Pew has some useful data on trends in US Internet and technology use. As of the middle of last year, significant age, class and education gaps persisted in Internet use. By far the largest of these gaps were generational and education related. While 94% of 18-29 year olds accessed the Intenet, only 41% of over 65 year olds did. Similarly, almost all college graduates (94%) accessed the Internet while only 43% without a high school diploma did the same.
But notably absent is a pronounced gap in Internet access by race and ethnicity. While some differences in Internet access exist, they are small in comparison to age, class and education gaps. This is particularly true when you look at cell phone adoption rates. By the end of 2011, 87% of Americans surveyed by Pew had a cell phone.
Jamilah King has an outstanding piece up on Colorlines that highlights a less talked about digital divide:
Nearly a fifth—18 percent—of African American wireless subscribers use only their cell phones to get online, as do 16 percent of Latinos. Just 10 percent of whites say the same. While 33 percent of white subscribers use their cell phones to surf the Internet, 51 percent of Latinos and 46 percent of African Americans do.
In fact, Blacks and Latinos on average use their phones for a much broader set of tasks than Whites.
King notes that the increased use of smart phones to access the Internet on the part of Black and Latino users is largely about affordability. But while a smartphone is cheaper than a computer, King notes that wireless providers are much less regulated than their broadband counterparts to whom strict net neutrality rules apply. While broadband carriers are limited in their ability to restrict content, wireless providers can more easily block content. As an example:
Verizon customers, for instance, learned the hard way in 2007 that they’re not in control of the content on their cell phones. NARAL Pro-Choice America, like many political candidates and advocacy groups, decided that year that text messaging was an effective tool to communicate with people who care about abortion rights. But Verizon disagreed—and decided its users wouldn’t receive NARAL’s texts. The company said that it had the right to block what it deemed “controversial or unsavory” messages.
“Our internal policy is in fact neutral on the position,” Verizon spokesperson Jeffrey Nelson told The New York Times, in a rather confusing bit of Big Brother speak. “It is the topic itself [abortion] that has been on our list.”
This reality begs Douglass Rushkoff’s question — “do we want a real Internet”? and its analogue question “do we want a real democracy”? The answer may ultimately be no, we’re cool. But for the most marginalized in society, a controlled Internet can help cultivate voice and forge connections to challenge authority and centralized control. But if the less well off are restricted in what they can access, then their democratic power is reduced.