Why race matters on the internet

It is about time that officials begin to realise that the internet is a public utility and not a luxury.

    Why race matters on the internet
    Nearly 20 per cent of African-American smartphone owners use only their phones to go online [GALLO/GETTY]

    Here's the thing about the internet: it's a deceptively unequal place.

    Recent studies have shown that demographics play a crucial role in social media. Ninety per cent of Pinterest users are reportedly women, and it's the fastest growing social media site around. Similarly, Tumblr has become a space that's being driven by the tastes and conversations of a growing base of users of colour, particularly those who are Asian American. In an influential paper from 2009, cultural critic Danah Boyd argued that Facebook was only able to mark its place as social media king after white users fled MySpace - because the once-popular site and its legions of black users were viewed as the internet's equivalent of an inhospitable "ghetto".

    Race matters, even in our online worlds. The websites we visit, and even the ways in which we visit them, are coloured by racial inequality driven by the whims and policies of a handful of very wealthy companies. And it's inevitably shaping how we interact with the most powerful communications platform the world's ever known.

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    First, the facts. The internet is no longer solely the domain of privileged hobbyists and desktop consumers. It is an engine unto itself, a vehicle that helps power society's most basic institutions. As the economy limps towards recovery and millions of people search for work, some of the country's largest employers - including Target, Home Depot, and Walmart - require prospective workers to fill out applications online.

    While US colleges and universities struggle to balance historic budget cuts with soaring student enrollment, online courses are being widely touted as the lecture halls of the future. Recently, University of Virginia President Teresa A Sullivan was ousted, and then reinstated, after disagreement with the school's board of trustees over how to oversee escalating financial pressures facing the college. One prominent issue in the saga was the president's supposed unwillingness to shift resources from traditional liberal arts programs to education in business and technology, including the expansion of online curricula.

    Online citizenship

    Access to the internet has also become the prerequisite for participating in civic and political life - at least in the US. Barack Obama made history in 2008 with his campaign's unprecedented use of social media to engage voters, particularly younger ones who had previously felt alienated from the political process. A recent study [PDF] on new media and youth political action by researchers at the University of Chicago suggested that young voters of colour are using mobile phones, gaming devices, and e-readers to engage more deeply at at the political level.

    Partisan politics aside, the internet has proven to be a valuable tool to help marginalised communities in their fight for justice across the US, and the world. Recently, black activists used social media to help organise their fight to win accountability in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, an African-American teenager who was gunned down by a neighbourhood watchman in a gated Florida community. And in 2011, the internet played a crucial role in helping activists across north Africa and the Middle East spread the message about the Arab Spring.

    Yet not everyone has equal access to the internet.

    Only 60 per cent of US households use broadband internet, according to a survey released last year by the department of commerce. The reasons often vary, but in many instances the services are either too costly or unavailable in certain communities, often those where people of colour are in the majority.

    Mobile growth

    For many users, the solution to this problem has been to rely more heavily on smartphones. In fact, black and Latino people are the fastest adopters of smartphones in the country. A 2010 study by the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project found that black, Latino, and low-income users were more likely to go online using smartphones than desktop or laptop computers. Nearly 20 per cent of African-American smartphone subscribers use only their phones to go online, along with 16 per cent of Latinos. The same is true of only ten per cent of white mobile phone subscribers.

    But those growing numbers of smartphone users aren't exactly getting what they're paying for. Instead, they're largely at the whim of private corporations who set the rules in one of the least competitive industries in the US.

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    At best, there are only a handful of companies that control the country's broadband infrastructure, and they're often the same companies that run the country's telecommunications market. Last year, AT&T and T-Mobile narrowly missed the opportunity to merge and form a mammoth company that would have seen two entities - Verizon and AT&T - control 80 per cent of the wireless market.

    And these companies have poured millions of dollars into the country's political system. Since 1989, AT&T has donated $47m to both Republicans and Democrats, according to data compiled by the watchdog OpenSecrets.org. Verizon and TimeWarner, two of New York City's biggest internet service providers, have each reportedly donated $20m during that same amount of time.

    The widening divide

    There's money and political power at stake. As the internet has grown and matured, advocates have rightly been concerned that the gap between the web’s "haves and have nots" - known as the digital divide - would grow. Those concerns led to a contentious debate between US lawmakers, wireless companies, and activists over a proposal to set rules that maintain the internet's openness by preventing companies from blocking access to certain websites, or charging customers different rates for faster service.

    The issues weren't borne out of paranoia. In 2007, Verizon blocked text messages sent by NARAL Pro-Choice America to its supporters. The company did so after arguing that it had the right to block messages that it deemed were "controversial or unsavoury".

    In December of 2010, federal regulators did adopt rules for fair play - for wired broadband. But the effort fell disastrously short on mobile broadband, which is a primary driver of access for black and Latino users. The handful of companies that run the US telecommunications market are by and large free to do as they please. That often means higher prices and fewer choices for consumers.

    Even more worrisome, it also means that a few companies can act as gatekeepers, determining how and when the neediest citizen-consumers interact in a civic and economic life that has become increasingly mobile.

    The internet is a phenomenally powerful tool. It's time that federal regulators stop treating the internet as a luxury and begin viewing it as a public utility, one that can no longer be subject to the control of a few powerful companies. Broadband access has allowed communities that have long been on the media's fringes an opportunity to represent themselves and tell their own stories. It has allowed activists around the world to showcase their battles and gain unprecedented support. Yet its true power can only be unleashed once offered equitably to the communities who need it most.

    Jamilah King is news editor and media reporter at Colorlines.com, where she published the in-depth feature, "How Big Telecom Used Smartphones to Create a New Digital Divide."

    Follow her on Twitter: @jamilahking

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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