The design of websites and apps essential to everyday tasks, from parking to booking NHS appointments, must be regulated to prevent digital exclusion among millions of people struggling with online lives, activists say.
The Digital Poverty Alliance (DPA), a coalition of charities, is calling for increased aid for an estimated 11 million UK citizens who lack digital life skills and believes that “basic, inclusive design requirements should be maintained for all essential services”.
The DPA is calling on tech companies to sell devices with operating systems that are less likely to become obsolete, cheap “social tariffs” from all broadband providers, and to classify digital access as an “essential utility”.
The call comes as frontline counselors warned that more and more people are “feeling lost in a digital world”. Age UK estimates that 40% of people over 75 do not use the internet. People faced with the choice between heating and eating are cutting off online access first, said a Citizens Advice Bureau manager.
New figures also show that the number of people who only access the internet via mobile phone – which is slower, more expensive and less effective at handling complex online transactions – doubled between 2019 and 2021. A study by the Fabian Society and supported by BT found 5.8m households now rely on mobile coverage, forcing families to ration the time they spend online.
Lord Knight, a former Minister for Labor Schools, who chairs the DPA, said: “We have to think of digital access in the same way as other utilities. You can’t apply, you don’t get a discount on your bills, you get further into debt and get into debt. in the end much more isolated.
“It’s reasonable that we have a standard that public sector websites must meet.”
In response to the growing digital divide, BT will offer 2500 financially vulnerable households free devices and connectivity through Home-Start UK, a charity.
Symone Smith, 30, from Greater Manchester, who now has a social rate of £15 a month, was forced to ration the internet to 30-minute mobile data slots. Her seven-year-old daughter had to rush “against the data clock” to finish her homework.
“When everything is online and you’re not, life becomes very limited,” she said.
Sally West, policy director at Age UK, said their customers regularly face issues such as paying online parking payments and applying for council tax and housing benefits.
Joyce Williiams, 86, who blogs about aging in Glasgow, described using IT as “a constant battle”. “There are too many passwords,” she told The Guardian. “In addition, software updates regularly disrupt what I’ve learned to use. It was made by nerds for nerds, the problems of old people are not in mind at all.”
Samantha Briggs, who works at the Spark Somerset charity, said: “Some of the people we work with report feeling ashamed, ‘old’ or ‘stupid’ because they can’t use the technology they assume everyone can use. . They can be avoidant and even visibly anxious.”
David, 85, a retired railroad worker with neurological problems on his hands, said: “If I touch a smartphone screen, it just goes crazy. It just goes round and round, going left and right. I don’t have a computer for the simple reason that I couldn’t work with a mouse.”
Martin Garrod, 64, a retired accountant from Portsmouth, said he cannot access software updates for his computer because the system uses text messages to verify his identity and he does not have a mobile phone.
He said it was like “taking your car to the garage to have your tires checked, but the mechanic can’t” [help] because you don’t have a vacuum cleaner.”
Chris Philp, Minister of Digital Affairs, Culture, Media and Sport, told parliament last week that “the government is focused on building a leading digital economy that works for everyone”.
“A range of low-cost social rates are available for people with universal credit, and some specifically include those with retirement credit,” he said, adding that free digital skills foundation courses were available.
“Public libraries play an important role in combating digital exclusion. About 2,900 public libraries in England provide a trusted network of accessible locations with staff, volunteers, free Wi-Fi, public PCs and supported digital access to a wide range of digital services,” he added.
Kellie Dorrington, operations manager at the Citizens Advice Bureau in Haringey, north London, said advisers were increasingly faced with unpaid parking tickets for people who “cannot get online”.
“Advisors from the Ministry of Work and Pensions tell people to use the Wi-Fi in Costa or McDonald’s, but if they don’t have the money, they can’t afford the coffee or happy meal for it,” she said.