Last week, an insurance bill in the California State Assembly was pulled from further consideration once opposition mounted against a clause that would have mandated paperless insurance notices and statements. Both the California Department of Insurance and the Consumers for Paper Options opposed the bill, primarily because it did not include any provisions and protections for those who wanted or needed to continue receiving paper-based information.
At the same time, community leaders in Kansas City, Mo. were busy with a new sign-up push. No, not for voters and the upcoming elections. But to receive high-speed Internet access for communities offered by Google, called Google Fiber. According to the New York Times, most of the area’s affluent, mostly white neighborhoods were able to meet Google’s deadline of Sunday night to sign up enough of their residents, and pay a $10 deposit, to secure the service. Unfortunately, many of the poorer neighborhoods were still lagging far behind.
“This is just one more example of people that are lower income, sometimes not higher educated people, being left behind,” said Margaret May, the executive director of the neighborhood council in Ivanhoe, where the poverty rate was more than 46 percent in 2009, as reported by the New York Times.
More and more, in the rush to make all things digital and paperless, it is obvious that too many people are being left out in the cold. Although some policies are being rethought, albeit at the last moment, there are a vast number of other efforts that will soon create an insurmountable digital divide between those who have Internet access and those who still depend on paper.
“This California bill is a prime example of the short-sighted policies that save corporate dollars, but disenfranchise millions of consumers who prefer paper-based information, don’t have Internet access or are unable to use a computer,” said John Runyan, executive director of Consumers for Paper Options.
The real danger here is both social and economic. According to a 2011 study by the US Department of Commerce, only 40% of low-income households have wired Internet access at home. Regardless of income, 72% of white homes have wired Internet access, compared to slightly more than 50% of all African-American and Hispanic homes. And the US federal government is eradicating paper options for social security checks and statements, and tax forms, potentially affecting those who depend on paper the most.
Most surprising is that the insurance bill, SB 1212, was sponsored by California Senator Ron Calderon, who represents District 30. According to the senator’s own website, his district around the greater Los Angeles area is 80% Hispanic or Latino. Nearly 20% of his district falls below the poverty level for a family of four. Of the people who should be watching out for those who depend on paper-based information, Senator Calderon should be voting against bills such as these, not introducing them.
The problem of a yawning digital divide is not limited to the United States. At the end of 2011, merely 33 – 35% of the world’s population uses the Internet. Although usage rates are still growing, there’s no expectation that everyone will have digital access anytime soon. Ironically, the problem will not get easier. The faster digital society grows, the more communities and areas are at risk for being left behind.
In an interview published over the weekend in The Financial Times, Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web, said this was one of his concerns, “The [World Wide Web] Consortium and the industry and all the geeks in town are pushing [the web] up every moment to great heights, which then obviously leaves a widening gulf with the people who don’t have it.” To be sure, there are a number of notable and responsible efforts to secure worldwide access to the Internet, including Berners-Lee’s own Consortium. And to Google’s credit, the company did work with community activists to register lower-income and minority neighborhoods before the deadline to receive the high-speed Internet service.
Unfortunately, Google still said someone had to foot the bill for the construction of the fiber lines and the monthly service. If Google was serious about delivering quality Internet access to these neighborhoods, rich and poor alike, why not pay the costs themselves? As an Internet service provider, it’s highly likely those who could afford it would turn into future customers. And for those who could not, Google would be providing a valuable community service. As long as the Internet is a private, commercial domain, the need for paper options must exist for those who cannot afford to or simply do not want to participate in it.
Ken Norris is a US based contributing editor to PPI magazine and the RISI community website.