Internet's global reach is not at all utopian

The evolution of Net surfing may be unwittingly creating a new class of inequality. By Oliver Burkeman
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
DESPITE claims that it is a utopian tool of global democracy, uniting the planet in an electronic dialogue of peace and understanding, we've all known for some time that the Internet is, basically, American. OK, so the so-called World Wide Web might have been invented by a Brit working in Switzerland, but, by and large, the Net has remained true to its origins in the universities and military bases of the United States. (Try running a search for the word "colour" on AltaVista: last week, it was registering 1,617,784 hits. Then try "color": there are 8,396,388 of them.)

What was much less well known - until the US Department of Commerce published a report at the end of July - is just how tiny a slice of America is really involved. Falling Through The Net II, based on 1997 US Census data, paints a bleak picture of online exclusion: despite a booming technology sector, the "digital divide" - the gap between the information haves and have- nots - is larger than ever, and widening.

Computer usage and online access in the US have, predictably, skyrocketed: PC ownership is up 51 per cent and e-mail accounts have multiplied by a massive 397 per cent since the Commerce Department's first report, published in 1995 using 1994 figures. But, alarmingly, the Net is now dominated even more by rich, educated white urban males in traditional two-parent families than it was then. Just like that other much-trumpeted example of participative democracy, Ancient Greece, it turns out that it helps a lot to be a wealthy, white, high-status male with plenty of leisure time if you want to join in.

Just 2 per cent of rural US households earning $5,000-$10,000 are connected to the Net, the survey found - compared with half of all urban households earning more than $75,000. Equally stark differences emerge between men and women, graduates and non-graduates, and two-parent and single-parent families. Most striking of all, though, is cyberspace's racial divide: white families are more than twice as likely to own a computer than blacks or Hispanics - at every level of income - and nearly three times as likely to have online access.

Like all the best social research, the findings to some extent confirm what we already knew: that your average Web surfer is a white, middle- class, college-educated male, with little better to do with his sizeable pay cheque than search for photographs of Pamela Anderson or send e-mails to colleagues informing them that he's got e-mail. You know the type.

But the emerging demographic inequalities of the Net are causing increasing concern, and it is by no means an all-American problem. In the UK, where the subject is still in need of thorough research, the latest figures from the Office of National Statistics show just one in 20 households is connected, even though a third own PCs. They are, unsurprisingly, concentrated in London and the south-east of England.

The situation is even more extreme in the developing world, according to The Internet and Poverty: Real Help or Real Hype?, an investigation published in April by the London-based Panos Institute. The rapid rise of the Net in these countries is unparalleled: between 1996 and 1998, author James Deane found more than 100 new Internet service providers were established in sub-Saharan Africa. Yet the price of surfing remains prohibitive, and not just because incomes are lower: a cheap connection in Africa costs an exorbitant $65 per month, compared with $20 in North America. But in the developing world, says Deane, "divisions between the information haves and have-nots are not only between the rich and the poor. Some of the least connected organisations are governmental, while some of the best are NGOs [non-governmental organisations] and social activists.

"If there are a whole lot of people outside government who are wired up and government isn't, you get a governmental and policymaking weakness, and I think that matters," Deane says. But it is the racial divide in online access which is generating most alarm - especially in the US, where it has already been dubbed "digital apartheid". According to researchers Donna Hoffman and Thomas Novak of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, there's a chasm in Web usage between black and white students: even among those who don't own computers, the white teenagers questioned proved three times as likely to have found other ways to access the Net - in college computer rooms or Internet cafes, for example - than their black counterparts.

"The consequences to American society of this race gap are expected to be severe," argue Hoffman and Novak in their report, Bridging the Digital Divide. "The Internet may provide for equal opportunities and democratic communication, but only for those with access. The United States economy may also be at risk if a significant segment of our society, denied equal access to the Internet, lacks the technological skills to keep American firms competitive." So is the Net doomed to remain the domain of a privileged elite, frittering away their disposable incomes on telephone and ISP subscription charges, while the disadvantaged are denied citizenship of the new online republic? Perhaps - but there are signs of hope.

In America, a revolutionary tax on telephone usage, the "e-rate" has helped to subsidise the costs of Web usage for schools and libraries - though opposition in Congress saw its resources cut by 43 per cent in June, from $2.25bn to $1.28bn annually. In Britain, Tony Blair has made much of plans for public-private partnerships to connect every school in the country; more and more UK libraries and councils are providing online access.

Meanwhile, in Cuba, city-dwellers have been able to log on at "cabinas publicas" - effectively, state-run Internet cafes without the cafes - since 1996, while Unesco and the International Telecommunications Union have been experimenting with similar "telecentres" in Tanzania. But aid agencies should be cautious of taking an overzealous approach, warns Deane. "Because the Internet is so glamourous, it sets many peoples' agendas, and donor organisations as vulnerable to fashion as anyone else," he says. "There is a risk of putting huge amounts of money into something which is growing anyway."

Despite that growth, the dream of a "wired democracy" looks fated for the moment to remain just a dream: for now, cyberspace still bears a striking resemblance to ancient Athens.