Women have overtaken men in the past three years in their pace of Internet take-up, according to a new Commission report. The over 55s are also increasingly gaining computer skills, and this trend is set to continue. However, the poorly educated and poorly paid are not catching up as quickly and this is denying them new opportunities. Education, age and income remain the most important areas in the digital divide, the report says.
It concludes that access to the Internet and computer skills can help people escape from, and avoid, poverty. But more information, particularly from national sources, is needed so that policies to help people access the information society can be better targeted. Without action, Europe may become even more polarised between the 'eIncluded and the eExcluded'.
Failing to acquire information skills compounds the difficulties faced by the poor and long-term unemployed, producing the 'eExcluded'. Following up on its 2001 study, the Commission report states that digital and social participation clearly appear ‘closely intertwined in a society which becomes progressively technical.'
The report 'eInclusion revisited: the local dimension of the Information Society' found that education is fundamental to being 'eIncluded'. 'Higher Internet use seems to remain clearly and consistently related to higher educational and occupational status,' it states.
The Internet requires basic skills, such as literacy, and much of its content is geared towards the better educated. The report quotes examples of people who started computer skills courses but abandoned them when they found no content that interested them.
Most eInclusion initiatives take place at local level. One example the report describes is a project launched by the Italian commune of Rome and Microsoft, which encouraged over 60s to get online to combat loneliness.
The prohibitive cost of personal computers (PC) is one of the obstacles to reducing the digital divide. This is particularly acute in the new Member States. The main reason for not using the Internet across the EU was not having a PC at home.
The EU-15 had an average of 43.5% of its population using the Internet - this fell to 41.4% when the EU enlarged to 25. However, all of the new Member States have over 25% of their population using the Internet, above the rate for both Greece and Portugal. Estonia, with 44% and Slovenia, with 41.7%, beat most of the old EU-15's national rates.
Remote and rural areas in the EU often still lack even basic Internet connections. They also have a slower take up of new technologies, increasing the digital divide between rural and urban areas.