Civil Liberties

Wiring the Gaps


An article in the April 17 Science spawned a flurry of stories on evening newscasts and newspaper front pages describing a huge Internet gap between white and black Americans, with whites having access to (and using) the Internet far more than African Americans. The data on which the Science article was based, however, were far more interesting, and far more positive, than most of the stories suggested.

The report was based on Nielsen data from 1996, which in the dynamic world of online usage should be considered history (however interesting) rather than news. But even these data offered a number of surprises: African Americans were more likely to be on the Internet than whites once they reached a household income of $40,000. At this income level, blacks were also far more likely than whites to work with computers on the job (77 percent vs. 59 percent).

And when the data were collected in 1996, many more blacks were online than the media had reported. "Five million African Americans have used the Web in the United States as of January 1997," wrote researchers Donna Hoffman and Thomas Novak, "considerably more than the popular press estimate of one million."

Harris Survey Unit data collected last winter and published in the April/May issue of The Public Perspective further confirm that racial and ethnic gaps in Internet usage are narrowing: The racial composition of U.S. Web users was 75 percent white and 19 percent African American and Latino, which author David Birdsell described as "statistically indistinguishable from Census data on the general population."

The Web has grown from 13 million U.S. adult users in the fall of 1995 to more than 58 million, which means that 30 percent of American adults are now online. And the much-ballyhooed online "gender gap" is closing as well: Birdsell notes that while men outnumbered women in cyberspace by a 3-to-1 ratio in September 1995, by last winter 44 percent of active Web users were women.