The design of websites and apps vital to everyday tasks, from parking to booking NHS appointments, should be regulated to prevent digital exclusion among millions of people struggling with life online, say activists.
The Digital Poverty Alliance (DPA), a coalition of charities, is calling for increased help for around 11 million UK citizens who lack digital skills and believe that “basic and inclusive design requirements must be applied for all services essential”.
The DPA is asking tech companies to sell devices with less frequently outdated operating systems, low-cost “social tariffs” from all broadband providers, and for digital access to be classified as an “essential service”.
The call comes as frontline advisers have warned that a growing number of people feel ‘lost in a digital world’. Age UK has estimated that 40% of over 75s do not use the internet. People faced with choices between heating and eating cut off online access first, an official from the Citizens Advice Bureau said.
New figures also show that the number of people accessing the internet only by mobile phone – which is slower, more expensive and less efficient at handling complex online transactions – doubled between 2019 and 2021. A study by the Fabian Society and supported by BT revealed that 5.8m households now rely on mobile coverage, forcing families to ration time spent online.
Lord Knight, a former Labor Schools Minister who chairs the DPA, said: “We should view digital access in the same way as we view other public services. You can’t apply for jobs, you can’t get bill cuts, you go into more debt, and you end up becoming much more isolated.
“It makes sense that we have a standard that public sector websites have to meet.”
In response to the widening digital divide, BT will provide 2,500 financially vulnerable households with free devices and connectivity through charity Home-Start UK.
Symone Smith, 30, from Greater Manchester, who is now on a social ‘Home Essentials’ rate of £15 a month, was previously forced to ration the internet to 30-minute mobile data slots. Her seven-year-old daughter had to rush to complete her homework “against the data clock”.
“When everything is online and you are not, life becomes very limited,” she said.
Sally West, director of policy at Age UK, said regular issues faced by their customers included online parking payments and applications for council tax and housing benefit.
Joyce Williams, 86, who blogs about aging in Glasgow, described using IT as “a constant struggle”. “There are too many passwords,” she told the Guardian. “Plus, software updates regularly disrupt what I’ve learned to use. It is created by nerds for nerds, the problems of the elderly are not in mind at all.
Samantha Briggs, who works for the Spark Somerset charity, said: ‘Some people we work with say they feel embarrassed, ‘old’ or ‘stupid’ because they can’t use the technology they assume everyone can use. They can be avoidant and even visibly anxious.
David, 85, a retired railway worker with neurological problems affecting his hands, said: “If I touch a smartphone screen, it goes crazy. It turns again and again, goes left and right. I don’t have a computer for the simple reason that I can’t operate a mouse.
Martin Garrod, 64, a retired accountant from Portsmouth, said he couldn’t access software updates on his computer because the system uses text messages to verify his identity and he doesn’t have a mobile phone.
He said it was like “you take your car to the garage to have your tires checked, but the mechanic can’t [help] because you don’t have a vacuum cleaner”.
Chris Philp, minister for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, told parliament last week that ‘the government is focused on building a leading digital economy that works for everyone’ .
“A range of low-cost social fares are available for those on Universal Credit, and a number specifically include those on Pension Credit,” he said, adding that free skills courses basic numbers were available.
“Public libraries play an important role in the fight against digital exclusion. Around 2,900 public libraries in England provide a reliable network of accessible places with staff, volunteers, free wifi, public computers and assisted digital access to a wide range of digital services,” he added.
Kellie Dorrington, operations manager at the Citizens Advice Bureau in Haringey, north London, said advisers were increasingly dealing with unpaid parking tickets for people who ‘can’t do the thing online’.
‘Department for Work and Pensions advisers tell people to use wifi at Costa or McDonald’s but if they don’t have the money they can’t afford the coffee or happy meal to do so “, she said.