De-Universalizing Access! Is there a Conspiracy to Electronically “Kettle” the Poor in Digital Dead Zones and What This Means for the Social Contract?

Posted on June 3, 2012


Is there a conspiracy to “kettle” the poor, the marginalized, the socially excluded in digital dead zones and use this to deny them access to social benefits?

A recent thread on the Community Informatics e-list brought together a range of separate issue areas that combined, indicate a significant push in a number of OECD countries to de-universalize access to the Internet and perhaps, not incidentally, to undermine the basis for the social contract in the English speaking democracies.
•    Implementation of “digital by default” provisions for access to public services in the UK (where an electronic account will be necessary for example to receive social assistance payments)
•    Moves toward the implementation of a digital only transaction system by the Canadian government.
•    The (Conservative) Harper Government of Canada cancels funding for the Community Internet Access program (CAP)
•    Movement in the US to remove High Cost area and Universal Service regulatory provisions ensuring Universal telephone service to all

To connect the dots a bit— access to public services and social support payments are increasingly requiring the use of electronic media to support the transactions including through online access, digital signatures, electronic funds transfers and so on. The Cameron government in the UK has adopted a “Digital by Default” program which means that all services will be “born digital” and made available in analogue form only on an as required and secondary or tertiary basis. This is paralleled by developments in Canada by Cameron’s great friend in Conservatism Steven Harper which is moving towards an even more draconian “digital only transaction system”. It would appear that both of these initiatives will result in access and use of the government services and benefits will require the use of the Internet and other digital media.

Meanwhile, funding for facilities providing free or very low cost public access to the Internet is being eliminated in Canada, regionally within the US and elsewhere (the argument being in Canada at least that in the age of Internet accessing smart phones public Internet access facilities are no longer required: “in 2010 about 79 per cent of Canadians had access to the Internet at home.” Thus those without personal in-home access to the Internet (the other 21%) will either have to access it through libraries (where only limited if any training and support is likely to be available and whose own means for providing access are being further restricted because of overall funding cuts) or go without.

All this is happening when even those with in-home Internet access for the poor is under threat through the relaxation of requirements for balanced rates for remote areas, for landline services to high cost service areas, and to basic low cost life line service in the US (and likely to be followed quickly in other jurisdictions) as telecom carriers make a somewhat similar case that mobile telephone service (where there are no public service requirements) eliminates the need for landline services. Access to low cost in-home Internet service via dial-up or even ADSL is thus about to be severely restricted.

Thus those wishing to access and make use of government services or benefits may be quite out of luck if they can’t afford in home Internet service, live in a remote area, don’t own a computer and/or lack the necessary knowledge, skill, physical facility, and cognitive capacity to manage computer and Internet access and use.

Individually each of these developments represents a significant cut-back in service availability to the poor, marginalized, recent immigrants, internal migrants and so on. However, separately, there are available workarounds which at least in the short run would partially minimize their impacts.

However, taken together (and while each of these is particularly identifiable in one country there are indications that similar processes are taking place in parallel in a number of countries) these represent a quite significant undermining of one of the basic provisions of citizenship which is equal access to government services and operations. In fact, the likelihood is that these developments combined would create a totally new category of those who have been “pushed off the grid” in this case the ubiquitous and increasingly essential electronic Internet enabled grid through which government and its relationship to citizens are increasingly being made operational.

While on the one hand in the name of austerity governments are making frontal assaults on basic provisions of the social contract in areas such as pensions and employment insurance on the other hand they are making quite serious and basic if rather less visible assaults through the undermining of the basic provisions of universal access and universal service. Without the means to access the services the uptake in the services will necessarily be restricted and thus the cost to the treasury for those services will of course be less.

Are those who are having increasing difficulty imposing austerity onto reluctant populations looking to achieve the same ends but by other if rather less frontal means?

To answer my own question, I don’t think it is in fact a conspiracy but rather an unhappy conjuncture of a variety of social and economic pressures looking to undermine the long term commitments of governments to ensure universal access, universally available services, and ultimately universal inclusion within the social contract of the modern democratic state.