Mind the Gap: The Digital Divide as the Civil Rights Issue of the New Millennium

Article excerpt

The digital divide is one of the most important civil rights issues facing our modern information economy.

In the years since the start of the Internet Revolution, the American public has been exposed to more than its fair share of overused catchphrases. Way back in the early '80s, then-Senator Al Gore spoke of an Information Super Highway that would connect the country's citizens to an overwhelming variety of telecommunications opportunities. (Okay, so he didn't invent the Internet, but at least he gave us its most hackneyed metaphor.) We read about the near-Messianic coming of a 500-channel universe in which well be able to relish a mind-numbing array of programming options, from The Jack Russell Terrier Channel to Ex!, The Ex-Convicts Network. Countless Web sites and multimedia products boast about their "interactivity" when in truth the only interactivity they offer is in choosing which hyperlink to press next. And consider the phrase "click here"-before the advent of the Internet it would have been seen as a completely baffling command. (For fun try picturing it being blurted out in a variety of awkward social settings.) Now it's the Cyber Age equivalent of a welcome mat: Click here and enter the Web site of your dreams.

Click here and show me a way to get away from the endless hype. Please!

But despite the media's penchant for beating to death anything to do with the Internet, a new phrase has recently entered the public's online lexicon, one that actually carries significant societal ramifications: the "digital divide." In the most basic sense, the digital divide is the evergrowing gap between those people and communities who have access to information technology and those who do not. (In other words, to use another pedestrian metaphor, the have's and the have-not's.) The digital divide has been on the radar screens of those of us in the policy world for a while now, but over the course of 1999 its profile was raised as more political leaders took an interest in the subject.

The digital divide may seem like an intangible concept to some, but studies have begun to articulate it in no uncertain terms. Consider these statistics from the U.S. Department of Commerce:

* Households earning incomes over $75,000 are over 20 times more likely to have home Internet access than those at the lowest income levels.

* Only 6.6 percent of people with an elementary school education or less use the Internet.

* In rural areas, those with college degrees are 11 times more likely to have a home computer and 26 times more likely to have home Internet access than those with an elementary school education.

* People with college degrees or higher are 10 times more likely to have Internet access at work as persons with only some high school education.

Such stats should not be taken lightly. The digital divide is one of the most important civil rights issues facing our modem information economy. As telecommunications increasingly entwines itself with educational, social, financial, and employment opportunities, those communities lacking access will find themselves falling further behind the rest of society. The Internet has the potential to empower its users with new skills, new perspectives, new freedoms, even new voices; those groups who remain sequestered from the technology will be further segregated into the periphery of public life.

In schools, of course, we've seen the digital divide tackled head-on with the implementation of the E-Rate program. Each year tens of thousands of schools receive over $2 billion in federal telecommunications subsidies to help support classroom Internet access. Though some schools still haven't felt the benefits of the E-Rate, many others have: Over 50 percent of classrooms now have Internet access. Real progress is being made.

Whether the issue is in schools or in communities, the digital divide is finally beginning to receive the attention it deserves. …