[Dave Birch] There was yet another debate about the “digital divide” in London, featuring the British government’s technology tzarina, Martha Lane Fox (note for foreign readers: Martha Lane Fox was a co-founder of the famous internet enterprise Lastminute.com), who is charged with forcing a recalcitrant populace — one-sixth of Britons say they don’t want the web — to log on to things. There are 10 million people in Britain who have never been on the Internet and the Digital Inclusion Task Force has to get 4 million of them “online” by 2012, otherwise… Actually, I don’t know what the “otherwise” clause is, so had better move on.

At the debate, they were (essentially) talking about the divide between people who order books online from Amazon and people who don’t, and I’m sure this is an important topic, but I’m not that interested in it. I once got into trouble in a meeting with a public sector customer because I said that people who weren’t on the web generally didn’t want to be, and since they could clearly afford Sky television and mobile phones, I didn’t think that it really mattered that they chose not to buy broadband. But I digress.

Is there an interesting, and more important, digital divide? Yes, there is. And it’s the digital divide between the developed world and the developing world. But it’s not what you think and, as Tomi Ahonen frequently points out, it’s got nothing to do with “one laptop per child” or submarine cables for internet access.

In the Industrialized World we have TVs, PCs, FM radios, fixed landlines and mobile phones to consider and compare and use and more than half of the population has one of each of those. In the Developing World, the only technology that reaches half the population is mobile telecoms, and all others are tiny in comparison. For the Emerging World, mobile is not only the first screen it is literally the only screen.

[From Communities Dominate Brands: The Digital Divide in Numbers: TVs, PCs, Internet users, Mobile around the world]

If we are going to deliver services to the mass of people in the developing world, services that are going to improve the lives of the mass of the population, then we need to focus those services on the mobile channel.

# The mobile device will be the primary connection tool to the internet for most people in the world in 2020.
# The transparency of people and organizations will increase, but that will not necessarily yield more personal integrity, social tolerance, or forgiveness.
# Voice recognition and touch user-interfaces with the internet will be more prevalent and accepted by 2020.

[From Pontydysgu – Bridge to Learning » Blog Archive » Digital Identities and Social Relations]

This seems like a reasonable projection given current trends and a bit of imagination and, personally, I think that the issue of transparency may well have the most impact, changing both businesses and government in ways that we haven’t taken on board yet but that’s an issue for another day. But take these points on board, particularly the reinforcing synergies between the mobile phone as the device, the mobile phone as the tool for opening up organisations and the mobile phone as locus for the voice interface (which, together with voice authentication, will transform identity and authentication).

But I think that this argument applies to the developed world too. In the UK, we have a national strategy for e-government, e-business, e-health, e-everything else called “Digital Britain”. Apart from aspiring to have a national internet infrastructure that is 500 times slower than in, say, Korea, it contains no real vision (and no narrative to bring stakeholders on board) but does present a catalogue of vaguely-related issues around connectivity.

The Digital Britain report is the latest example of a project driven by technological possibility rather than economic need or social value.

[From Labour’s digital plan gets in the way of real progress]

The Digital Britain report — which doesn’t even mention mobile until page 71 of its 245 pages — does at least mention identity once or twice. In fact, it says that we need

New models of identity management, security and privacy and new ways to design security and resilience into systems from the start, to help reinforce consumer confidence and trust in their privacy and security and hence their readiness to engage willingly with the new business models, applications and services.

It doesn’t suggest what any of these might be, and nor does it connect the mobile infrastructure with any of them either, but let me stick my neck out right now and say that I think that in the 3-5 year timescale (the practical timescale for business planning) there’s no other choice that to use mobile phones to manage identity on a large scale. This means, in turn, that the identity infrastructure that is necessary for business and government must be implemented efficiently and effectively in that channel. By this, I mean that the identity infrastructure should exploit the characteristics and features of the mobile channel — the security and authentication associated with the SIM, location-based services, the billing system and so forth — and not simply treat mobile phones as small windows into the web.

None of the aspiration for e-business and e-government can be met without the development of a central strategy for identity, and if we want that strategy to be implemented for 2012 it has to spawn a set of tactics that begin now. Yet even as I write (in the week that the UK national identity cards are issued to the public) there is no such strategy (you can’t even use your brand spanking new identity card on the internet to log in to the government, let alone log in to anything else).

As an aside, I think I’m going to get some T-shirts printed up: no digital identity, no digital Britain.

These opinions are my own (I think) and are presented solely in my capacity as an interested member of the general public [posted with ecto]

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