“Society belongs to all of us. What we put into it creates what we get out of it.” — Citizenship Foundation
From paying bills to checking a child’s report card, the Internet’s influence as the on-ramp to democracy grows, while low-income communities are left to languish without the infrastructure or the savvy to demand more
By Jillian Turner
Candelario Vazquez, 31, was living a double life.
He was teaching Latino immigrants in Albuquerque, New Mexico, how important getting online is to being relevant and connected citizens, but he didn’t have at-home Internet access until late 2013. Struggling to get to a place where he could send an email ate up gas and time.
“I was teaching about paying bills online, but I couldn’t pay bills online,” Vazquez says.
As a community activist and educator, he found building lesson plans and exchanging thoughts with like-minded people were activities that had to be done before he left work, lest he wait for another public online access point.
Vazquez represents roughly 30 percent of American households who don’t have the Internet at home, according to a 2013 report published by the U.S. Department of Commerce. About 35.7 million households either can’t afford paying $50 a month or more for service, or whose communities just don’t have the structural underpinnings to deliver Internet service quick enough to justify the time and financial sacrifice needed to go online.
Throughout high school, Kimberly Castillo, 20, a Central New Mexico Community College student in Albuquerque, relied on her mobile phone to do online research for projects and assignments. With no copy-and-paste option and a small screen, she spent much of her research time manually rewriting the information she found. Assignments took longer, the Internet speed slower, frustration high.
In his role as a media justice organizer, Neza Leal-Santillan teaches Albuquerque residents to be active digital citizens. He coaches people used to traveling miles to the nearest public library or even McDonald’s just for the chain’s ubiquitous and free Wi-Fi, to learn how to make the most of online opportunities.
Long-time Albuquerque, New Mexico, resident Neza Leal-Santillan explains who the real Internet providers are in his community and what that means for those still struggling for access.
The truth is, citizenship is increasingly defined as being able to access government and society – online. From applying to jobs to paying traffic tickets, checking bank balances and paying bills, much of contemporary life is conducted inside the box that is a desktop, a laptop, a tablet or a mobile phone. Consider: 300 million-plus professionals worldwide share information about jobs and opportunities on LinkedIn. Economy and law are the foundations upon which people engage as citizens and influence it: Those who cannot access these resources are therefore locked out of the public conversation – even democracy itself.
“So much of what goes on in society today occurs online, whether it’s access to government services, information about a child’s school, health care information and so forth,” says Karen Mossberger, the public affairs school director at Arizona State University, with a special interest in researching digital inequality, evaluating broadband, a.k.a. high-speed, Internet programs and urban policy.
While it’s easy for those with convenient access to high-speed Internet to do simple actions like browsing email, getting Point A to Point B Google map directions, checking breaking news and even filling out forms, what about marginalized communities across America who struggle to get online due to a lack of the infrastructure, or organized networks, needed to make this new, exciting way of connecting possible?
A debate about disenfranchisement created by lack of entrance to the online world is bubbling to the surface. As society’s values expressed externally are converted into bits and bytes, the public conversation around who creates the Web, who uses it and how it’s accessed is growing from a whisper and a chatter to a full-fledged cacophony in some circles. So while America struggles to define and balance equality of opportunity and outcomes in jobs, wealth and health externally, the question remains: Is the playing field equal online?
Though the Civil Rights Act of 1964 clearly didn’t address technology, it was clear about the need for equality of access among American citizens regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, national origin or gender. The law made provisions for every citizen to enter and enjoy public accommodations, such as eating at a restaurant or using a public restroom without having to consider “For Whites Only” or “For Coloreds Only” signage. The 50-year-old law radically changed the American workplace, credited as the primary influence on women gaining access to jobs, though the fight for equal pay rages on. The law kicked down school doors, desegregating public schools and providing mechanisms to which citizens could appeal when people and institutions simply refuse to follow the law.
Much is better since President Lyndon B. Johnson shepherded the law through, using wily political maneuvers, charm and sometimes a hammer. Although great strides have been made, the ability for underrepresented groups, including low-income people, to consistently and effectively get to the online world may be a new frontier for open discrimination.
Net neutrality plays a major role. The idea of an “open Internet” might be lost if high-speed providers such as Verizon and Comcast have the freedom to block or slow down content delivery based on their discretion or who pays the most, critics say. How to keep the Internet fair and balanced now rests in the hands of the Federal Communications Commission, expected to firmly establish net neutrality rules this year.
Andrea Quijada speaks to the FCC’s lack of authority and the ways in which the power may shift if telecommunication providers are not reclassified.
“We are actually dealing with a battle right now that involves communities of color being silenced,” says Andrea Quijada, executive director of the Media Literacy Project in Albuquerque, New Mexico, troubled by the turn major civil rights groups have taken to support less regulation for telecommunication companies, despite their messages supporting net neutrality. “By creating a high-speed Internet that only some people can access and not all people and giving others dirt roads, that’s discrimination.”
As more services are moved to the Web, particularly those offered and supported by the government, digital equity advocates question why the FCC has not exerted its power to establish and maintain equal availability of online content.
“If the government moves government programs onto corporate controlled infrastructure, there’s a conflict there,” Quijada says. “If they actually don’t have the authority to oversee that infrastructure and determine what happens on that infrastructure, who gets left out? The same people that have always been left out.”
According to Chuck McCune, money talks in the net neutrality battle, which puts underserved communities getting the short end of the stick.
What’s at stake
Digital citizenship, which Mossberger defines as a person’s ability to participate in society online, is a huge piece of the puzzle missing for those without digital resources in their communities.
Through access to social media and Internet, residents in Ferguson, Missouri, globally shared stories about police brutality and riots following the Aug. 9 shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown by Ferguson Officer Darren Wilson. The revolution was tweeted and posted during the Arab Spring of 2010 when citizens, many of them youth, rebelled against government authority in countries like Tunisia and Egypt. University of Washington researchers analyzed more than 3 million tweets to deduce social media “played a central role in shaping political debates in the Arab Spring.”
Because the Internet has the capability to connect people all over the world, openly sharing opinions and views, reducing the power of underserved people to engage online vexes advocates of an open Internet.
“We believe that the Internet is one of the very few places where borders don’t exist,” Leal-Santillan says of the stance taken by him and his co-workers at the Media Literacy Project. Earlier this year, the organization hosted a roundtable with FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, including Internet and access, net neutrality and even telemedicine.
“We want and need the Internet to be a bridge between communities,” Leal-Santillan says, “to be able to connect us across communities, across cultures, across urban and rural. And if our people aren’t online, then they’re not connected.”
Before getting hooked up to at-home Internet services in 2013, Vazquez says he often felt “such an urgency to get online and say something, to provide public input. Being able to get people to speak back online, it’s been a struggle. We miss out on being able to properly debate and properly get out our stories.”
“People are traveling from the outskirts of town to actually come in and find a wireless connection at cafes or public anchor institutions. They are confronting these issues not because of luxury but because of a necessity,” Vazquez says. “The people I interact with don’t know which bill to pay to get through the month, and the Internet is now up there with which bill to pay.”
Christopher Mitchell, at the Washington-based Institute for Local Self-Reliance, says communities and low-income areas without appropriate access are ultimately hurt: “It’s harder to apply for jobs, harder to engage in continuing education as adults, it’s even harder to save money.”
Quijada and Leal-Santillan address the many consequences marginalized communities face when their voices are not heard online.
Mobile: An answer but not the answer
Yes, mobile phones have provided the disconnected a way to get online but with significant limitations. Just because more people of color are online through their cell phones, Mossberger says, doesn’t mean there’s equity.
Six in 10 Latinos and 43 percent of African-Americans are cell-mostly Internet users, meaning they primarily use mobile devices to go online, compared with 27 percent of Caucasians, the Pew Research Center reported in 2013.
“There is a perception that the problem is solved with mobile,” Mossberger says.
Leal-Santillan adds: “For the majority of our people, specifically people of color, even if they do have access, it’s always on their phone. So they’re having to deal with trying to figure out Web browsers on their phone or dealing with their data plans and data caps with cell phone companies.”
Seeing the value in your life
Not only do cost and infrastructure play major roles in sustaining quality Internet service for marginalized communities, but a lack of education about the benefits of access can leave citizens feeling it may not be worth the investment, says Dionne Baux, a program officer at Local Initiatives Support Corporation, or LISC, in Chicago, part of the national corporation that works to advance community development. Education is a critical tool used at LISC Chicago to help communities combat unfair treatment when it comes to Internet access and speed.
“We can’t solve for the Internet companies providing low-quality services in the South and West Side communities, which are really the low-income and high minority populated communities, but what we can do is fight this through education,” Baux says about Chicago.
As a former principal and long-time advocate for equal Internet access, Deb Socia says first-hand exposure counts: “If you’ve never seen or used technology and nobody around you is using technology, you don’t see the value it can bring to your life. This, she says, is why many people living in underserved communities rightfully ask, “Why would I add the complexity and cost when it’s already hard to make ends meet?”
Today, Vazquez has come a long way from driving all over town just to find a Wi-Fi hotspot. His at-home service underscores the fact that millions of other literally well-connected families may take the opportunity to plug in for granted, serving as a constant reminder of what’s really at stake.
Just as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 aimed to end an era of segregation and neglect, the social justice goal of grafting those values and policies into the online world become increasingly important, advocates say.
“The more our society is apathetic to the fact that a lot of people are not connected, the more we’re living in a segregated era and perpetuating that disconnect,” Vazquez says. “It’s more than a digital divide, it’s a human divide.”
Caption for splash image: Candelario Vazquez. View the full slideshow.