Have you ever experienced frustration when you could not access
your email or a favorite website? Imagine that frustration
increased a hundred-fold for those who cannot afford or are
otherwise denied access to email, favorite websites, or a
place to publish their own point of view on the Internet.
Information Access Increases the Standard of Living
In today's world, people must have access to online information to
participate fully in society. That is why people like you and I
get involved in organizations like the Online Policy Group. We
assist communities of people that are underrepresented, underserved,
or who have traditionally faced discrimination online. We reach out
to those who are not reaping the benefits of the promise of
universal Internet access.
We seek to fulfill the promise of one Internet with equal access
The Internet is a lifeline for many people who are living in
isolation from their communities -- teenagers questioning their
sexual orientation or gender identity, African-American or
Jewish people living in the midst of "color-blind" mainstream
America, a disabled friend who can travel only with great
difficulty, or an elderly couple involuntarily reclusive in
The Digital Divide
Most people think of the digital divide as the gap between the
"have's" and the "have not's" on the Internet. The "have's" have
access to computer equipment, network services, training, and
education about computers and how to use them. If they are lucky,
the "have not's" rely on access to outmoded computers in
overcrowded public schools or libraries with little or
no training or education. The digital divide reflects and
reinforces economic disparities and cultural differences between
various sectors of our society. As a result of these disparities,
a wealthy and well-educated elite tends to obtain more benefit
from the technology and information available on the Internet.
A teenager in a low-income neighborhood who does not have a
computer with Internet access experiences a digital divide from a
teenager with broadband access living in a wealthy suburban
neighborhood. In both cases, the Internet could provide critical
resources to the teenagers' lives but due to the digital divide
the wealthier teenager is more likely to prosper leaving the
lower-income teenager behind.
Computer and Internet literacy training is a critical part of
every child's education. Children who do not receive such
training will be at a great disadvantage in today's world. Every
public school should provide instruction in the use of computers
well integrated within the overall curriculum, rather than in
separate computer labs that do not apply computers in real-life
situations. Local, state, and national governments should work
in cooperation with schools, libraries, and nonprofit
organizations to ensure that no child is left a victim of the
The danger of the increasing commercialization of the
Internet is that more and more of the activity on the Internet
becomes oriented toward making a buck than toward the interactive
free flow of information. The structure of information flow on
the Internet is starting to resemble highly-controlled and
commercialized broadcast media such as television and cable.
When services start to cost and the production and distribution
of content becomes more controlled, the digital divide between
the "have's" and the "have not's" becomes more and more pronounced.
For example, those who can afford to pay for access to back issues
of the Washington Post newspaper online need not travel to a
library in order to gain important information.
Barring a sweeping and effective campaign to lessen or eliminate
the digital divide, the long-term consequence of the digital
divide is the effective abandonment of segments of society to a
lower standard of living and societal participation than that of
a wealthier elite of our society which, in effect, undermines
the strength of a democracy.
Mandatory Blocking or Filterring Damages Schools and Libraries
The digital divide also occurs when those in control of the
creation and distribution of Internet content decide to block
certain types of content from their audiences. In 2000, the
US Congress passed and President Clinton signed legislation requiring Internet filtering
in every public school or library that participates in
federal programs (see
Congress even voted contrary to the recommendations of the
Child Online Protection Act (COPA) Commission appointed by
Congress to study the issue (see
The problem is that the existing filtering products do not work as
advertised because the filters do not block much of what they are
supposed to block and -- at the same time -- the filters block
many websites they are not supposed to block. The filters often
block "controversial" content unfairly, such as basic support
information about the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender
In response, the Online Policy Group has started the
Schools and Libraries Project to prepare educational materials
and offer consulting to school and library administrators
on how to comply with the law without stifling the free speech
and human rights of students and library patrons using
filtering software that simply does not work properly (see http://www.onlinepolicy.org/research/schoollibrary.shtml ).
The Online Policy Group also tracks and responds to local,
state, and national legislation related to Internet filtering
Online Service Providers Prevent Equal Access
A prime example of media convergence is the AOL/TimeWarner merger
approved by the Federal Trade Commission (see
http://www.onlinepolicy.org/access/broadband.shtml). Collectively, the
merged company controls much of the broadband Internet access
in the United States. Although the merger was approved with a
commitment to making the high-speed Internet pipeline into
American homes available to online service providers other than
just AOL, it is unclear how much the U.S. public will suffer a
loss of diversity of content and services due to monopoly control
of the means of production and distribution of the content and
At the same time, anecdotal reports of discriminatory
incidents are on the rise at more and more online service
providers. Somewhat understandably, online service providers,
like AOL, Yahoo, and others, are reluctant to take these
anecdotal reports seriously.
The Online Service Provider Assessment project of the Online
Policy Group surveys companies like AOL, Yahoo, and others
to determine if they are discriminating, whether intentionally
or not, against certain types of content and communities (see
Having gathered quantitative and scientifically valid data
on such discrimination through the use of a proven methodology,
the Online Policy Group negotiates and provides recommendations
to companies who engage in discrimination. If the company
is unresponsive, the Online Policy Group alerts the media and
consumers so they can make an informed choice about online
products and services.
The Online Policy Group also solicits reports and responds to
incidents of bias, discrimination, and defamation online through
the SWAT Team for each constituency served by the organization
http://www.onlinepolicy.org/defamation.shtml ). Constituencies
include the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community,
racial, ethnic, and religious minorities, women, elderly,
youth, disabled, and those facing health issues such as HIV,
AIDS, or cancer.
The Search Engines project provides helpful hints to web site
administrators about how to make sure their sites are accessible
Improving Access for Communities Facing Discrimination
In 2000, the Online Policy Group announced a
new project called QueerNet, devoted to increasing
the online presence of those who are underserved, underrepresented,
or face bias, discrimination, or defamation online.
And in 2001,
the California Community Colocation Project (CCCP) joined OPG.
addition of QueerNet and CCCP to the Online Policy Group family,
individuals and organizations may now request from OPG a variety
of free Internet services, including email lists,
web hosting, domain name registration, and colocation services, i.e.
hosting a computer server on a rack at a secure hi-bandwidth
Internet Service Provider facility.
The digital divide is not just an economic phenomenon. For
example, teenagers who are questioning their sexual orientation
or gender identity and are growing up in unsupportive families
and communities may -- if they have access to the Internet--
discover a lifeline to information and a community of support
that could literally save their lives. There are testimonials
from teenagers who tell us that the contacts and advice they
found through the Internet kept them feeling strong and
supported, rather than spiraling downward into depression,
despair, drug abuse, or even suicide.
The Human Side of the Internet
In fact, the ability to connect with other people is one of the
greatest benefits of the Internet. For elderly people isolated in
their homes, for those disabled people who have difficulty leaving
their homes, and for anyone who feels isolated due to separation
from a community of like-minded souls, the Internet provides the
most significant opportunities.
The purpose of the Online Policy Group is to make sure that
people everywhere have access to email, to supportive web sites,
and to resources for publishing and broadcasting on the Internet.
You can make a difference today! Whether it be for research,
outreach, or action on online policy issues, you can help by
volunteering or donating to the Online Policy Group.
Thank you for your generous contribution.
Online Policy Group
top of page