In I, Daniel Blake the ludicrousness of "digital first" policies is made clear. Photo: Screengrab from I, Daniel Blake

We need universal digital suffrage to make technology work for us all

If we put enough pressure on the Government, 2017 can be the year that we started to become enfranchised digital citizens
September 13, 2017

One of the reasons I chose to be an engineer was because I saw technology as democratising and enabling.

Unfortunately, even as the digital economy has grown—with tech businesses in the UK recording a record £170 billion turnover last year—the opportunities it has created have not reached everyone.

The government needs to recognise this. That means providing everyone with the access, skills and rights they need to become digital citizens.

Universal Digital Suffrage

Reliable access to the internet is a prerequisite for being a digital citizen—but 14 per cent of adults said they did not have access to the internet at home in 2016.

The Tory/Lib Dem Coalition forgot digital inclusion for most of its tenure—when it finally remembered it demonstrated a poverty of ambition. Its target for inclusion was (and remains) 90 per cent. So one in ten will never have access to digital services.

And the current Government is so utterly unambitious about broadband provision that it has now re-announced the same pot of broadband money three times.

In the 19th Century the Tories finally came round to the idea that universal suffrage was a democratic prerequisite. The task now is to make them understand the importance of universal digital suffrage—or elect a Labour government that does.

Digital skills

We also need to make sure citizens have the skills to play their part in our digital society.

If you have seen I, Daniel Blake you will recognise how laughable ‘digital by default’ has become, with vulnerable people sanctioned for not having the technical skills they’ve never been given the opportunity to acquire.

Investing properly in skills and adults learning is one way of helping people become digitally literate citizens—so I was disappointed that the Government’s industrial strategy barely mentioned lifelong learning, with no new policy commitments and only one bullet point dedicated to it in a 132-page document.

Digital rights

Just as important as skills and access are digital rights—particularly rights to ownership and control of data.

Data is the new property. It is the currency we exchange for many online services, but we currently have no say over how our data is used, who it is shared with, who it is controlled by, or whether we even control it.

We need a progressive ownership framework for data. We need that to be debated and discussed by everyone but particularly citizens, including those not currently online. Without that, the digital economy will be hamstrung by peoples’ fears and companies’ confusion.

At the beginning of the year, I wrote that 2017 should be the year we realise we’ve been doing the internet wrong and start to put things right. There are still four months of the year left. If we put enough pressure on the Government, 2017 can be the year that we started to become enfranchised digital citizens.