The global coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the extent to which internet access is needed to participate in society; family and community life, cultural activities, political advocacy and democratic action are frustrated or enjoyed depending on your bandwidth speed. As public services move online, and access to essential services including health care, education and social security becomes dependent on reliable internet access, those without the hardware, broadband infrastructure or money to buy data are effectively left behind.
The increasing centrality of digital communications across our societies has been reflected in successive official reports by United Nations bodies over the last decade recognising internet access as a fundamental requirement for the enjoyment of human rights.
In 2011 the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Frank La Rue, made a number of recommendations to the UN Human Rights Council on securing access to the internet for all:
‘Given that the internet has become an indispensable tool for realising a range of human rights, combatting inequality, and accelerating development and human progress, ensuring universal access to the internet should be a priority for all States”.
This was followed in 2016 by the UN Human Rights Council releasing a non-binding resolution which affirmed that ‘the same rights people have offline must also be protected online’.
In the midst of the pandemic, in June 2020, the UN Secretary General highlighted the importance of universal digital connectivity for health and development globally, noting that the pandemic has served to underscore the absolute urgency of addressing this challenge. While noting that ‘the internet is a powerful and essential public good that requires the highest possible level of international cooperation’, the Secretary General acknowledged that fundamental pillars of that cooperation were lacking. He called for urgent action by all governments to:
‘harness the infinite opportunities offered by digital technology to scale up our efforts on health care, on the climate crisis, on eradicating poverty and across all the Sustainable Development Goals’.
These developments at international level give voice to the growing activism and advocacy at state level (for e.g. Costa Rica, Estonia, Finland, France, Greece, India and Spain) where a growing body of case law is developing, recognising that internet access itself is as an essential public good which people have a right to enjoy.
But progress remains slow internationally and here at home. Worryingly, inequalities relating to internet access are mirroring and compounding existing patterns of social and economic marginalisation across society.
The global digital divide
At the end of 2019 the International Telecommunication Union, the UN specialised agency for information and communications technology, estimated that globally around 3.6 billion people remain offline. Approximately half of the world’s population are current internet users, with only 20% of them residing in the least developed countries. The UN Secretary General characterised this digital divide as ‘a matter of life and death’ for those who are unable to access essential health-care information. He further noted that this divide is ‘threatening to become the new face of inequality’, reinforcing existing social and economic inequalities.
Digital Divide in NI
This digital divide is very much in evidence in Northern Ireland. While NI has had the largest regional increase in internet use since 2011, it continues to have the lowest proportion of internet users compared with other jurisdictions. It also has the highest percentage of properties unable to get decent broadband. In 2018 in the Belfast City Council area 15.3% of the population had no home broadband, with 10% of those over 15 years of age never having used the internet. Figures from the Department for Economy (DfE) indicate that at least 68,509 homes in Northern Ireland faced the Covid-19 lockdown with inadequate access to internet broadband services. This equates to 8.5% of the total number of homes. Over 10,200 additional premises, including schools, businesses and religious buildings were also confirmed by the DfE as not having access to adequate internet broadband services. With the onset of lockdown in the north of Ireland in late March 2020, all public services, education and training, leisure and recreational facilities moved online. These included essential services provided by the Health Trusts, GP practices, the Housing Executive, Jobs and Benefits, local Councils amongst others. Post-lockdown most of these services remained digital by default.
The social security system had moved online earlier than most public services and the impact of this on marginalised communities has been very significant. Since the introduction of Universal Credit, access to social security has essentially been ‘digital by default’ despite official claims to the contrary. The UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty Professor Philip Alston’s assessment of the UK’s Universal Credit system was this ‘in reality Universal Credit has built a digital barrier that obstructs many individuals’ access to their entitlements.
This failure to act is in stark contrast to those on the other side of the digital divide – the private telecommunications companies who are making ever increasing levels of profit from lucrative government contracts.
The Special Rapporteur’s stark assessment of the equality impacts of the digitisation of social security should act as a warning to other government departments as they too move to become digital by default. At both domestic and international levels, governments are seen to have been incredibly slow in responding to the urgent need to close the digital divide as a critical means of addressing inequalities in access to basic services during Covid-19. This failure to act is in stark contrast to those on the other side of the digital divide – the private telecommunications companies who are making ever increasing levels of profit from lucrative government contracts.
In January Internet4All will launch a report ‘Locked Down and Cut Off - Marginalised Young People’s experiences of and solutions to lack of internet access during the 2020 Pandemic’, evidencing how it is those who are most marginalised and with the least resources who are being left to address states’ failures to act and to develop practical, low-cost and effective solutions to this pressing issue.
Sara Boyce works as an organiser with the #123GP mental health rights campaign. She has worked with PPR since 2016, both as an organiser and also as a policy worker across a range of campaigns supported by PPR. Prior to joining PPR Sara worked on both sides of the Irish border with a range of community and human rights organisations, including with Traveller groups and children and young people’s organisations.
She also worked for over a decade from the mid 1980s to the late 1990s as a Speech and Language Therapist, before undertaking a Masters in Equality Studies in UCD in 2006. Sara is passionate about promoting the power of poetry and other forms of creativity in challenging oppression and inequality at all levels.
‘Poetry is the lifeblood of rebellion, revolution and raising consciousness.’ (Alice Walker)