The Covid-19 pandemic has shown us clearly that the Internet is no longer a luxury, a convenient enhancement for lifestyles for those who can afford it. Rather, Internet access has become a basic necessity.
by Dr Merten Reglitz
During the lockdown, it has become vital for everyday activities. It often is the only way we can contact and care for close friends and family. In some instances, it even has become the only way to say goodbye to loved ones quarantined in hospital. Yet, online access is also necessary during non-emergencies for fair opportunities to work, study, to engage with government, and to exercise our political freedoms. We thus have weighty reasons to accept a right to Internet access. If we doubted this before, few will doubt this now. I suggest such a right should be part of means-tested welfare benefits. It would have to cover the costs of basic online access as well as adequate technical equipment for those who are unable to afford it.
There is currently no such right in the UK. According to Ofcom’s Access and Inclusion Report 2018, about 10 percent of British households had no Internet access in their homes. And 9 percent of those responsible for paying for their household’s communication services say they had experienced difficulties paying for services in the past year. The Covid-19 crisis emphatically demonstrates that this is no longer acceptable.
When lockdowns were imposed to contain the spread of the SARS-CoV2 virus, education provision moved online. The government recognised that this posed a problem for those who had no Internet access. It responded to this ‘digital poverty’ by promising provision of Internet access through local authorities via G4 WiFi hotspots and digital devices for disadvantaged pupils. Universities also moved teaching and tutoring online, which created problems for those students without any or adequate Internet access. In lockdown, most people are only able to work if they can do so online. Those without online access are not even able to apply for positions that would allow them to work via the Internet.
The government’s recent message to ‘go back to work if you can’t work from home’ means that those who cannot work online, have to leave their houses to work and will be more at risk of catching Covid 19. Moreover, in quarantine, exercising political rights such as free speech and free assembly are only possible virtually. So is accessing politically relevant information, such as scientific studies and other information that allows citizens to form their own views about the government’s handling of the pandemic. These examples show that the Internet provides the vital infrastructure for engaging in many essential activities in the current pandemic. In such a situation, not having adequate online access undermines individual freedoms and is thus a particularly grave social problem.
Focus on the pandemic should not lead us to overlook how essential the Internet has become all the time. Applicants to the Universal Credit scheme, for instance, are expected to apply for these essential benefits online. In order to apply, an email address is required. Although a telephone helpline does exist for those who cannot use digital services at all, the expectation of online applications creates obstacles for those unable to afford Internet access – who are likely to be precisely the people in need of financial support. Citizens without online access also cannot take part in the UK Parliament’s online petition process. While free Internet access is often available in public libraries, the number of these has decreased due to cuts to local council funding. And accessing the ones that still exist is difficult for many, for instance those with limited mobility or suffering other incapacities.
More generally, compared to people who have secure online access, those without always have more limited opportunities for exercising their political freedoms in a digital world, including free speech, free assembly, or accessing information freely. If we take seriously that democratic equality entails that all citizens must have comparable opportunities to make use of their political rights, this suggests that Internet access has become a condition of political equality and inclusion.
For most of us, online access has become routine. We use the Internet every day for more and less important activities. Most of us could not imagine how we would work, shop, and connect with loved ones without it. For a significant number of people this is not the case. A claimable entitlement to basic online access would make a significant difference to their lives. Providing the means to access the Internet to enable studying and working or to access government information is not only (but especially) important during an emergency - particularly emergencies that limit our normal ways of caring and communicating with elderly and sick loved ones. According to Ofcom, those without Internet access no longer have equal opportunities to participate fully in society. Accordingly, the UK government should regard Internet access as a basic right. Digital exclusion is a form of social and political exclusion that no society should tolerate.
Merten is a lecturer in global ethics and joined the Department of Philosophy in 2016.