groups are being encouraged to apply for funding to help get people online.

The Digital Participation Challenge Fund, managed by the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO), will allocate £325k to community projects across Scotland to help people improve their digital skills.

Groups can apply online for awards ranging from £100 to £10,000 before 4 September.

Chris Yiu, director of digital participation at SCVO, said: “Our fund is already helping 58 projects deliver basic digital skills for communities across Scotland. 

"We’re hugely excited to be able to offer support to even more projects, which will take us closer to ensuring everyone can get the most out of the online world.”

Brendan Dick, director of BT Scotland, which contributed £25k to the  fund, said: “Digital inclusion is a top priority for BT Scotland. 

"Our rolloutof high-speed broadband services is reaching hundreds of thousands of Scottish homes and everyone should have the chance to gain the skills and confidence needed to take advantage.

“Employers will increasingly look for computer literacy alongside the three Rs when recruiting. We’re particularly pleased that our new partnership with SCVO will open up new opportunities for people who face significant challenges in mastering the internet.”

The Challenge Fund is open to groups and organisations from all sectors, with the next round of awards particularly focused on supporting groups working with older and disabled people, ethnic minority groups, or people in economically deprived or remote and rural areas. 

Applicants must operate in Scotland, with awarded funds being spent entirely in Scotland. 

Apply at digital.scvo.org.uk