The digital divide has been exacerbated by the pandemic creating digital haves and digital have-nots leaving millions of people disconnected from society — and from the democratic processes that are determining how we live together now and once this is over.

What’s the issue?

In the beginning, some thought the pandemic could be ‘a leveller’. From what we have seen over the last six months, we know it isn’t. For those on the lowest income, in precarious housing situations or in receipt of welfare, it is much harder, and undoubtedly will only get harder as the economy shrinks, unemployment hits and those with the very least have even less.

If, as a society, we’re going to be doing more of the democratic process online — from discussions on Facebook to Commons Select Inquiries over Zoom — the digital divide could leave millions of socially and economically vulnerable people out of the ‘Build Back Better’ conversations. 

The last six months have shown us the importance of technology to keep connected at a time of physical disconnection. Grandparents have been learning ‘to Zoom’, which I am sure will be the verb of 2020; parents and families have grappled with the balancing of online learning; and schools have been adapting to put their content online for those students with digital access to continue their learning.

But let’s take those living on the lowest incomes. We have heard stories across our network of organisers of parents spending upwards of £40 on data a fortnight paying premium prices due to pay as you go tariffs, so they can keep teenagers connected to their online learning. Families with only one device having to balance competing demands of its use to keep them in their employment and provide an education. Households with no devices meaning that they have simply not been able to communicate with doctors’ surgeries, community centres and the DWP to ensure that they could access medical care, food supplies and welfare support. 

If, as a society, we’re going to be doing more of the democratic process online — from discussions on Facebook to Commons Select Inquiries over Zoom — the digital divide could leave millions of socially and economically vulnerable people out of the ‘Build Back Better’ conversations. 

#OperationWiFi is a growing alliance of over 100 civil society organisations from across the public, private and voluntary sector, making three ‘asks’ to ensure that the five million people who are disconnected, due to low income, can get online.

How we’re trying to respond

#OperationWiFi is a growing alliance of over 100 civil society organisations from across the public, private and voluntary sector, making three ‘asks’ to ensure that the five million people who are disconnected, due to low income, can get online.

These key asks are: 

  1. To ensure those on the lowest incomes can get access to data

  2. That no person is without a device to access the internet

  3. No person is left behind due to the lack of skills of how to use their device

The starting point for the #OperationWifI campaign is to push for a ‘CitizenSim’ where users can donate their unused data to a ‘databank’ which can then be issued to those on low income or unable to afford data. This is not a new concept and is successful in Australia through telecommunications provider Optus. To demonstrate the potential power of a CitizenSim, according to Uswitch there was 650 million gigabytes of unused data in June 2020 – this equates to 400 hours online browsing for the five million people who are disconnected.

If we acknowledge the right to participate in the decisions that affect our lives — essential to any society that calls itself democratic — then we must also acknowledge the need for access to the means of communication.

There is growing recognition of this digital divide and the risks it poses to our society. Our early stage action via social media and through online conversations have reached tens of thousands of people. But we know we can reach many more.

The need for connectivity is an essential need, just as with other utilities – and we need to seize the moment. With what’s coming over the next six months (and over a time when families and friends are ordinarily getting together), for some, it could be a very lonely repeat of the summer with dark nights, changing weather and increasing dangers of local lockdowns denying those who are digitally disconnected an opportunity to connect with their friends, families and neighbours.

If we acknowledge the right to participate in the decisions that affect our lives — essential to any society that calls itself democratic — then we must also acknowledge the need for access to the means of communication.

We will only realise our collective ambition for a CitizenSim if we can achieve the following two goals:

  1. Demonstrate a wide base of public support for customers to donate unused data (current data suggests 47% of users would donate their data if they were able to do so)

  2. Shift the narrative that a customer’s data is not ‘theirs to give away’ but an ‘allowance / entitlement gifted to them’.

To do this requires a proactive push to build our alliance and use our collective networks to influence and bring about change. Please join the alliance and be part of the wider movement to tackle digital exclusion.

This piece is part of the "Democratic Response to COVID-19" series curated by Involve and the Centre for the Study of Democracy at Westminster University.

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Nick is the CEO of Community Organisers and Director of the European Community Organisers Network. In his CEO role Nick works as an advisor to various Government Departments and national community sector bodies on citizen participation and community organising (including Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Home Office, Cabinet Office and Ministry for Housing Communities and Local Government) and serves on a number of committees in an advisory capacity supporting the development of community policy and programmes.