For the students in Dr. Paolo Granata’s Media Ethics class at the University of St. Michael’s College, the theoretical suddenly — and urgently — became reality with the introduction of the COVID-19 social distancing guidelines.
“We were just discussing digital inclusion when self-isolation guidelines arose and students suddenly had a real-life experience of seeing how important digital inclusion really is,” explains Dr. Granata.
Digital inclusion, and its companion term, digital inequality, refer to the importance of fair access to both the tools and the data needed to participate in the digital world. In 2011, the United Nations’ Human Rights Council declared the Internet to be integral to human rights, and recommended that Internet access should be a priority for all.
The effects of the current pandemic bear this out, Dr. Granata says, with people needing access to the Internet not only to telecommute and take e-classes but also to do things like pay bills, order groceries and stay in touch with others to reduce isolation.
“Nobody should be left behind,” the professor says.
But everything from income levels to location can have an impact on how people are able to connect. Low-income families, for example, may not have a computer at home for children to do e-learning from home while people living outside of urban centres may have limited access to high-speed Internet, if they have access at all. In turn, working and learning from home can result in soaring data charges.
The closure of institutions due to coronavirus limits access to tools like loaner laptops from schools or banks of computers at libraries, Dr. Granata notes, while shuttered coffee shops and institutional sites means fewer Wi-fi hotspots, where users can find access without having to pay.
Even for those with technology at home, the various platforms now being called on for online learning and e-meetings requires updated software, and that can sideline even those with relatively new computers.
This new reality prompted Dr. Granata to work with his Media Ethics students, research assistants Simon Digby and Alexandra Katz, and the Media Ethics Lab at the University of Toronto to create a call to action on the topic of digital inequality. Titled #DigitalCloseness, the statement spells out how the private sector, various civic organizations, and private citizens all have a role to play both today as well as in the long term to ensure Internet access is available to all.
#DigitalCloseness suggests telecom companies, for example, forgive late payments and keep customers connected at this time, while it suggests community organizations and not-for-profit groups can offer access to free courses and virtual tours of exhibits.
In turn, private citizens with unlimited data are urged to share with a neighbour, to lend an extra device to someone who has no access, or to begin to build a virtual community to check in on others.
Going forward, Dr. Granata says, the conversation must continue with a variety of stakeholders to ensure there are ethical standards in the digital world to protect and further the common good.
There are conversations to be had, for example, in the subject of media literacy so that people do not fall prey to false or misleading information on social media, he says.
“We also need to urge legacy media to choose their words carefully for example, so that they avoid sensationalism by falling back on terms like ‘the battle’ or ‘the war’ on coronavirus,” he says.
Conversations about connectivity must also be mindful of who the most vulnerable are in our communities and work to include them.
For the students of the Winter 2020 session of Media Ethics, COVID-19 taught an invaluable lesson, Dr. Granata says.
“People often think that online and real life are two different things. They’re not, and this crisis has demonstrated it,” says, adding that it’s time for the broader population to become familiar with a term coined by Oxford Professor Luciano Floridi: “onlife.”