The expression “digital divide” refers to the uneven availability, accessibility, use and possession of digital technologies, services, products, or skills within a population. It is a form of socio-technological inequality that exacerbates, and is exacerbated by, other forms of inequality: socio-economic, geographic, and geopolitical. In the last quarter of a century, the digital divide has both shrunk— e.g. due to an increase in the aggregate availability of digital technologies, notably mobile phones— as well as widened, e.g. in terms of the distribution of digital technologies by income, gender, geography and race. So, it is preferable to speak of different digital divides, between “who, with what characteristics, connects how to what”.

To illustrate this point, a UK study estimates that, in 2018, as much as 20% of the UK population had between zero to limited abilities to use the internet to perform simple tasks, like sending an email. A further 10% of people were classified as “internet non-users”, i.e. adults who have either never used the internet or have not used it in the last three months. Another study, the 2018 Lloyds Bank UK Consumer Digital Index, indicated that 8% of the UK population (4.3 million people) has zero basic digital skills, while 12% (6.4 million adults) has only limited digital skills.

Digital inclusivity in other parts of the world is similarly uneven. In the United States, at least 6% of the population (21 million people) has no high-speed connection. In Australia, the figure is as high as 13%. These data indicate that even in developed countries, access to, and familiarity with, digital technology is lower than one might think. Globally, only just over half of households (55%) have an internet connection, according to UNESCO. In the developed world, 87% are connected compared with 47% in developing nations, and just 19% in the least developed countries.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, the digital divide has become a macroscopic, pressing problem in any society. On the favourable side of the digital divide, people are able to manage their lives more easily, safely, and successfully, from accessing online education and teleworking to shopping, entertainment and socialising online. On the unfavourable side, the digital divide makes life shorter, riskier, more expensive, and in general more difficult. In this blog post, we discuss how COVID-19 has exacerbated digital divides in three key areas: education, citizenship, and intergenerational relations. We conclude by making some recommendations for rectifying these divides.

The Education Divide

It will be years before we can fully assess the long-term impact of this enormous and sudden disruption to the global education system, but it is already evident that the effects have not been, and will not be, evenly distributed.

COVID-19 has launched an unexpected global experiment in remote learning, from preschool all the way up to higher education. Results have been decidedly mixed. Universities are only just beginning to sort out their plans for the fall. In the UK, for example, several universities have published plans for blended, in-person and online education, others will be entirely online for the 2020-21 academic year. The picture is equally mixed in the US. The California State system has already declared that almost all classes will be held online, while NYU, UNC, and several other institutions have decided to move ahead with in-person instruction, despite the logistics and health risks that this may pose.

Online teaching will also be adopted in primary education, although it is especially unsuited for young students in primary school, who cannot reasonably be expected to learn their ABCs via Zoom. While preliminary research suggests that children may pose relatively lower risk of infection or transmission, indicating that it may be fine to resume conventional teaching, parents remain understandably concerned, and even assuming that kids may be safe, the same guarantees do not necessarily hold for the health of teachers and support staff.

If resorting to online teaching for primary education may seem the safer option when considering the risk of infection, it is problematic when focusing on the social impact that closing schools will have. Consider, for example the US. Here public schools usually provide millions of students with meals every day. With schools closed and unemployment soaring, the Brooking Institute reports that almost 20% of American households with children under 12 experienced food insecurity in May, the highest proportion ever recorded. Essential care workers are disproportionately likely to be Black or Latino, which means students from these groups are less likely to have parental assistance in navigating an unfamiliar online learning experience. And that is assuming they have access to the requisite technology in the first place. Private schools have invested heavily in iPads and laptops for students, while cuts to public school funding in many districts have left teachers responsible for buying necessary supplies like paper and pencils. Pre-existing inequalities in American education have only been magnified by COVID-19.

The situation is even less clear, patchier and more problematic in many other countries, with the result that the digital divide is an educational divide.

The Citizenship Divide

“The UK government will appeal to Britons’ sense of civic responsibility to encourage the use of the new NHS contact-tracing app”, the Financial Times reported in early May. Only a few weeks later, plans for rolling out the app itself were put on hold as serious questions were asked about both its efficacy and its ethics. But make no mistake: the establishment of the principle that all citizens must come together to combat the spread of coronavirus — and, crucially, that this effort is likely to have a digital dimension — will be seen by historians as a landmark transformation in the relationship between the state, citizens, and digital technology.

At issue is not the use of digital technology to fight the pandemic per se. Rather, what makes this moment historic are the structural factors that shape the development and adoption of digital technology. Given their prevalence and power, smartphones have been pinpointed as an especially useful tool for tracking and tracing contacts between potentially infected people through physical space. Yet although they seem ubiquitous, access to smartphones is not universal; 78% of the population in the UK owned a smartphone in 2018, with groups that are especially susceptible to the worst effects of COVID-19, particularly the old, much less likely to own one.

In a major reversal, the UK government announced in June that it was going to shift to a model based on the API offered by Apple and Google, tacitly accepting limits on how much personal data it will have access to. This, and similar concessions by other governments, raise significant questions about the ability of governments to design and deploy digital systems that they see fit. It also raises questions about the sagacity of the UK’s embrace of civic duty and citizenship as the moral basis for encouraging Brits to download, install and use these apps. In particular, encouraging UK citizens to treat installing a COVID-19 tracing app as their civic duty risks expanding the digital divide — by perpetuating the assumption that only those with a smartphone may participate in the shared effort of generating and aggregating data for the public good.

This shift has a quantitative dimension, as it excludes the one-fifth of the UK population without a smartphone, but it also suggests a qualitative break. In his foundational theory of justice in society, John Rawls posited that citizens endorse a core set of normatively grounded “rules of engagement”, to form what he dubs an “overlapping consensus”. With the promotion of voluntary, “civic-minded” data mining to combat the virus, one wonders whether the “overlapping consensus” may increasingly come to have a technological, rather than normative, flavour — an overlapping operating system consensus. Since this consensus only extends to those owning smartphones, omitting one fifth of the population, the digital divide risks deepening and becoming more entrenched. The digital divide should not be a divide between first and second-class citizens.

The Intergenerational Divide

COVID-19 is causing human suffering on a devastating scale. As the virus spreads around the world, the struggle facing hundreds of millions of people is not only epidemiological but also economic and social in nature. However, the threats to lives, livelihoods, and lifestyles, are not uniformly distributed across populations. From a public health perspective, COVID-19 has posed significant and greater risks to elderly citizens. From a financial perspective, self-employed, part-time workers and small business owners were more likely to struggle under government-imposed lockdowns that brought the economy to a standstill, compared with those who enjoy stable employment or state pensions. Given that young adults are overrepresented in temporary and freelance jobs, they are both less likely to suffer health problems due to COVID-19, yet more likely to have their lives and careers disrupted by the economic standstill. As is commonly the case, however, cultural and biological factors blend to create a continuous but asymmetric landscape of policy impact. From a social perspective, for example, older adults are more likely to experience loneliness and social isolation because of strict social distancing measures. While ever larger parts of society migrate online using online meeting platforms, e-governance schemes, and instant messaging services, many elderly people lack the means, skills, and habits to partake in the accelerated digital turn.

By highlighting how policies can and do have asymmetric effects on individuals in different age groups, the pandemic challenges us to consider ethical questions related to intergenerational fairness, to ensure that public policies would not discriminate against any age group in terms of its present and future living situation; public policy must constantly balance the efficient use of resources – to support the creation of prosperous and healthy societies in absolute terms – with the need for a fair distribution of risks and costs, so as not to unduly burden or benefit particular sectors of society. Therefore, the notion of intergenerational fairness does not imply an intrinsic conflict. In contrast, recognising the need for intergenerational fairness can help to resolve societal tensions by introducing a relational perspective on human flourishing. Individuals do not exist in their own right and alone but in a web of relationships which help them find meaning. Thus, by acknowledging, anticipating and accounting for the disparate effects of policies, society not only will be better positioned to mitigate and manage the human suffering caused by COVID-19, but it will also enable it to do so in a more democratic, sustainable and legitimate manner. The digital divide should not become an intergenerational divide.

Closing the Digital Divide

The digital divide is not merely an unfortunate by-product of the digital revolution: it is one of the major problems undermining a fair information society for all, affecting the very possibility of universal, full citizenship, and some of the necessary conditions for a better life. It also shows the limits of market forces, which are not simply failing to solve it, but rather are not the right tool to address it in the first place: like a hammer not failing to work like a screwdriver but simply being the wrong tool for the job. Even in countries with high standards of living and a highly educated population, those affected negatively by the digital divide will be left behind by economic policies that are driven by the creation of wealth, and not by its fair and sustainable production and distribution, and by its use to improve individual well-being and social welfare.

Instead, society at large needs to tackle the digital divide, like many other inequalities, by ensuring, through sound regulation and investment, that market forces support rather than hinder socio-political goals, such as distributional fairness, by ensuring access to digital technologies for all and no digital discrimination. The last thing that should happen is for the wrong tool to be combined with a socio-political indifference towards the digital divide. Think, for example, about the many COVID-19 apps that have been developed with little attention paid to the significant number of people unable to take advantage of them, due to a lack of access to smartphones or the internet.

Indeed, if you believe that your life is enriched by the internet, it is in your interest to promote digital access. The positive network effects of information lend themselves to positive sum thinking, a historically alien mode of thought which suggests that smoothing the digital divide is in everyone’s own interest. Just as the value of fax machines was proportional to how many others were in active use, the value of the internet – and the benefits to be reaped by all participants – is proportional to the number of people online. This means that it should also be in policymakers’ and legislators’ interests to provide, encourage and protect digital access. Removing the digital divide is a win-win strategy for all.

The political reality, however, is that governmental policy making and investment often ignores longer term structural deficits, such as the digital divides highlighted in this text. A government elected for a 4 year term (which in practice is shorter due to parliamentary and congressional elections) typically lacks the incentive to invest in the kind of infrastructure – such as universal Internet access and education – that will only reap benefits in the long term, long after they have left office. We believe, however, that local communities and governments can and should play a significant role in redressing digital divides exacerbated by COVID-19 and exercising a constructive pressure on national governments. Indeed, we are already seeing this play out. In the UK, for example, informal, local mutual aid groups, rather than the central government, were arguably the quickest and most effective at responding to the uncertainty and immediate necessity generated by the pandemic, particularly for vulnerable groups. Over 4000 mutual aid groups have been active during this pandemic in the UK alone. In Oxford, over 12 such mutual aid groups are helping their communities by running errands such as deliveries, grocery shopping, sharing supplies and providing friendly voices of reassurance. For example, Oxford Mutual Aid is a grassroots community support group that took action well before the start of the lockdown to connect people in need with volunteer helpers. It segmented Oxford into 8 sub-regions of community aid and established communication channels via Whatsapp groups and social media platforms. Word about these groups spread online, through street posters and direct referrals. This LGBTQ+ project focused on local solidarity quickly grew to over 2000 members and fulfils around 50 requests for help every day. It supports 14 expectant and new mothers; regularly supplies 117 vulnerable households with food; and has already delivered thousands of meals to the NHS and key workers. Requests are often made by people in need or by family members in different cities coordinating care for their loved ones from a distance through local Whatsapp groups. In our experience, these requests were met within a couple of minutes by volunteers.

The decentralization of political action is of course not without complications. How will these ephemeral entities deal with accountability questions? Which ones are actually legitimate? Which ones should get financial help from the government to pursue their activity? But these questions may be more worth pursuing than questions on the potential effectiveness, distribution, privacy, and timeliness of national COVID-19 tracking apps. Perhaps, the same budget and effort could be better deployed supporting local digital initiatives naturally burgeoning around located needs: enabling them to meet higher digital security standards, broadcast the information to more people, and distribute more supplies within their highly tailored networks. This is a debate with which it is worth engaging.

We can borrow from the future, but the future has no vote. This asymmetry will become increasingly obvious as immense funds become available to restore better forms of living after the pandemic. We must ensure that the right mechanisms are in place to incentivise and motivate investment policies that start rewarding policymakers immediately for addressing long-term infrastructural gaps and societal inequalities. Eliminating the digital divide is one of them, as it will reward politicians in power now as well as future generations. For once, today is the time.

Authors from the Digital Ethics Lab, Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford.