In 2014, the UK government published a Digital Inclusion Strategy, signalling its intention to rapidly digitalise key public services. The strategy identified a number of barriers to digital engagement including: a lack of ‘access’, defined as the ability to go online and connect to the internet; and limited digital skills. In this strategy, the government committed to ensuring that digitalisation did not limit people’s access to essential services by proposing a two-pronged approach: widening access to digital literacy training; and providing assisted digital support, defined as ‘providing physical access and/or support to use digital channels’.
The UKRI-funded PRIME project aims to broaden our understanding of the online harms encountered by minoritised ethnic communities that are likely to arise through systemic racism, marginalisation and discrimination, and to mitigate online harms through the development of new systems, tools and processes. We have interviewed 100 minority ethnic individuals living in England and Scotland and our findings demonstrate that digital poverty, limited digital literacy and inadequate language support pose significant barriers to accessing digitalised services. We also found that alternative channels to access essential services – including ‘traditional’ channels such as telephone calls or ‘assisted digital support’ – are often inadequate and in rare cases, unavailable.
Lack of affordability of devices emerged as a challenge for some individuals. Others faced barriers associated with the lack of affordability of devices that were adequate for engaging with digital services. For example, many older adults only had access to a smartphone, but found the text size used by digital service platforms difficult to read on this type of device. Others faced issues related to the lack of affordability of adequate data for internet connectivity. Although some of these individuals made use of free wifi provided by coffeeshops or public libraries, others were reluctant to use public wifi due to the associated security risks. While our research is not representative of the UK population, this form of digital poverty will almost certainly disproportionately affect individuals from particular minoritised ethnic communities, and especially individuals of Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Black African and Black Caribbean heritage as poverty rates are significantly higher among these groups than the majority white population. We also found that women were more likely to be affected by digital poverty than men which is likely reflective of the gendered nature of poverty in the UK.
Even individuals who are categorised as recent internet users by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) – defined as adults who have used the internet within the last three months – faced access difficulties. For example, some people were reliant on mobile data but regularly ran out of data before the end of the month and were therefore forced to postpone online tasks, including engaging with services, until they received their new data allowance.
Digital Literacy and Language Support
Government documents continue to use the binary distinction of ‘internet user’ versus ‘non-internet-user’ when evaluating how many people are likely to be affected by the digitalisation of services. This simplistic distinction does not adequately capture the barriers faced by what we could call limited users of the internet. Many of our interviewees were able to use the internet for relatively simple tasks such as searching for information or watching streaming services but were unable to use more complex sites including online service platforms. Further, few services provide adequate language support to users to are still acquiring proficiency in English. As many of the people we spoke to who were unable to use digital services reported facing considerable difficulties accessing services through ‘traditional’ or with assisted digital support, digitalisation may be impeding access to services for these groups .
Our findings suggest that the government’s 2014 commitment to ensure that digitalisation does not impede access to essential services may not be being upheld. The government’s drive to digitalise essential services appears to be coming with a costly social bill for some disadvantaged minority ethnic individuals who already experience inequalities in both access to and outcomes of essential services. Digital poverty, digital literacy and inadequate language support present particular difficulties for these communities. If digitalisation is not to entrench and exacerbate existing inequalities, these concerns must be urgently addressed by both policy makers and service providers. In this context, the PRIME project supports calls for the development of a new digital inclusion strategy, and urges the government to ensure that any new strategy adequately addresses the specific needs of the UK’s minoritised ethnic communities.
Written by: Sara Bailey, The Open University; Sacha Hasan, Heriot-Watt University; Farjana Islam, Heriot-Watt University; Aunam Quyoum, The University of Glasgow.