Net Results: People must not be forced to operate online

Some of us, for age or other reasons, choose quite reasonably to operate by analogue

Ancient structure on Inis Mór: the speed and efficiency of the internet must not obscure our  world of real people and places. Photograph: Daragh Muldowney

Ancient structure on Inis Mór: the speed and efficiency of the internet must not obscure our world of real people and places. Photograph: Daragh Muldowney

 

Many years ago, I was sent off by The Irish Times to spend a week sailing around the Connemara coast and Aran Islands on a newly built Galway hooker, a creative holiday experience that was perfect for a summer feature story.

As writing assignments go, it was blissful. I remember watching the wind fill the red canvas sails drawing us towards Inis Mór. From the deck, we caught shimmering mackerel for lunch. Our boat always lured a crowd of island residents who would banter in silken Irish with our soft-spoken Connemara-born captain.

And the weather was clear and warm every day.

But no sailor trusts today’s weather to be a template for tomorrow’s. Thus, every morning and evening, whether in harbour or under sail, our captain unfailingly tuned in the shipping forecast with its soothing, musical rollcall of Irish placenames and those rising and falling barometric measurements.

Those moments came to mind during the past week when an RTÉ radio presenter, in conversation with one of Met Éireann’s meteorologists, asked whether there was really any point in broadcasting the shipping forecasts any more, now that so much detailed weather information was immediately accessible online.

Well, noted the meteorologist, people needing the shipping forecasts often are in remote areas around the shorelines or out at sea, where there’s no internet access or mobile signal.

Shipping forecast

So, yes: we still do need the low-tech, analogue radio broadcasts so relied upon by sailors, from amateur to merchant marine. But it’s easy to forget that just because the internet is one useful choice, it isn’t always an answer.

What might seem a quaint anomaly to most may still have critical meaning to others. For me, the late-night ritual intonement of the shipping forecast signals bedtime. It’s just a brief maritime lullaby. But if you are on the seas or waiting to set sail, it’s a crucial broadcast for travel decisions, with safety implications.

In other words, the internet is not always a better alternative to older ways of doing things.

Yet so many public-facing organisations, from private companies to government agencies, increasingly want us to have the majority of our interactions with them online.

I don’t really understand why people cannot continue to file their taxes by paper if they wish

This might be fine for most, but just doesn’t work for everyone. The excluded can include people with disabilities. People living in poverty, where the internet is an unaffordable luxury. Displaced and homeless people. Elderly people who might not have net access, or who may find online interactions too confusing.

Not all of us have internet access, and for some of those who do, using services like online banking or Revenue’s online service (ROS) for managing tax payments is just too complicated. Or dependent on reliable broadband. Or any broadband at all (sorry, those of you in parts of rural Ireland).

Tax filing

Yet, as many will be especially aware of this week, online tax filing is now required for some categories of taxpayer, such as the self-employed. I understand Revenue’s motivation for this. Far easier and more efficient to take in returns in a consistent electronic form than on paper, where someone in an office somewhere will have to enter all that paper-based data into a computer.

At its introduction, ROS was an internationally groundbreaking service, placing Ireland ahead of just about everyone else in online tax services. And for the most part I appreciate the service and have found online filing easy and handy. Especially compared to rushing into the city centre to stuff a return through the mail slot at the Revenue building two minutes before midnight. Ah, them were the days.

But for many valid reasons, some just don’t want to be forced to file online. I wonder about taxpayers who have filed on paper for decades, and don’t much use the internet, perhaps at all. Or the people who don’t want sensitive tax data from their electronic forms sitting around on their hard drive.

I don’t really understand why people cannot continue to file by paper if they wish. Surely, it’s just a matter of time before everyone files online, anyway. The carrot of offering a later filing deadline for using ROS will remain a significant attraction over time for most, and new generations born into an internet-enabled world aren’t going to use dead trees instead of bits.

Why the need to force it? I just don’t get it.

While moving public services or critical private services online may be a benefit to most of us, and have clear economic and managerial pluses for the organisations increasingly taking such steps, businesses and government need to keep in mind that a mostly online or only-online policy always risks exclusion. Of real people.

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