A Starker Truth: America’s Digital Divide in the Times of Pandemic (April)

In April 2020, the Rights Writers were asked what perspectives have been left out of the major debates on their topic, and how would including them increase understanding or contribute to progress on this issue.

As I sit here in quarantine, I am taking a moment to reflect on the past semester of research and the gravity of my topic in the context of the current state of society. Each of my blog posts have explored the shifting and expanding conservation surrounding the risks to human rights associated with Big Tech. After a semester’s worth of research, I am taken aback by the industry’s undeniable power over global markets and governments and its ability to deepen inequalities across economies and social systems.

Sign that says "Sorry, no internet today"
“No Internet”, shot by Marcelo Graciolli. Source: Flickr

But COVID-19 has brought an entirely new perspective to this conversation. In poor, rural communities across the globe, individuals wake up each day, unable to report to remote work or online school. What they lack is one critical asset in this pandemic: access to the internet.

In the United States, 10% of the total population still do not have access to the internet, with over 31% of rural residents and 44% of adults in households making under $30,000 lacking broadband access. Research from the Organization for Public Knowledge in America reveals that the digital divide disproportionately impacts people of color. For while black Americans account for 15% of rural populations, they make up over 27% of the rural population without access to the internet. So, within a debate that historically has centered around the risks associated with the use and involvement of these technologies in society, the novel coronavirus has created a feedback loop of deepening inequality and human rights threats associated with exclusion from these technologies.

Whether connecting with loved ones, applying for government programs, or accessing employment and educational opportunities, households that lack access to these digital services are put in a severely disadvantageous position where they must make incredibly high-stakes decisions. For those working in the non-essential service industry, remote work isn’t an option as their businesses do not have the infrastructural means to shift online. For the individuals whose work has made the shift, the ability to work remotely is almost impossible without the internet, with feasibility decreasing the more remote and rural of an area you live in. While these barriers aren’t new, in the era of COVID-19 we see how these communities’ right to work is being compromised like never before.

It’s equally important to consider the increased risk of contraction and infection among this demographic. Studies show that low-income, rural populations that are disconnected from the internet are among the most likely to visit clinics in person and increase the risk of virus spread because of their inability to visit online clinics. With the number of individuals within this demographic losing their jobs – and therefore health insurance – due to their inability to connect, we can only expect this likelihood to grow if no action is taken. Worse yet, this demographic represents a large portion of the essential work force, meaning many of these individuals face a disproportionately high risk of contracting COVID-19 in the workspace and bringing it home to their families and communities. Rapidly, the pandemic is illustrating both the vulnerability and necessity of low-wage workers, and how the internet not only becomes a question of economic and educational opportunity, but also survival.

Snaps for work from Hoover High School as they distribute laptops to students to prepare for school going online for the rest of the year due to COVID-19. Des Moines Public Schools distributed 4,092 to high school students.
“Four Thousand and Ninety-Two,” shot by Phil Roeder, no edits made. Snaps for work from Hoover High School as they distribute laptops to students to prepare for school going online for the rest of the year due to COVID-19. Des Moines Public Schools distributed 4,092 to high school students. Source: Flickr

I consider my own privilege as I watch my Wi-Fi router blink steadily, reflecting on my ability to continue my academic pursuits because of my connectedness and the online resources provided by an institution such as Duke University and the Kenan Institute for Ethics. Because as we have seen with those no longer able to work, limited access to the internet during COVID-19 has proven destructive to children’s ability to participate in education. As of 2015, a Pew Research study revealed that school-age children are most affected by the lack of in-home internet access, with over 35% of these households without broadband service. In this time of emergency, schools must move faster than ever to substitute in-school resources with online instruction, electronic libraries, streaming videos, and other online tutorials. Many are quickly realizing that they can’t provide the same online education experience to every student when children cannot employ the imperfect solutions they have relied on until now, such as using the Wi-Fi in parking lots of fast-food restaurants, to finish homework, due to the mandated shelter-in-place orders. The technological compromise of one’s right to education brought upon many by distance learning has starkly exposed the continued disparities in the American educational system.

Between the right to work and the right to education, policy makers are being asked to look critically at the importance of expanding broadband access in the fight to reduce nation-wide disproportionality along racial, socioeconomic, and geographic lines. Human rights activists must consider how governments in other nations may use access to the internet as a mechanism to control populations and restrict liberties and freedoms. Furthermore, as more people begin to onboard online, we must question how these previously disconnected communities might find themselves at a greater risk of the data privacy and artificial intelligence biases.

Ultimately, there is still so much uncertainty with regards to COVID-19, just as there is surrounding the growth of the internet and Big Tech. Just in the past 5 months of blogging, we saw American politicians take the stand in presidential debates, proclaiming the need to regulate and provide increased oversight of tech giants in the name of protecting democracy. We also explored how well-researched reporting on data privacy and artificial intelligence – the industry’s two most contested fields – could be used to close the threatening information gap between those developing the technology and the consumers who use and are affected by it. We looked at large-scale corporate scandals that taught the importance of considering the well-being of vulnerable communities, such as developing or war-torn countries, in technology business models. Now, we are seeing how a global emergency can simultaneously bring to light some of the most insidious and damaging systemic inequalities and inspire an increased collective sense to care for one another through the lens of the internet and Big Tech.

So as COVID-19 continues to spotlight systematic inequalities in new ways, I am curious to see how societies will respond. Does this increased exposure reveal a promising opportunity for governments and corporations to take action, or is it more fitting to forecast that the government will display amnesia to these human rights issues in the eventual return to normalcy?

For now, no one can know. In the meantime, I will continue to sit here, questioning our institutions and counting my blessings.

All posts by