The Internet is making many things more bearable – but only for those who use it. The digital divide is becoming an urgent social problem.

Offers of help, culture, meeting other people – much of it is organized online in times of crisis. The Internet has the potential to make only a physical one from a social distance. This is good for anyone who is online savvy. But it is bad for everyone who, for various reasons, cannot access the Internet or can only do so to a limited extent, or cannot handle it competently. At a time when some cheer that Germany must finally go digital, one should not forget those who are dependent on help or analog alternatives. Otherwise, a phenomenon that has long been problematic is amplified: the “digital divide”.

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The technical term – in English: digital divide – originally referred primarily to the infrastructure. Globally, only a few privileged people had access to computers and the Internet. They had a media advantage that was crucial for personal progress, political education and participation. Today the term is taken much broader. Around the world, around 60 percent of the websites are written in English. Those who don’t speak the language are out. Many websites are not designed to be accessible, few are in simple language, which also excludes people, often the needy. And there are also big differences in media literacy. Anyone who lacks knowledge, reading comprehension or technical skills is neither safe nor equally active on the Internet.

The latter in particular is likely to be particularly evident in the crisis. It is already clear that schoolchildren who are now supposed to work alone and with digital teaching material are disadvantaged if their parents cannot support them. Also, not every family has equal access to a computer and printer. This means that those who are most in need of approval fall down.

This is also evident in the emergency aid for the self-employed and companies. The development bank N-Bank, for example, asks all loan seekers to submit the necessary applications digitally and not by post. The effort for the manual input of the data is otherwise too great, handwritten will not be processed. From the perspective of an institution that wants to help quickly, this is understandable. But also here applies: Not all software products are compatible. The network connection is not equally good everywhere. Some people have a general language barrier; others speak good German, but not good enough official German. The consequence: Some of the applicants submit incorrect documents, others fail due to electronic transmission – the urgently needed money does not come or comes much later. And internet fraudsters succeed with fake websites.

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For years, public authorities have not exactly invited their customers to use digital services. There is, for example, the Deutsche Rentenversicherung, where applications can be filled in and sent electronically, but the attachments have to be forwarded by post. Other authorities put old versions of PDF files on their websites that citizens have to download, sign and scan again. Technologies have long been available that can evaluate and read in forms that are filled in by hand and that accept electronic signatures. All of this would relieve the employees and streamline the administration. You just have to buy and use new technologies. Now, under pressure, it doesn’t work. In other words: program in time, so you have in need.

Communication between citizens and authorities needs to improve

Nevertheless, this should not be a plea for a completely digital Germany. As long as there are differences in usage and access to the Internet, as long as authorities cannot yet offer a universal standard, there must still be alternatives.

Even if the vast majority of public bodies are currently really trying to find quick solutions – after the end of the crisis it will be necessary to talk about how the communication between citizens and authorities can be improved. Digital channels must finally be expanded. And in such a way that at least a large majority is able to use them: in understandable language, with translations and instructions, with secure transmission and with the latest technology. It must also be ensured that there are other ways, handwritten , with personal advice, by mail.

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The term “digital divide” sounds like a technical problem, but it is primarily a social one.