Digital exclusion – the unintended consequences of technology

On 13 March Social Platform members met to share good practices and discuss the role of new technologies in the accessibility and delivery of services – a first step for Social Platform towards defining our position on digital inclusion.

What does digital exclusion mean? Well, imagine that you are one of the 60 million Europeans that have never used the internet, or one of the 45% of Europeans who don’t have very advanced digital skills (Digital Scoreboard 2016). This would mean that you would not be reading this blog post right now; you would not access any of the information that is often only available online; you would not find or maintain friendships via social networking; you would not be able to apply for jobs, buy your online plane or train ticket or participate in other online activities. There are many reasons why someone might not have access to the internet, including location, cost, age, and disability.

Several of our members have been a part of developing projects that promote digital inclusion. Eurocarers have developed an online training platform “TRACK”, tailored to informal carers of people affected by dementia. It aims to provide knowledge and recognition of skills. Inclusion Europe has been a part of, a project that produced educational videos for both people with disabilities and their family members about managing risks and staying safe online. Another project that Inclusion Europe is involved in – “Able to Include” – simplifies web information and services by converting text to picture and simplifying emails and Facebook. The European Federation of National Organisations Working with the Homeless (FEANTSA) is involved in Homeless Link, based in the United Kingdom. Homeless Link has developed Street Link, which is a website app and phone line for use by the general public with the aim of helping anyone sleeping rough. The International Federation of Social Workers Europe has been helped to develop evidence-based guidelines (“ENS4Care”) for nurses and social care workers using eHealth services. AGE Platform Europe has developed guidelines for older people to aid their access and understanding of online services, centred around four questions”: Do I need it? Can I use it? Can i trust it? Can I afford it?

While these projects illustrate how technology can promote social inclusion, they also highlight barriers that mainstream providers do not tackle sufficiently. Some solutions put forward by these projects may only be available on limited devices, such as Android or via Gmail. Others may lack necessary assessments and knowledge about data sharing, protection and security. Some projects may meet resistance because health professionals are sceptical about using digital tools as it could be harmful for the patient if their data is not respected. Another aspect is that some projects are developed with EU-funding and therefore only allow for limited technical solutions that often may need funding when the project ends in order to be further developed.

We invited Joe McNamee, Executive Director of European Digital Rights, to explain why we should pay attention to the unintended consequences of technology. Platforms and networks that provide services such as online banking, news and shopping are owned by companies. Our laws on the right to freedom and privacy are generally only enforceable at individual country level. This was sufficient in the past when the states had main responsibility for protecting and using personal data, but now our information is increasingly falling into the hands of private companies and it is no longer clear what our rights are, and when the state can or is obliged to intervene. The University of Cambridge and Stanford University conducted a test proving that a computer can learn about an individual’s personality by analysing data about the Facebook like buttons a person clicks on. Through only 200 clicks the computer learns more about the individual than their family, and with 300 clicks it beats the spouse. Such knowledge can easily be misused, for example by targeting rich people and excluding those experiencing poverty. European Digital Rights welcomed our support on issues of shared interest to tackle inequality and social injustice in the area of access to digital services, such as their campaign against zero rating. These are issues that concern us all, and Social Platform members in particular.

One key point echoed by several of our members was the importance of user involvement (also called design for all), inclusive design, and co-creation. The user, whether people with disabilities, older people or children, should always be involved in the design of online services.

Another point, was the need to work to both influence and shape our online environment to make it digitally inclusive for all. Our member European Disability Forum focuses on influencing our online environment, such as by calling for a strong European Accessibility Act (covering services such as e-banking, e-commerce and e-books). Furthermore, EDF tries to mainstream design for all, and influence relevant EU standards and promote a technologically neutral approach. Technological neutrality means that online services should be made to be accessible on all devices, rather than designed only for one particular phone or tablet. Our member COFACE Families Europe tries to shape the online environment by promoting new indicators for advertisement and price transparency, which impacts children who are exposed to advertisements and in-app purchases online. Families Europe also calls for a digital contract that acknowledges that consumers do not only pay with money but with data too.

I look forward to continue learning more and developing our work on digital inclusion, in collaboration with other civil society organisations fighting for digital rights.

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