The digital divide between rich and poor Australians is deepening, according to analysis of an index measuring individuals’ ability to access and use online resources, released this week.
The second Australian Digital Inclusion Index found that those who have lower levels of income, education and employment are far less likely to be online, as are Indigenous Australians and people with a disability.
“The divide is getting deeper, and the challenge to make the Australian internet more inclusive is becoming more urgent,” said Professor Julian Thomas from RMIT’s Digital Ethnography Research Centre, who led the study.
“We often think of the internet as a levelling, democratising technology…But the net also reflects the social and economic divides we find offline,” he added.
The index – compiled by researchers at RMIT, in partnership with the Centre for Social Impact at Swinburne University of Technology, Telstra and Roy Morgan Research – examined three areas: online access, affordability and digital ability.
Access investigates how and where people access the internet, the kinds of devices they have, and how much data they can use. Affordability is about how much data Australian’s get for their dollar, and how much is spent on internet services as a proportion of income. Digital ability measures skill levels around technology, and attitudes towards it.
Nationally, ‘digital inclusion’ has improved since 2014, when data was first collected. However, the disparity in scores between the advantaged and disadvantaged is growing.
Those scoring lowest on the index were those in households with an income of less than $35,000; those aged over 65; those with a disability and those who did not have a secondary education.
The index also exposed a divide between metropolitan and regional Australia and between states. Tasmania scored worst out of the states and territories, and the ACT the highest, followed by Victoria and New South Wales.
Those who access the internet only via their mobiles (which corresponded to lower levels of income, education and employment) were less digitally included than multi-platform users.
While access and digital ability had improved across the board, affordability had declined. Although data is getting cheaper, we are using more of it, said Thomas.
“The affordability problem with the internet is different from other key household services where there are price pressures, such as electricity and water. The residential consumption of energy has grown very slowly over the last decade, but prices have increased sharply,” he said.
“With the internet, while we are now getting more data for our dollar, our demand for data has dramatically increased.”
In a blog post earlier this week, Thomas suggested subsidising internet access for the disadvantaged.
“If we think it important to subsidise essential utilities such as electricity for low-income Australians, we may need to consider whether an allowance for internet access for essential services might also be necessary,” he wrote.
The latest Australian Bureau of Statistics data shows around three million Australians are not online.
A newly-formed group – The Australian Digital Inclusion Alliance (ADIA) – established by not-for-profit Infoxchange with support from Australia Post, Google and Telstra and 100 other organisations, held a discussion event prompted by the research in Melbourne on Tuesday.
Although those organisations have not been named, they are understood to include The Australian Council of Social Service, children’s charity The Smith Family, Anglicare Australia and The Australian Communications Consumer Action Network.
The alliance has faced criticism this week for not inviting digital rights groups or activists to participate. Journalist Asher Wolfe, writing in Crikey, said the alliance “conspicuously excludes” digital rights organisations.
The #DigitalInclusionAu collaboration has sidelined digital rights orgs in the mix. Unacceptable— Asher Wolf (@Asher_Wolf) August 3, 2017
"The ADIA seeks to harness the collective skills, knowledge and capabilities of organisations across the country to reduce the digital divide and enable greater social and economic participation for all Australians", said David Spriggs, CEO of Infoxchange and chair of the ADIA at the alliance's launch event.
“Unless we work together with a strategic approach we won’t succeed in achieving an Australia where everyone can participate in the digital world," he added.