rebecca lynn eisenberg on Wed, 30 Sep 1998 16:25:00 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> No Watershed Without Access

No Watershed Without Mass Access
By Rebecca Lynn Eisenberg
Originally published in the SF Examiner
Sunday, Sept. 20, 1998

Last week, with the posting of the Starr Report on the Internet, millions
of Web surfers, both new and old, celebrated a global coming of age party.

Although the posting of the report might have been a watershed for those
already on-line, it did little for the majority of the world's population
who still lack Net access. Instead of being increased, global access, may
have been slowed by the misplaced jubilation over imagined open floodgates.

"The release of the report on-line was a milestone for the Internet as a
real-time information vehicle," rejoiced C/Net's on Sept. 11.

"It was the only mass medium that allowed the entire reading public - of
the world, not just the country - the ability to review the voluminous
document in detail, without filters, instantly."

"It's a watershed moment for the Net," echoed Wired News on its Web site
the same day. "Because this marks the first time that people are relying on
it - rather than television or the radio - to receive the details of a
major news event."

Even the old-guard Wall Street Journal, with its newfangled,
subscription-only Web site, shared the on-line news sites' giddiness about
the posted Starr Report. "It all added up to a watershed event that some
scholars had been warning about for decades," the Journal exclaimed Monday.
"This is the global village," it concluded breathlessly, quoting French
philosopher Alain Finkielkraut.

Sure, the Net might be a global village, but its population is hardly
representative of the world at large.

A mere six weeks before the Starr Report was released, on July 28, the U.S.
Department of Commerce National Telecommunications and Information
Administration released a report, "Falling Through the Net II: New Data on
the Digital Divide," analyzing telephone and computer penetration rates.

According to the NTIA report, in 1997, only about one-third (36.6 percent)
of all U.S. homes contained personal computers; just over one-fourth (26.3
percent) contained modems, and less than one-fifth (18.6 percent) had
on-line access.

Furthermore, the report concluded, despite "significant growth in computer
ownership and usage overall, the growth has occurred to a greater extent
within some income levels, demographic groups, and geographic areas, than
in others."

This widening "digital divide" between technology "haves and have-nots,"
said NTIA, is particularly pointed along race and class lines.

For example, NTIA found that 36.6 percent of all households below $35,000
in annual income have PCs and 26.3 percent of them have on-line access
levels. By contrast, in urban households earning more than $75,000, PC
ownership and on-line access rates average 76 percent and 50.3 percent

At the bottom of the tech totem pole are rural households earning between
$5,000 and $10,000, who account for the lowest penetration rate for PCs
(7.9 percent) and on-line access (2.3 percent).

Moreover, the report found, although ownership of PCs has significantly
increased among minority groups over the past several years, blacks and
Hispanics still lag far behind the national average. Whites are more than
twice as likely (40.8 percent) to own a computer as blacks (19.3 percent)
or Hispanics (19.4 percent), and are almost three times as likely (21.2
percent) to have on-line access at home as blacks (7.7 percent) or
Hispanics (8.7 percent).

Significantly, the divide between racial groups in both PC ownership and
on-line access has increased over the past three years, said the report.

While the difference in PC ownership levels between white and black
households was 16.8 percentage points in 1994, it was 21.5 percentage
points in 1997. And, while the gap in PC ownership rates between white and
Hispanic households was 14.8 percentage points in 1994, it was 21.4
percentage points in 1997.

To make matters worse, the very people who are least likely have computers
and on-line access at home are also the ones least likely to have access at
public libraries and schools.

According to the Federal Communications Commission, although 78 percent of
schools in affluent areas have computer and Internet access, the wires
reach only half of schools in low income areas. When broken down by race,
the gap is even more dramatic: Only 5 percent of minority classrooms are
wired to the Net, as opposed to 27 percent of all classrooms.

Conquering this digital divide, FCC Chair William E. Kennard has said, "is
one of our most compelling civil rights issues for the 21st century." Part
of the FCC's solution was supposed to be the Universal Service Discount -
or "e-rate" funds - federal subsidies set aside by Congress as part of the
Telecommunications Act of 1996, which expanded the policy toward equity in
telephone service between rural and urban communities to include
telecommunications and information services, including Internet access.

Unfortunately, the universal service program has been under attack as
"unfair taxes" by telephone companies, "libertarian" Net activists and the
government itself. Although $2.5 billion was initially allotted toward
expanding access, that figure has been decreased to about one-half its
original size, and has still not reached the vast majority of those who
need it.

And, for those fortunate enough to have Net access, Congress is currently
striving to impose censorship of materials "inappropriate for minors," both
through laws mandating use of Internet filtering software - which has
proven consistently unsuccessful - and laws criminalizing the distribution
of "obscene" materials on-line - materials which would clearly include the
sexually explicit Starr Report.

Thus, while voting in favor of posting the Starr Report on the Web, the
government has been voting to limit the demographic scope of those who can
get to the Web in the first place.

Contrary to C/Net's exuberant cheers, posting the Starr Report hardly
enabled "the entire reading public" to review unfiltered government
documents. It gave the privilege to the already-privileged few.

I'd like to see a watershed moment for the Web - a moment when the Internet
can fulfill its promise as a facilitator of political participation by the
"little guys and gals."

But until a larger and more representative portion of the country and
world's population has a way to get there, the Net is still a child and
deserves no coming of age celebration.

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