Public Interest Advocates Can Play Crucial Role in Closing Digital Divide

Oct 19, 1999

Reported by Mary-Lea Cox

To ensure that America's digital future brings opportunity for everyone -- regardless of race, income, or geography -- groups representing the interests of Americans in underserved communities must play an active role in the continuing debate over telecommunications policy, urged experts at an October 19 public policy forum at the Woodrow Wilson Center. The forum, organized by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, was co-sponsored by the President's Information Technology Advisory Committee (PITAC) and the Woodrow Wilson Center.

As keynote speaker Larry Irving insisted, the disparity between whites and non-whites vis-a-vis the new technology is very real and has the potential to get even larger. Irving cited the statistics from the latest Falling through the Net report, which he helped to produce last summer for the Department of Commerce. Disturbingly, while one quarter of white Americans have access to the Internet from their homes, fewer than one out of five non-whites have access to the Internet anywhere.

According to Irving, "technological poverty" is found not just in homes but also in schools (especially in the inner city) and the nation's colleges. Even at his own alma mater of Northwestern University, there is a "connectivity differential": of the students entering Northwestern, 6% have never used the Internet, and these tend to come from racial minorities.

Likewise, very few of the start-up Internet companies and Silicon Valley businesses are run by African Americans or Hispanics, the exception being Amazon.com, which was founded by a second-generation Cuban American.

Irving finds these figures particularly lamentable considering that the Internet is "colorblind." If only people of color could overcome the digital divide to the point of running their own online stores and other Internet ventures, he speculated, then they would have an enormous opportunity to correct the socio-economic disparities they have been living with for years.

The public policy perspective

U.S. Representative Charles Rangel chastised the current Congress for doing so little to educate Americans who are computer illiterate. Given that the nation has finally resolved its budget deficit, there is no time like the present to "repair the social roof," he said. Were he to become chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, he would do everything in his power to ensure that all American children become equipped for the digital age.

Irving Wladawsky-Berger, who is in charge of IBM's Internet policy, insisted that empowerment of the individual is the "real story" behind information technology and the Internet, "not the incredible market capitalization" of the new Internet companies. He mentioned that the President's Information Technology Advisory Committee (PITAC), which he now co-chairs, has recommended "expanded initiatives to increase IT-literacy, education and access, and greater funding for research into socio-economic and policy issues arising from the integration of IT into all our institutions."

The interest group perspective

Speakers from the African American, Hispanic, and Native American communities described their experiences in creating regional programs with the aim of providing high bandwidth connectivity to communities in the U.S. that would otherwise be deprived.

Max Gayton, a graduate of the high-tech vocational training offered by Five Points Center in Denver, Colorado, told the moving story of how he, a child from a minority background (Mexican parents), became adept at the Internet to the point of being able to teach others, including adults.

Bruce Lincoln from the Institute for Learning Technologies, Columbia University, described the work his organization has done to provide access to the new technology in the inner-city areas of New York. He expressed excitement about trying their methods in others parts of the U.S. During the question-and-answer session, he further insisted that minority groups should train on only the best state-of-the-art computer/network systems, not antiquated systems that corporations are throwing away.

Karen Radney Buller, who heads the National Indian Telecommunications Institute, gave the special perspective of Native Americans. She said that the barriers to Internet use among Native Americans living in rural areas are enormous: only 17% have telephones in their homes. In Alaska, for instance, there are so few roads that phone-line connections are impossible in many places. Thus in her view, hope lies in the creation of new, affordable microwave and satellite-dish technology.

Buller's point was later echoed by B. Keith Fulton, who directs technology programs for the National Urban League. Fulton said that many Latin American and African American entrepreneurs pay a premium for Internet connectivity because of where they live, thus are not able to offer internships and educational opportunities to youth in these areas so easily.

Buller added an interesting point that for Native Americans, the Internet has great potential for providing accurate information about their communities to the rest of the world with the aim of debunking myths and correcting negative stereotypes. By the same token, Native Americans are particularly concerned with halting imposters who are spreading false information about their people through the Web, she said.

Although improved Internet education was stressed by all of the forum participants, George Campbell underlined the need for training in specific areas such as engineering and computer science. He mentioned the role being played by the organization he runs, the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering, and other groups that have as their goal increasing the participation of African Americans, Hispanics, and American Indians in these critically important disciplines.

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