Digital Divide

Civil rights politics don’t seem to translate very well to the fast-moving, consumer-friendly world of the Internet. Still, left-wing pols figured they’d found a 21st century cause and a catchy buzzword with “The Digital Divide.” The theory was that only privileged whites were enjoying the full benefits of the digital revolution. While whites were getting online very quickly, minorities were allegedly missing out, creating a growing chasm between the “information haves” and the “information have-nots.”

The NAACP’s Kweisi Mfume called it “technological segregation,” while the Rev. Jesse Jackson said it was “classic apartheid.” Numerous members of Congress drafted bills to address this growing crisis and President Clinton proposed a new Federal program to close the Digital Divide.

The question now is whether the President can spend the money before the Digital Divide disappears. As Adam Clayton Powell III noted in a recent TCS column, “President Clinton's recent initiative to provide $2.3 billion in federal funds to subsidize Internet access was made just as voices were being raised about whether such funding was necessary.”

Put simply, it’s getting very difficult to find the victims of this crisis. Blacks are now getting online at a faster rate than whites. Well, what
about Hispanics? Recent data from Forrester Research shows that the percentage of Hispanics already online is equal to or greater than that of whites. Still searching for a cyber-civil rights cause to support? I’m sorry to have to tell you that Asian-Americans are the most wired ethnic group of all.

The problem for politicians is that it’s hard to say, “Never mind”after announcing all the programs and holding all the press conferences. So last week, the search for victims led President Clinton to a remote Indian reservation. At long last, had he finally found people in need of his taxpayer-financed charity? Well, the President’s advance team did manage to find a Navajo village that was not particularly wired, but did that prove that there’s really a “Digital Divide” crisis in need of a Federal solution?

The politicians have things exactly backwards. The Internet is not the cause of an opportunity gap between blacks and whites, rich and poor. The Internet is the solution. Poor black kids in areas with lousy schools now have access to just as much information as rich white kids in fancy prep schools. As ZDNet’s Jesse Berst noted last week, “All knowledge in the world is now just one $500 terminal away. You don't have to graduate at the top of your class; you don't have to get into the best colleges. [This technology] has put more knowledge within reach of more people than any other invention known to man. Period.”

Now it’s true that the Internet can’t yet match the impact of a great teacher in the classroom, but you just wait. There are no limits to the educational possibilities if Washington will allow the Internet economy to grow. And even now, what’s standing in the way of people’s access to the Net? In an excellent report for the Heritage Foundation, Adam Thierer shows that new Internet appliances and even some low-cost PCs are now cheaper than the average color television. Thierer reminds us of the government’s own data showing that more than 97% of America’s poor households own color TVs. Now consider all the opportunities to get free access through schools, libraries, and even new commercial services and you have to wonder who’s being shut out of this tech revolution.

Instead of creating new programs, Washington should focus on allowing the market to continue to do what it’s already doing – offering faster and better services at lower and lower prices. That means the pols should forget about regulating new broadband networks, forget about new loan programs for broadband providers, forget about new subsidies that distort the market, and keep the pressure on local telephone companies to allow competition in their markets.

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