The Digital Divide

The Relevant Internet
by Bobson Wong, Digital Freedom Network.

Newark, New Jersey, USA -- Without the Internet, my life would be very different. Since I run a human-rights organization that focuses on using the Internet, the Net is obviously central to my job. I also live in the most urbanized part of the United States, a country with half the world's online population. I have three e-mail accounts that I use regularly, four telephone numbers (including a mobile phone), and access to three Web sites. At work, I surf the Web on a T-1 line, and at home, I have unlimited Internet access. Clearly, the Net is an integrated part of my life. A friend of mine who is a public school teacher in a major American city has a different day-to-day experience with the Internet. Lisa (not her real name) teaches in a racially mixed school with many children from low-income families. As an avowed technophile who uses the Net frequently at home, she wants her students to be computer-literate. However, Lisa's problem isn't that her classrooms lack computers. "I have computers in all my classrooms," she once told me. "But my classes are overcrowded and I'm overworked."

Lisa's complaint encapsulates the real problem faced by those trying to narrow the digital divide in the US ‹ how to make the Internet relevant enough to people's lives so that they'll want to get online.

In the US, Internet access is more affordable and widespread than in other parts of the world. Americans generally pay a flat-rate fee per local telephone call, a much cheaper alternative to the per-minute fees incurred by telephone users in the UK and most other countries. Over 94 percent of Americans have a telephone, and about half the country's population uses the Internet. This is a stark contrast to most of the rest of the world. The US has more Internet users than all of Asia, which has over half the world's population. There are more Internet users in the US state of Texas than in all of Africa.

Of course, not everyone in the US has Internet access. There is a noticeable divide among racial and ethnic lines. According to a new study by the US Department of Commerce, Asian Americans, who make up about four percent of the US population, have the highest rate of Internet penetration. Almost 57 percent of Asian American households have Internet access, compared to 46 percent of white households. At the other end of the spectrum, only about one-quarter of blacks and Hispanics, the two largest minority groups in the US, have Internet access. Some gaps along racial and ethnic lines have persisted. The gap between Internet access rates between black and white households and between white and Hispanic households has actually increased since 1998.

Differences along income and education lines are also large. Those in urban areas, those who earn more money and those with more education are far more likely to own computers and have Internet access. One study found that 70 percent of households headed by someone with a post-graduate education had Internet access, compared to only 30 percent of households headed by someone with only a high school education.

Overall, these differences have shrunk in the last two years. Several studies indicate that Internet access among most groups of Americans is increasing rapidly across income, education, ethnicity, location, and age groups. While the digital divide will not be eliminated anytime soon and some gaps have even widened, the US has made considerable progress in bringing Americans of all groups online. Nonprofit organisations, businesses, and Government have played an important role in narrowing the digital divide. In many cases, they have worked together in innovative partnerships. For example, a program sponsored by a major company is bringing students and families at Lisa's school into the digital age for free. Students at her school are getting computers with Internet access installed in their homes, while Lisa and her fellow teachers are getting laptops. Teachers and parents can get training on how to use computers. With a companion Web site, parents will be able to check what homework is assigned to each class. Programs like this that get the Internet into classrooms, offices, and homes are an important first step in bridging the digital divide.

However, eliminating the digital divide will require more than increasing the supply of Internet access. It will also require increasing the demand for Internet access by encouraging the development of content that is relevant to all users. The non-profit organisation Children's Partnership found that low-income communities get only limited benefits from improved Internet access because of a lack of cultural information on the Net, literacy and language barriers among low-income users, and a lack of online cultural diversity. Online content is primarily designed for Net users with discretionary money to spend and an average or advanced literacy level. Only 17 percent of African Americans surveyed by the Pew Internet and American Life Project believe that most people can be trusted, compared to 34 percent of whites. Because African Americans are less trusting and more concerned about privacy, they are less likely to participate in high-trust activities like online auctions or give their credit card number to an online vendor. In a country where African Americans have suffered centuries of discrimination and where even today they are often singled out by police to be stopped and searched, such distrust is not surprising. Most Internet content doesn't address the concerns of minorities and low-income people, but this should change as more people in these groups get Internet access.

The disappearance of the online gender gap shows that providing relevant Internet content is important in eliminating the digital divide. Two recent reports concluded that the percentage of men and women online in the US differs by less than a percentage point, a clear reversal of the male-dominated Internet that persisted as recently as two years ago. The Internet market research firms Media Metrix and Jupiter Communications found that in the last year, the biggest increase in Internet users came in girls aged 12 to 17, who were attracted by chat rooms and Web sites for popular teen magazines, fashion styles, and rock bands. Another group whose online presence increased dramatically is women over the age of 55, who were attracted to genealogy, health, and other sites relevant to them. When people find Internet content that can affect their lives, they will be more likely to get online.

In the end, we need to keep the digital divide in perspective. Many people who aren't online now have far more serious issues to think about than getting online. Nearly 21 million Americans over age 18 are below the US government's poverty line. About 44 million adults ‹ over one-fifth of the US population ‹ lack the reading and writing skills necessary to function in everyday life. The digital divide is not just a gap in technology. It's also a gap in education and economic class. Only by addressing these gaps can the digital divide truly be eliminated.

Bobson Wong is executive director of the Digital Freedom Network (DFN), which promotes human rights around the world by developing new methods of activism with Internet technology and by providing an online voice to those attacked simply for expressing themselves.