Science & Technology

Gap Credibility


"We must close the digital divide between those who've got the tools and those who don't," President Clinton said in his State of the Union address last month. "This is a national crusade. We've got to do this, and do it quickly."

The reason for the urgency is simple: The "digital divide" is in danger of closing all on its own. And if that happens before the federal government throws money at the problem, politicians won't be able to take credit.

When the White House announced a $2.4 billion "Clinton-Gore Agenda for Creating Digital Opportunity" earlier this month, it bemoaned the fact that people with better educations and higher incomes are more likely to have Internet access and warned that "the divide is actually widening." It also asserted that whites are more likely to have access than blacks or Hispanics.

These claims were based on a July 1999 report from the Commerce Department, "Falling Through the Net," which said "minorities will continue to face a greater digital divide as we move into the next century." But as Adam Clayton Powell III, vice president of technology and programs at the Freedom Forum, observed in the November 1999 issue of Reason magazine, that conclusion was based on outdated and misleading information.

The Commerce Department relied on results from a 1998 survey that did not consider Internet access away from home–a big omission, since other surveys had found that most users go online at work or school. Given the fast pace at which people have been buying computers and getting Internet accounts, the failure to use more up-to-date numbers was also a serious flaw.

Powell noted that a survey conducted by Forrester Research of Cambridge, Massachusetts, in December 1998 and January 1999 had found that Latinos were already more likely to have Internet access than whites (36 percent versus 34 percent). Although black households were still lagging, Forrester projected that they would close the gap by the end of 1999, when Internet access for all three groups would stand somewhere between 40 and 44 percent.

The Forrester study estimated that Internet access among blacks was increasing by a startling 42 percent a year. An October 1999 study by the research firm Target Market News suggested even faster growth, finding that spending on computers by black households had risen 143 percent in one year.

With help from Powell, the Los Angeles Times picked up on the story of the disappearing digital divide late last month. There is "strong evidence that government intervention is not needed and is a waste of money in an age of low cost computers and online access," it said in a front-page article. "Despite such evidence, Washington politics, a booming economy and an unskeptical press have combined to raise the notion of a digital divide from a contentious statistical claim to a cause celebre."

The most obvious beneficiary of this cause is Al Gore, the self-declared Father of the Internet, for whom "this issue has been a top priority," as a White House statement noted. But Republicans are also jumping on the bandwagon: Rep. Tom Bliley (R-Va.), chairman of the House Commerce Committee, has promised to hold hearings "on bridging the technology gap that exists in the United States," lest the Internet lead to "a two class society" of "technological haves and have nots."

There seems little danger of that. As Powell recently reported on the Freedom Forum Web site, Andersen Consulting is projecting that 91 percent of U.S. households will be online by 2005.

It's no secret how this kind of penetration is achieved. Personal computers, which once sold for thousands of dollars, can now be had for a few hundred. Less versatile devices that allow Internet access are even cheaper, and prices are continuing to fall. If you're willing to put up with extra ads, you can get Internet access for free; if not, ISPs charge as little as $10 a month.

In an interview with Powell, founder Omar Wasow noted that such trends are typical of new technologies: "We forget that once upon a time televisions were a rare and expensive device that only a few households were lucky enough to possess, and now every home has nearly a TV per person. Over time, most advanced technologies that are available only to an elite few become widely dispersed among the broader population." Even without Al Gore's help.