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Making e-democracy more inclusive

December 13th 2010

Last week, the Welsh Assembly government announced its strategy for digital inclusion at the Digital Inclusion Wales Conference in Swansea. As outlined before, there are 10 million people in the UK who have never been online, and around 750,000 of those live in Wales. Not using the internet can carry a heavy price, as people unable to get online will increasingly find themselves excluded from things such as lower energy bills, access to information about services in their community, and more general social isolation. Getting these people online is not just about enabling public services to be delivered in a more efficient manner, but also a matter of social justice.

The second day of the Conference saw a particularly good example of how not to engage with people and help them online (link to video to be added when it is up). However, getting people online is only part of the story. The keynote speech by Marc Osten, which was streamed live from the US, questioned whether digital inclusion is merely about providing access and the skills needed to visit websites. If the internet is to truly fulfil its potential as a empowering tool for e-democracy and citizen journalism, it needs to have active participation from all sets of society.

Currently most of the interesting websites and blogs covering politics and social issues have a tendency to only have regular participants from a narrow section of society.  The issues with local democracy sites in the US, as outlined in Marc’s presentation (link when up) equally apply to the British online political scene. Whilst the stereotypes of British blogs being written by and read by angry white middle class men in favour of low taxes and the right to be abusive have been unfair generalisations based upon a few well publicised blogs, there is indeed an issue that too often political blogs have only attracted regular comments from a narrow section of British society. Too often comments boxes in the popular blogs have ended up as abusive places intimidating for people in minority groups or people who have access to a thesaurus.

If the potential of the internet as an enabling tool is to be fully realised , then digital inclusion needs to be conceptualised as more than just enabling people to go online. It needs to also enable people to be able to take part. This not only means providing equipment and access, it means that established ways of participating online need to be changed to ensure  a wide range of views becomes heard and policy makers do not just hear those who are the loudest and most intimidating.

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