RDN at BCS digital access debate

The British Computer Society asked me to be one of two responders at a debate dinner featuring Trevor Phillips of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (7 November 2011).

The question was: will it be possible for someone to be a full citizen without digital access?

The subsidiary questions revolved around what happens if the answer is No (which I assume people will mostly think).

In particular: Would the state be obliged to provide or mandate access if the market or philanthropy didn’t?

Here’s my attempt at unpicking some of the issues:

(1) How similar are the access problems posed by poverty and disability?

In this context illiteracy is rather similar to blindness: both pose access problems. So it makes sense to note that the disabled are often poor and the poor are often disabled.

(2) Does it help to think of deserving and undeserving poverty and disability?

Society might see illiteracy as a life choice by the idle underclass. But society might equally think that it would pay to use every resource (and perhaps especially digital access) to remedy a socially-damaging concomitant of poverty. A cousin of that thought arises when we think of the obligations of society toward those disabled who volunteer for extreme risk in, say, their sports or by pursuing adventure in the military.

(3) One good analogy is with other services. Is digital access to be considered as the Royal Mail; an energy utility; the BBC; schooling; roads infrastructure? Cautiously, I suppose that it ought not to be like a one-price universal service; we want people to pay for the service if possible; we ought to avoid a universal licence fee; we ought to worry about the deficiencies of a free-at-the-point of use compulsory service; if the state provides infrastructure, that doesn’t mean people have a free right to to use it.

(4) We need to consider the way the culture is being replicated behind paywalls (the Inland Revenue and the latest blockbuster and opera and book and live event are all likewise available in analogue and digital form). This is hugely liberating. What providers can charge for, they can also discount or donate or be paid to distribute.

(5) Early conclusions

Digital access is a good thing and the poorest need it most.
3G dongles and elementary tablets are cheap as chips.
Digital paywalls make it easy to give poor people cheap access.
Digital services can communicate easily with disabled people.
The state has a right to use digital communication only.

The right-wing trick is to square these circles with as little state involvement as possible.

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Publication date

08 November 2011