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Democracy and the Digital Divide: Is Access Enough?

Field Notes

For most people in the world, getting online is too expensive, and for those who can afford it, service is often unreliable or non-existent. What could this mean for democracy?

Name the Internet’s biggest risk to democracy and hate speech, privacy breaches, or government-sponsored hacking might come to mind. But there’s another threat posed by the web’s 30-year rise that receives scant attention: for most of the world’s population, getting online is too expensive, and for those who can afford it, service is often unreliable or non-existent.

The problem of the Internet-deprived masses—not just in the developing world but in rural and urban communities in the United States—was the subject of a panel discussion hosted by the Stanford Digital Civil Society Lab as part of its ongoing public speaker series, “The Active Citizen in the Digital Age.”

Toussaint Nothias, a postdoctoral fellow at the Lab and the event’s moderator, cited a few examples of the inequalities that the lack of web access perpetuates: a mere gigabyte of data can cost more than five percent of what many people living in poor countries earn in a month; and women around the world are 26 percent less likely than men to use the mobile web. Nothias also noted a significant increase in efforts by governments around the world to limit or cut Internet access in the name of stifling protests or preventing the spread of disinformation.

“In the debates about digital disruption and democracy, access to the Internet can easily be taken for granted—something that is a given,” said Nothias. “The digital divide remains a huge challenge.”

In the United States, some communities are banding together to bring Internet services to their respective areas. Speaking to these citizen-led initiatives were two experts on digital access for marginalized populations: Tawana Petty, a researcher with the Detroit Community Technology Project and coordinator at the Detroit Digital Justice Coalition; and, Jenna Burrell, an ethnographer and associate professor at the School of Information at UC Berkeley who has researched digital connectivity challenges in Africa and, more recently, California and Oregon.

The Call for a Systemic Fix

According to Petty, in Detroit, 30 percent of residents can’t readily access the web. The reason, she said, is simple: ISPs don’t think there’s a good business case for investing in Internet infrastructure in low-income neighborhoods. As a result, children there are often unable to do homework required of them online, and residents risk losing access to basic necessities, like paying water bills, as more government services go paperless.

In 2012 in response, community members began setting up mesh networks linking home routers together to provide neighborhood-wide access. Volunteers, or “digital stewards,” went from home to home, asking residents if they would share their service. More recently, the Detroit Community Technology Project has worked with a Michigan-based Internet service provider to bring the city’s low-income households online.

Petty noted that vast inequities remain despite progress. She doesn’t expect that the much-anticipated arrival of faster, 5G broadband service nationwide will reach poorer neighborhoods, and so the gap between rich and poor is likely to widen. A long-term “systemic” solution is needed. “We’re at the point where we have to head [the digital divide] off and have a more equitable system.”

Impact on Self-Identity

Burrell’s focus on the experience of rural communities underscores their innovative potential — namely how residents in California’s Mendocino County resorted to mobilizing politically and building their own service providers using off-the-shelf equipment. “It’s, literally, a mom-and-pop business [with] local ambitions. They will often provide free Internet service in exchange for using land to put a tower.” According to Burrell, while these so-called WISPs (the “w” for “wireless”) are not looking to become the next Comcast, they are gaining influence among federal regulators.

Burrell, who studies the digital divide’s impact in African communities and finds similar effects in the United States, notes that the harms created by the lack of Internet service extend to self-identity. Low-income communities “start to see themselves in the way they are seen through the technology. They start to see themselves as marginalized.”

One of the apparent challenges is the lack of political will in Washington, D.C. to require ISPs to provide universal web access the way telephone companies were mandated by a 1934 law to ensure comprehensive phone service.

The Implications of Access

Petty and Burrell agree that universal connectivity alone isn’t enough to address inequalities brought about by the digital divide. If anything, it may lead to new problems for disadvantaged groups. The next step is to build awareness of the risks of being online and how that might affect not just individual users, but also entire neighborhoods.

“It’s very important to be teaching about the impact of your data [trail] and how our data is being sold, extracted, shared and utilized,” said Petty. “[There’s a culture] we need to create within access that fosters a way of taking care of one another.”

Minority groups and low-income households are at higher risk in digital contexts. Burrell described them as “vulnerable and easy targets” for government surveillance and other forms of abuse as data becomes increasingly commodified. “And I think we’re seeing that spreading to the rest of us,” she said.

Burrell also sees an opportunity. “That is the frontier…in places where that kind of connectivity is becoming ubiquitous. What are the new forms of harm that we’re experiencing because of that inability to not be connected or make choices or be empowered to be connected in the ways that necessarily benefit all of us?”

Burrell wants to see US communities, rural and urban, unite to preemptively head off problems that digital access can foster. “That sounds very abstract. I don’t know exactly how they would,” she said. “But a little awareness would be a good place to start.”

The Digital Civil Society Lab series, “Active Citizen in the Digital Age,” builds on an online course taught by Lucy Bernholz and Rob Reich that explores how technology shapes citizen engagement online and offline. Previous panels have looked at reimagining democracy, the alleged hypocrisy of elite do-goodism, and different models for mobilizing citizens. The Digital Civil Society Lab is part of the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society (Stanford PACS).