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Tuesday, 17 June 2008

Digital Divides

The term 'digital divide' has many connotations. And now there appears to be a new one....

Firstly, the lack of connectivity - both in availability and speed - between different areas. The most common version of this in the UK is between rural and urban areas, and despite Ofcom's reassurances to the press, government, industry and consumers that this is no longer an issue (for example, The Guardian article "Fears of digital divide are groundless"), that is patently not true, and new work by organisations such as Acre and 5TTH should show just how many are unable to connect, who live in notspots etc. It is also blatantly obvious from the response to the BBC news reports etc that consumers in particular feel that this particular digital divide is still in existence.

The second version of the digital divide is for those who are unable to get connected because of lack of the necessary IT equipment to do so. Although mobile phones are almost ubiquitous now in the UK, there are still swathes of children and adults who are unable to access IT for a variety of reasons, from poverty onwards. According to recent reports, 1/6th of the children in this country are living in poverty, and there are other social issues which also prevent people from accessing IT and the internet - age, class, literacy etc. Attempts to develop programs which solve this issue have seemingly been unsuccessful with some 40% of households in the UK still failing to use the Internet through a broadband connection.

When one looks at the number of businesses not using the internet, one wonders how we would react as a nation if we were told that around 40% of our SMEs could or do not use electricity?

However, there is now yet another version of the digital divide being reported. This is almost entirely due to the nanny state, and not to industry apathy, social restrictions etc. It has come from a policy to 'lock down' computers from accessing the internet freely, so that a large variety of websites are unavailable.

The reasons for this include: protecting children from porn sites (which is why most websites in Sussex and Essex are not available through a school computer), through to making high level decisions about the dangers of sites such as Facebook, Myspace, Flickr and Youtube without considering the benefits.

What we are managing to achieve in the UK is actually terrifying: through policy and regulation, public sector decisions and industry dictating where it should be responding to market demand, we now have a nation split on a multitude of levels from using IT, broadband and the internet. And yet, we live in a global knowledge economy, but we are preventing may of our citizens and businesses from accessing, sharing and profiting from knowledge and technology.

It really is time for the situation to be assessed, and changed. If that means from the ground up then so be it, as it would seem that many at the top are incapable of understanding the results of their actions, decisions, policies and failure to invest.

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