Cities, towns and communities across the globe worst impacted by the digital divide have partnered with rights advocates and civil society organisations to challenge states’ extension of societal inequality through policies which create digital exclusion. These groups and alliances have developed policy recommendations as well as practical and innovative solutions benefiting millions of people.
The Human Rights, Big Data and Technology Project based at the Essex University Human Rights Centre has developed five urgent principles to ensure no one is left behind through lack of access to technology. These include guaranteeing internet access as a human right and public good, increasing availability and acceptability of digital infrastructure and increasing accessibility and affordability of digital services. They point to the need for states to take urgent action to enable people to get online.
Steps identified include lifting data caps and increasing access to free public Wi-Fi. Importantly, attention is drawn to the risks of states using their response to the pandemic as a pretext for introducing new surveillance tools under the guise of public health or other necessary measures. They note that a failure to ensure that any digitally based responses are lawful, necessary, proportionate, time limited and accompanied by effective safeguards would in fact reinforce the digital divide.
Meaningful connectivity is about more than simply access to the web. The international Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI) has argued that for people to get the internet’s full benefits, people need regular access to a suitable device and enough data at sufficient speeds. They suggest that in order to ensure that everyone can access the most vital information during the Covid-19 crisis, websites for official health organisations and other essential government services should be zero-rated, meaning that they don’t draw from people’s data plans. The A4AI has called on governments to provide all necessary support to keep citizens connected. Solutions proposed include national connectivity pledges, solidarity plans and the creation of digital inclusion initiatives and funds.
Some have received municipal or central government support, support from the private tech sector, but many are wholly funded and rolled out by local communities on a ‘needs must’ basis.
Practical and innovative examples abound as to how communities and groups impacted by lack of internet access have developed workable solutions to this problem in the face of state inaction. Many of these initiatives and projects pre-dated the pandemic, with the learning and knowledge gained providing inspiration and assistance during the Covid-19 crisis. Some have received municipal or central government support, support from the private tech sector, but many are wholly funded and rolled out by local communities on a ‘needs must’ basis.
Initiatives include lift zones for Wi-Fi across community centres in the US, tech companies providing free internet and Wi-Fi, drive-in hot spots including in public library car parks, Wi-Fi enabled public buses (Wi-Fi on wheels), Wi-Fi gardens, free installation of equipment with zero cost service, provision of tablets and laptops equipped with mobile Wi-Fi, pledges by internet companies not to disconnect customers for non-payment and waiving late fees. An Internet4All report ‘Locked Down and Cut Off - Marginalised Young People’s experiences of and solutions to lack of internet access during the 2020 Pandemic’ will be launched in January 2021 detailing some of these initiatves.
An interesting pre-Covid-19 example is that of one UK digital tech company, Wi-Finity, which in 2017 installed Wi-Fi, free of charge, in four homeless hostels. The company set itself the challenge of connecting all four hostels within one day in the run up to the Christmas holiday period. Its CEO Mark Parry explained their motivation ‘Internet access is now a basic utility. We all rely on the internet to search and apply for jobs, to work, and to keep in touch with friends and family. People in temporary accommodation need access to help them get back on their feet’.
The potential for tech companies in Northern Ireland, some of whom have been awarded large government contracts and have benefited from government grants, to step up and do likewise exists and would certainly demonstrate their commitment to being good corporate citizens.