Written by Adam Micklethwaite
15.2 million people in the UK today are not getting the most from the internet. 7.8 million of them don't use the internet at all while 7.4 use it less than once a week. And these people are overwhelmingly those facing one or more types of social exclusion, from unemployment and poverty to poor mental health and disability. 90% of ‘non-users’ of the internet can be classed as disadvantaged.
For sure, many of them are older people, whom you might expect to use the internet less. But a great many are not: working age people who lack digital skills, who can't use Government services online, who know less about the internet than their children - even some younger people are digitally excluded.
It's easy to forget when we take it for granted, but access to the internet is life changing.
It opens up a whole world of knowledge and unlocks opportunities. It makes our lives easier in so many ways, from shopping and banking online to keeping in touch with friends and family and planning travel.
For many people, it's a necessity. You’re expected to claim Universal Credit online. And 72% of employers say they wouldn't even interview someone without basic digital skills.
It also has important social and psychological benefits. Digitally excluded people who have started to use the internet report increases in happiness, reductions in social isolation, and improvements in health.
For these reasons, use of the internet is an important leveller, helping to address inequality.
In stark contrast, being without the internet closes off opportunities. It's like being locked out of the world. Digital exclusion reinforces and compounds other forms of exclusion, depriving people of an important tool that could help them advance. It creates an artificial glass ceiling which can be extremely hard to break through.
Take Matt from Northampton. After suffering with poor mental health and with time in prison and hospital, he was helped to develop basic digital skills and increased his knowledge, focus and confidence. He’s even started volunteering as a Digital Champion, helping other people to build their confidence in using the internet.
So I have some questions.
How can it be right that approaching 12% of the UK population cannot do or benefit from simple things the rest of us take for granted every day - and a further 11% don’t benefit much from the internet at all?
How can it be right that this many people lose money, opportunity and social capital because they're locked out of something that is universally available?
How can it be right that we move more and more public services online but often forget about the millions of people who can't use them?
How can all this be the case right now, when almost everything we depend on is digital? And when bigger changes to our lives - driven by AI and machine learning - are getting ever closer?
Digital exclusion is unacceptable. It's an issue of social justice.
There are many reasons why people are offline. Cost continues to be a barrier, despite the almost universal presence of smartphones. Having the basic digital skills to use the internet and digital devices is essential, and some people may have access to a device whilst lacking these skills. But by far the biggest reason for being offline is motivational. I don't see the point. How could the internet help me? I'm worried about the risks.
Although in theory this motivational barrier can be easier to address, in practice it is symptomatic of the hard practical barriers people face in their lives, and the sense of inequality and injustice they feel. That's why where it works well, digital inclusion - the act of helping people to become confident, capable and safe users of the internet - boils down to people who care helping people who need their help.
There are some shining lights campaigning for digital inclusion and investing in making it happen. Organisations like Digital Leaders, Lloyds Bank, Google, TalkTalk, Three, Do It Digital and others are doing great work and should be applauded. The Government has put digital skills at the heart of its UK Digital Strategy and has just launched the Digital Skills Partnership with public, private and third sector partners, with fantastic ambition to make a big difference on digital skills at all levels. Some local councils are also investing in digital inclusion, recognising the benefits for local people and local economies.
But as a social priority for the UK, digital exclusion is still at the margin rather than the mainstream. It receives relatively little media coverage, and what coverage it does get re-runs familiar stories without offering new solutions.
Partly because of this lack of visibility and urgency, it falls some way down the ladder of priorities across both the public and private sectors. Other issues - those of critical importance such as the funding of adult social care - take precedence.
But digital exclusion is part of those problems, and represents an important part of the solution. Give people digital confidence, capability and safety and you open up new ways of delivering public services. Help people to move online and you increase their confidence and ability to look after themselves. Give the most excluded these benefits and you have the greatest chance of solving the problem for everyone.
And this is at a time when the need for digital inclusion couldn’t be more acute. Technology isn't slowing down but speeding up. As the pace continues to increase, with bigger changes from AI and machine learning moving ever closer, those without the basic skills or confidence to go online fall further and further behind. People need help not only to get to the starting blocks, but also to develop the confidence to keep on running like the rest of us.
And contrary to what you might believe, digital exclusion won't fix itself. By 2025, even after factoring in demographics, at the current rate of progress there will still be 7.9 million people offline. That's just not good enough - particularly in a country like the UK, at or near the top of the list of digital economies worldwide.
The economic arguments are just as strong. As well as powerful benefits for individuals - people can save on average £444 a year by using discount and cashback websites - digital participation drives positive effects that benefit everyone, including higher employment and savings to the NHS. The economic benefit of closing the digital divide would be £14.3 billion over ten years, and the digital skills gap is costing the UK an estimated £63 billion a year. Just on this basis, digital should be treated as a public good.
It would cost £1.6 billion to help everyone in the UK still offline to cross the digital divide, including access to a device. That's not very much as a proportion of GDP. However, it's not just Government's role. The continuing pressure on public funding justifies a mixed economy with Government, the private and third sectors all investing - something DCMS have recognised in the creation of the Digital Skills Partnership.
But despite the shining stars in Government, the private sector and civil society, there still isn't enough digital inclusion happening. And that's why we need a national movement, a concerted effort to right this social injustice once and for all. Everyone needs to play their part, from friends and family to the largest public and private institutions. And digital inclusion doesn't have to happen in isolation. It can and should be built into the way we deliver other support, from community work to the health service. It should go on everywhere, all the time. By forgetting it, we sentence over 15 million people to a life on the wrong side of opportunity. And that is just wrong.
If you want to be part of the movement for digital, whether your organisation is large or small, get in touch with Good Things Foundation. We work with over 20 national partners, including Government and the private sector, and 5,000 community partners across the country: and we’re always looking for more.