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Martha Lane-Fox: No broadband, no citizenship

Aloof, useless, and in need of coercion

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"I don't think you can be a proper citizen in our society in the future if you're not online," says self-confessed web-zealot Martha Lane Fox. She was appearing on a surprisingly good BBC Radio 4 investigation into internet refuseniks.

But why stop there, Martha? Why not remove the vote from anyone who's gone more than four hours without making a Tweet? Followed by detainment for anyone who neglects to update their Facebook profile for 24 hours. ("I'm being interned!") After all, keeping an online presence up-to-date may be unpaid work, but it takes less time than sorting out the recycling - another utterly pointless, ritualistic activity - and coercion will surely get the proles racing to the keyboards.

Seriously though, there are 17m internet refuseniks in the UK - counted as people in households without a connection - and this was an investigation into why they're not Tweeting. Or even downloading porn.

The UK's holdouts are even less inclined to go online than they were five years ago, we learned. But why?

Programs like this are fascinating because they typically reflect the policy orthodoxy embodied by Gordon "YouTube" Brown's statement that the internet as important as electricity. The orthodoxy states that people are stupid, the internet is great, and so therefore people who don't use the internet are especially pitiful. It's not acknowledged that people are sensible, well-adjusted and discerning - and may actually be making a rational choice. And that laying pipes or erecting masts isn't enough - the networks need to deliver better stuff to be compelling.

This went closer to the question than most, but tiptoed around the subject.

A computing professor said the technology was blokey "designed for young male computer scientists" and cited the "Start" button in Microsoft Windows needed to close down Windows.

But the good Professor didn't ask "why?" We know that texting was even harder on the earliest phones - particularly Motorolas. Yet texting became popular without any need for "Media Literacy" courses or new taxes to pay for them. Cost was also mentioned. But pay-TV has proved that if the value is perceived to be there, people will cut the budget elsewhere.

Shockingly some people preferred the personal touch, of handwritten letters to family, rather than an email! She confessed that she read a lot. Another black mark!

Universal imposition found anger at services that snubbed digital refuseniks - stopping pension collection at post offices, for example. Health services are next, of course.

Alas getting so close to asking "what might you actually want from a network?" it veered back to Martha Lane-Fox, the Lastminute.com founder and now quango ornament, Brown's and Twitter PR advisor. So what could work, Martha?

Coercion was "one dimension", she said, but she hoped there might be a "a catalysing event that's so compelling" that 100 per cent of Britons would rush online. What might this be - a human sacrifice? An alien autopsy? No, she suggested it could be the 2012 Olympics. Seriously.

The alternative is that the "cost base" of Government "interacting offline" with "its customers" is unaffordable, a depressing prospect, MLF said.

So Martha hasn't got a clue; But in the 17m must be a lot of voters who know better. UK readers can catch up with the BBC show, titled Can't Connect, Won't Connect for the next seven days here. ®

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