The Digital Divide, Net Neutrality, and Internet Activism – Those Unheard

In the mid 1990s, analysts began to realize while there was an increase in internet users in general, those more impoverished had very little or no access. With the new-found realization that the internet could be used as an outlet for those less powerful to voice themselves, a clear problem had become apparent with this understanding, one that weighed heavy on the idea of activism.

The International Telecommunication Union has created a graph that shows just how the gap between the developed world and developing world has increased exponentially (image from Wikipedia)

What we can gather from this graph alone is while there is an exponential increase in the amount of internet users in both the developed and undeveloped world, there is too large of a gap between the two. Those who need their voices to be heard the most aren’t able to do so.

Kate Brodock, author of the book Digital Activism Decoded, expresses the effects of the digital divide in a chapter in said book called “Economic and Social Factors: The Digital (Activism) Divide”. A segment from the chapter reads as follows:

Research Indicated that economic differences limit not only access to technology but also the likelihood of an individual to take part in political activism. The 2009 Digital Activism Survey conducted by DigiActive, an organization dedicated to helping grassroots activists around the world use digital technology, found that digital activists, particularly in developing countries, are more likely then the population at large to be paying a monthly fee for home internet access, to be able to afford a high-speed connection, and to work in a white-collar job with access to the internet in the workplace.

In short, digital activists are likely to be prosperous, with their economic resources offering them a significant digital advantage. These initial findings indicate that the digital divide strongly influences digital activism because it tends to limit participation to the economic elite.

This research was collaborated by a report of the internet and American Life Project of the Pew  Research Center. A September 2009 Pew report – Civic Engagement Online: Politics as Usual, by Aaron Smith – stated that “whether they take place on the internet or off, traditional political activities remain the domain of those with high levels of income and education.” Smith continues, “Contrary to the hopes of some advocates, the internet is not changing the socio-economic character of civic engagement in the United States. Just as in offline civic life, the well-to-do and well-educated are more likely than those less well off to participate in online political activities.”

The digital divide is also made wider by the fact that not only do lower-income populations have less access to digital technologies, they sometimes must pay more for them. For example, the 2007 ITU-UNCTAD World Information Society report stated that the cost of broadband as a percentage of broadband costs in low-income countries were more than 900 percent of the average monthly per capita wage. Higher income populations are not only likely to receive the higher-quality products of modern communications technology and in greater supply, they often are able to purchase them at a significantly lower relative cost.

The fact is in regards to internet activism, there is little questioning done in terms of who is being excluded. Some people tend to have a misconception that those who are currently involved with types of internet activism are people who hold less power and economic status, but the statistics reveal the contrary.That’s not to say that those well off should be shunned for being politically active, everyone should have that option. The problem is not everyone has the means to the technology that enables us to be heard on a global level.

With net neutrality recently being threatened in the states,  the gap could be even more widened. David Sutphen, co-chair of the Internet Innovation Alliance , recently published a substantial list at EbonyJet Online, providing ten reasons why the new proposed internet regulations  would obscure the common goals of connecting all Americans and closing the gap in the irksome digital divide:

1. Considerable progress has been made in our first broadband decade – progress that has only been achieved because of the FCC’s longstanding, deregulatory approach to the Internet. In roughly ten years we have gone from practically zero broadband deployment to more than 95 percent availability and 63 percent adoption, according to the FCC and Pew.

2. The open Internet exists today. We have been living with ‘net neutrality’ since 2004, when it was established that companies cannot control the content and applications that people are able to access online.

3. The net neutrality debate, which only concerns those already online, is a distraction from creating an effective National Broadband Plan. The people who have the most to lose from this balancing act are the socially and economically disenfranchised – members of rural, low-income, urban, tribal, minority, non-English speaking, unserved and underserved populations.

4. The Commission’s recent request for an extension of time to deliver a National Broadband Plan underscores the need for the agency to devote more – not less – attention and resources to completing a national strategy.

5. Experts on the digital divide have not cited “lack of net neutrality regulations” as either a cause or a cure for race or income-based differences in broadband adoption. The current net neutrality war that has erupted in Washington, DC has very little to do with the interests of the unserved and underserved.

6. It is impossible to know for sure how new Internet regulations would impact private investment, and a decline in capital investments in broadband could have a harmful effect on jobs and the US economy. In fact, a reduction by five percent would reduce employment by 47,073 according to research from the ITIF or 78,455 according to former FCC commissioner and economist Harold Furchtgott-Roth.

7. Today’s open Internet is making possible huge innovation. We reduce the possibilities and raise barriers if we don’t give everyone access to smart networks.

8. Lack of net neutrality regulations cannot be reduced to “charging more fees and extracting more money from wealthier customers.” On the contrary, the FCC has laid out six principles of net neutrality, which have the potential to impact Americans at every level of income.

9. In a 2009 poll of 900 African Americans and Hispanics conducted by Brilliant Corners Research, led by Obama Presidential Campaign and Democratic Pollster Cornell Belcher, 43 percent of these minorities cited either not knowing how to use the Internet or not seeing the need for the Internet as the reason why they are not online; however, 44 percent of these same respondents said they would be more likely to subscribe to Internet services if they were provided free lessons on how to use the technology and 30 percent would be more likely to adopt if they had more information about how they could benefit from going online.

10. There are more significant policy challenges and opportunities demanding FCC attention and cooperation with industry, such as reforming the universal service fund, expanding spectrum availability for commercial use, and improving digital literacy.

We need to understand that while the internet has been around as great a tool for activism, it can also encourage the injustices that many of these activists speak out against. If we truly believe in an even playing field where everyone’s ideas, opinions, and concerns can be heard, then the internet is the most likely candidate. We need to help ensure its availability to the people who have so little.


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