Massimo Ragnedda (2018), Reducing and Preventing Digital Discrimination: Digital Inclusion Strategies in Europe, In Ragnedda, M., and Mutsvairo, B. (eds) Digital Inclusion. An International Comparative Analyses, London: Lexington Book, pp. 3-18.
The advent of the Internet has brought changes to citizen’s lives, influencing the patterns and practices of everyday life. It is clear that the growth of the information society has revolutionized the way in which citizens work, learn and socialize. However, it seems that some scholars (Dyson 1997; Gilder 1990, 2000; Kelly 1998; Negroponte 1995; Toffler 1970, 1980; Turner 2006;) have often overemphasized the benefits and the positive aspects brought by new technologies of communication. These digital prophets, defined by Slouka (1995: 8) as techno-evangelists, have a hyper-positive vision of the Internet and see it as a panacea for all social issues. This position does not take into consideration issues related to unequal access and the use of digital technologies. For this reason, it is important to also analyse the obstacles and barriers that prevent individuals, and certain social groups, from accessing and properly using technologies. These obstacles are at the base of digital inequalities, both between different regions of the world and within wealthy and prosperous areas. There are, indeed, clear differences in terms of Internet usage and digital skills within the same area (Brandtzæg 2010; Selwyn 2004; Van Dijk 2005).
More specifically, this chapter attempts to investigate the level of digital inequalities in Europe, looking at what the EU is doing to promote digital inclusion and to reduce the digital divide. In Europe, policymakers are aware of this issue and they are attempting to tackle social inequalities by bridging the digital divide. However, this term, which is increasingly popular in political, media and academic discourse, needs to be clarified. The digital divide, particularly in its early stage, has been often used in binary terms, wrongly suggesting a one-dimensional gap that is mainly based on the simple possession of (technological) resources or access to ICTs. These analyses are based only on economic factors, excluding from the research and policy activities other vital issues related to the social structure. This is what we define as the first level of the digital divide (Ragnedda and Muschert 2013). However, the gap in access has declined over time, the existence of different levels of e-inclusion and the different ways of engaging with ICTs persist (Livingstone and Helsper 2007; Witte and Mannon 2010). A static or binary way of analysing digital inequalities does not show the whole spectrum of variable access and does not understand the gradations of e-inclusion.
As will soon become clear, although reducing the gap between those who access the Internet and those who are still excluded is vital in order to bridge the first level of the digital divide, this does not necessarily translate into closing the digital inequalities’ gaps, which is based on different skills, motivations, purpose of use, autonomy of use and so forth. For this reason, the digital inclusion strategies that have been proposed, for instance, cut-rate and faster physical access, are vital to opening the door to citizens into the digital realm but these are not sufficient to ensure full digital inclusion for everyone. Over the years, the phenomenon of digital inequality has been remapped as a multidimensional phenomenon (Ragnedda and Muschert 2017). Inequalities in the adoption and use of ICTs are not only based on economic factors but also involve multiple dimensions, such as technical access, autonomy, social support, skills and types of use, which go beyond simple access or the possession of resources. Inequalities persevere in digital technologies and the Internet, in particular, the access and proper use of these technologies continue to exceed the competence and abilities of many citizens. If not addressed, these digital inequalities may further increase the distance between citizens and social groups, thus reinforcing already existing social inequalities. This is the theoretical framework within which the study presented in this chapter has been developed.
Since online inequalities have clear social consequences, tackling digital inequalities has become a social, rather than simply a technological, issue. Policymakers at all levels (from local to international institutions) play a primary role in reducing online inequalities by proposing digital inclusion policies aimed at including in the digital arena individuals who might otherwise be excluded. For example, in Europe, since the beginning of the 2000s, e-inclusion has been one of the three strategic pillars of the EC’s i2010 plan (Millard 2006). The European strategy aims to guarantee that those who are disadvantaged in terms of availability of resources, lack of education, age, disabilities, geographic location, gender and ethnicity are digitally included (i2010 European Strategic Plan). Furthermore, the European Commission (2016a) has clearly pointed out that “having digital skills and knowledge is just as important as reading, writing and arithmetic in today’s society, so we are putting emphasis on digital skills and education, leading to greater employment”.
This chapter will shed light on European policies that aim to promote an individual’s present and future inclusion in the network society. The European strategy appears to be twofold: on the one hand, to reduce digital inequalities that may further increase socio-economic differences and, on the other, to tackle social inequalities through digital inclusion processes. More specifically, this chapter will examine data contained in Europe’s Digital Progress Report (EDPR) of 2016 and that of 2017 (European Commission 2016b; 2017), which combine the quantitative evidence from the Digital Economy and Society Index with country-specific policy insights. These reports are particularly useful for two reasons: first, they allow the European Commission to track the progress made in terms of digitalization by each Member State and, second, they provide an important feedback loop for policymaking at EU level. Due to their importance, I am using these reports to discuss the progress made by Member States (and to make comparisons between them) in terms of digitalization and digital inclusion, to highlight what more could be done to increase the level of digital inclusion and also to compare digital inequalities within the EU.
In so doing, by analysing the evolution of the concept and the theoretical discussion surrounding it, this chapter will first discuss why digital inclusion matters. Second, drawing from the data presented in the EDPR 2016 and 2017, this chapter will outline differences and similarities among European countries in terms of accessing and using the Internet. Finally, prior to drawing conclusions, we will see the importance of promoting digital skills in tackling social inequalities.
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