We need a digital inclusion plan in Northern Ireland, with the resources to implement it, says Patricia Donald from Advice NI

Guest editor: Patricia Donald, head of ICT at Advice NI

Throughout this edition of VIEW, activists, civic society leaders, researchers, innovators and educators, echo and give credence to the call that we view the internet through a human rights lens. People have a right to be able to participate fully in society and we know that this now, more than ever, requires digital connectivity and the skills to navigate the internet safely and securely.

On July 13, 2021, the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted a resolution on the promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the internet. A strong theme running through the resolution is the importance of addressing digital divides.

The resolution recognises the impact of the pandemic, and how, as a global society, we have become more reliant on the internet as a means of participating in all areas of life as well as ‘access to public services, including but not limited to education and health, a source of livelihood and an arena for the exercise of human rights’.

We need to ensure that public services are accessible and particularly to those who need to engage in times of crisis and hardship. For services to be accessible in today’s world, it means having digital connectivity and digital skills. Northern Ireland is the most digitally excluded region within the UK (ref: ONS, 2021) and on this island (ref: Digital 2021: Ireland); therefore it cannot be assumed when designing services that everyone can access them, particularly those services that are increasingly digital only or digital first.

The UN Human Rights Council resolution pays particular attention to the gender digital divide, recognising that it ‘undermines women’s full enjoyment of their human rights’ and that ‘violations and abuses of women’s and girl’s rights online are a growing global concern’. The lockdown in Northern Ireland saw an increase in online abuse with women politicians, journalists and activists trolled online on a daily basis.

Looking to the international stage, we can learn from other countries such as Australia, which has an eSafety Commissioner with the authority to require online service providers to remove online abuse and can help get intimate images or videos removed from online platforms. It also has a plethora of educational resources to help prevent online harm. Closer to home, the Women’s Policy Group NI, in its Covid-19 Feminist Recovery Plan, recognises and makes recommendations on what needs to be done to help address the gender digital divide.

Ultimately, we need a digital inclusion plan in Northern Ireland, with the resources to implement it that will help enable people to avail of and enjoy their rights and entitlements online. A plan that will build on the excellent work that organisations such as Advice NI, Disability Action, Libraries NI, Supporting Communities and others are already doing to help close the digital skills gap.

Partnerships with tech companies, banks and utility providers have much to offer, working with the voluntary and community sector to support people to get online safely and securely. Telecommunications companies have a social responsibility to support those who cannot afford connectivity or data. Joined-up working from local government departments on the issue of digital exclusion and a commitment to embed digital inclusion in all its services and strategies would help evidence its support for the UN Human Rights Council resolution on the promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the internet, which the UK government voted in favour of.

I believe the digital divide is fixable but no single organisation can solve it, we all have a role to play. Moreover, it would be a step in the right direction if we lost our reputation as being the most digitally excluded region in the UK and Ireland.

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