Joint Committee on The Draft Communications Bill Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


APPENDIX 32

Memorandum submitted by humanITy

1.  INTRODUCTION

  1.1  As a Registered Charity (UK 1059921) entirely concerned with information and communications technology (ICT) and social exclusion/inclusion, we have had a very particular interest from the outset in legislation concerning digital information.

  1.2  The constituency which we seek to represent, comprising a wide variety of people with information access, challenges amounts, we believe, to approximately half of the population. This includes:

    —  People who have problems with systems—those with disabling conditions such as low levels of: literacy, vocabulary, hand-eye co-ordination, manual dexterity or navigation

    —  People with disabilities (in the conventional sense of the word)—those who have severe cognitive, physical, hearing or visual impairment

    —  People who need help with language—primarily but not exclusively those for whom English is not a first language

    —  People who need training and people who do not know that they need training; people who think they cannot benefit from training

    —  People who cannot afford ICT goods and services; deprived communities

    —  People who are frightened or bewildered by ICT.

  1.3  Although there are many people who might be included in more than one of the above categories, it is easy to see how we arrive at such a great figure which might, to a considerable degree, account for the tailing off of PC sales at approximately 50 per cent of the population. Although a precise figure is difficult to calculate, its basis lies in, for example, the OECD (2000) [64]and other authoritative sources putting UK functional illiteracy at approximately 20 per cent; add to this a variety of functional limitations associated with ageing, together with disability data and an approximation can be arrived at (see Hansard Society)[65].

  1.4  It is our mission to ensure that the comparative disadvantage created by ICT remains as narrow as it possibly can be. We accept that in all periods of economic or technological development the gap widens between the richest and the poorest, thus creating the comparative disadvantage in spite of an absolute improvement of the lot of the least advantaged, but we are concerned that the disadvantage should not exacerbate already existing inequalities such as income, wealth, education, training and other life chances. We are also concerned that a new and much more intractable kind of exclusion arises in a society where a phenomenon is ubiquitous rather than scarce: being illiterate becomes an increasing individual problem as general literacy rates rise.

  1.5  There are four aspects of the right to access, which need to be enumerated:

    —  First, there is to a limited extent a legal right of access based both on a reading of European Union legislation and on the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA, 1995)

    —  Secondly, in the context both of Government information and public broadcasting, citizens have a right to access what they have paid for or, at least, not to be faced with gratuitous barriers to that access.

    —  Thirdly, in a society with democratic values and reciprocal social mores, there is a moral right of citizens to have equal access to the information, which allows social participation

    —  Fourthly, the level of access will affect both the provider's profitability and the consumer's economic prospects.

2.  BARRIERS TO ICT ACCESS

  2.1  Our central contention in respect of the proposed legislation in particular and Government policy in general in respect of ICT is that there is a confusion / conflation between "Access" and either availability or utility.

  2.2  So far the policy analysis of social exclusion in ICT[66] (ref to PAT 15) has tended to focus on the economic barrier to "Access", on the simple fact that many people could not afford hardware, software and telecommunications services; but a substantial sector of the market thus characterised has bought first satellite and then digital television.

  2.3  It is our further contention that the economic barrier to ICT will continue to diminish with:

    —  The decline in the price of PCS, software and telecommunications services

    —  Increased use of digital television; ubiquitous mobile telephony.

  2.4  It is therefore vital that any legislation gets past the dated notion of economic barriers to access and begins to look more closely at other barriers.

  2.5  It is also vital that the Government begins to focus on a television/telephone rather than a PC information access paradigm.

  2.6  Much of what passes for ICT training is a simple cost transfer from the IT industry to users resulting from a poor level of design which will not be acceptable in the consumer electronics and broadcasting environments.

  2.7  The immediate barrier, raised by the Government's 2005 target of Internet access "For all those who want it", is much more complex than it looks. The strategy is based on providing unmediated, public access through public terminals. This presents problems for a number of groups such as the physically disabled and the visually impaired, not to mention the technologically bewildered but it has a much more fundamental set of problems associated with it such as:

    —  A lack of perceived privacy in using public terminals to access such services as Health Direct

    —  A reluctance to use PC-based technology by precisely those sectors of the population (formerly social Classes D and E) which account for the vast majority of citizen/Government transactions

    —  A lack of training/perception by those who complete the Government's target by simply avowing that they "Do not want ICT access".

3.  THE HOLISTIC INFORMATION SYSTEM

  3.1  Our target groups, listed at 1.2 above, present a formidable array of challenges, which might best be summarised in reference to the three basic parts of an information system. The first is the information manufacturing process (content provision); the second is content transfer (carriers); and the third is content reception (access hardware/consumer electronics). In order to establish optimal access to information these three parts need to be viewed holistically as a single information system. In this context "optimal" represents to sets of overlapping pairs of concepts:

    —  First, the level of entropy between the information producer and consumer

    —  Secondly, the relationship between cost and accessibility.

  3.2  Taking the factors in 3.1 in reverse order:

    —  First, there are problems with the design of hardware but these will be steadily overcome as Bluetooth and successor protocols make it possible for individuals to own customised hardware devices, both domestic and mobile. (This will cut the enormous cost of hardware and its duplication in consumer electronics and release more funding for " intelligent" server- as opposed to client-side applications)

    —  Secondly, as recent legislation shows, there can be problems with "carrier" technology. In the case of blind people, for example, there was legislation (Broadcasting Act 1996) to guarantee audio description of television by content providers but no legislation with respect to the carrier channels and de-coding devices. It should be possible to use carrier licensing regimes to guarantee accessibility features.

    —  Thirdly, most crucially But least recognised, the crux of accessibility lies in the way that the basic information is manufactured and made available.

  3.3  The more granular the data the more manipulable each element. This encompasses such phenomena as:

    —  Language engineering, parsing, spell checking, grammar checking

    —  Database and navigation design

    —  Scaleable manipulation of elements of text and images

    —  Contrast adjustment; separation of foreground/background

    —  Creation of multimodal access.

  3.4  It would take too long to illustrate the desirability of all these features but here is one example of how there is not a fundamental conflict between economic viability and optimal accessibility. At some point soon most television will become non-scheduled and therefore one of the two axes in an electronic programme guide (EPG), the time axis will disappear. This will make searching more difficult. If an individual has four hours set aside to watch pay per view television but takes half an hour to select desired programmes, companies will lose 1/8th of revenue.

4.  CONCLUSION

  4.1  We believe that this short submission adequately summarises the massive potential problems involved in making broadcasting and Internet publishing services optimally available to all citizens and we would be pleased to submit further written/oral evidence as the House desires.

June 2002


64   OECD: Literacy in the Information Age. OECD: Canada, 2000. Back

65   Carey, K. and Gracia-Luque, R. Enabling E-Democracy. The Hansard Society: London, 2001 (In Press). Back

66   Carey, K.: Joined Up Citizenship. DTI. www.pat15.org.uk Back


 
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