The Internet and Societal Inequity

From The Internet: Issues at the Frontier (course wiki)
Jump to navigation Jump to search

This page is an edited version of the session design we used in the Spring 2009 iteration of IIF. Below, we have made modifications and additions based on what we learned from the session. In addition, we suggest media and readings that might be used in future iterations. Finally, while keeping the record of the activity we used, we suggest an alternate that based on the other IIF sessions in Spring 2009 would seem to be more effective than our original plan. Graham and Mark

Topic Owners: Mark, Graham

back to syllabus

Schedule for this session

Introduction (approx. 45 min)

John Perry Barlow's 1996 "Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace" presents some people's dream for the Internet: the creation of libertarian utopia, devoid of regulation and open to free expression by all. "We will create a civilization of the Mind in Cyberspace," Barlow concludes. "May it be more humane and fair than the world your governments have made before."

By the time of this particular statement of cyberspace utopianism, however, a parallel concern was emerging; even if the online world was more humane and fair, a "digital divide" between those with access to such a space and those without was attracting attention. If being online was such a great thingfor freedom, for learning, or for getting aheadwhat would happen to people who were left out?

This early focus on the digital divide quickly matured into a more complicated literature. Instead of merely asking "who" was and wasn't using the Internet, the questions first shifted to focus on "how." Of course, not everyone who uses the Internet does so in the same way. Researchers began looking at different types of connections, and differences among people's usage patterns once they are connected. Massive efforts at data mining and interpretation led to an increasingly sophisticated understanding of these differential usages. One such example continues at the Berkman Center, mapping the complicated blogoshere of Iran.

Learning who is using the Internet and how they are using it only brings us to the more fundamental questions. How does this differential usage divide communities or bring people together? Whose "usage" constitutes reality on the Internet and whose "usage" is largely overlooked and relegated to the background? Even if users participate differently in a growing Internet culture, do all have equal access to semiotic self-representation and cultural contribution? What are the secondary costs of hiding these differentials on a playing field that openly purports to be level?

  • With the help of Eszter Hargittai, we examine the extent of our knowledge about the state of inequality among Internet users. What are the most illuminating findings from social scientists in this field? How has this area of research developed and what major questions remain to be asked?
  • Also with Eszter Hargittai, we review some of the frontiers of our knowledge. What questions are researchers not yet able to answer?

For future iterations

  • For future iterations: Bringing Prof. Hargittai helped us lay out some of the scope of Internet use that is relevant in evaluating issues in later sessions. Thus, we believe that keeping a session like this one near the beginning of any later iteration will help put in perspective the newest phenomena in online innovation and issues.
  • We believe including some more perspective on the ideas surrounding inequity and inequality itself may be helpful. Suggestions for topics of discussion include putting the international nature of the internet in dialogue with ideas such as those of Amartya Sen in "Equality of What." We feel that in our session and perhaps in the seminar in general we were not as successful as we would have hoped in incorporating the international nature of the Internet in our discussions. This is perhaps natural in a course attended largely by U.S. law students, but the discussion of equity and equality would benefit from an increased international focus.
  • One further issues that could be discussed include both the environmental impact of Internet and related technologies and how these concerns may be overlooked as they go unseen from the user of a computer and the impact is most strongly felt in less developed parts of the world. Unlike traditional industrial practices, where pollution is closely tied to production and visible to many end-users, the Internet appears to its users as costless and without a physical impact. Already some companies are changing their practices, especially those with major data centers such as Google. Certainly these issues, including a discussion of distributional impacts of climate change, will become a significant concern when discussing the future of the Internet.
  • Another significant issue that could receive more attention in future iterations of this section or perhaps included as its own discussion revolves around cyberharassment and the treatment of certain groups on the Internet. One reading was included in our iteration and more are included below. This is a growth area for cyberlaw scholars and new lawsuits continue to shape this area of law.

Understanding and Defining Inequality Online (15–20 min.)

In this section, we introduce our case studythe proposed funding to expand access to broadband connections in the rural United States. We use this proposal, discussed in the Pew reading, as a context in which to discuss our central question: Is the Internet a tool to reduce inequality, and if so, how?

At this point we ask members of the seminar to begin submitting comments and questions using the Berkman Question Tool[1]. Participants without laptops will experience a bit of a digital divide: they must either participate vocally or submit through a friend's terminal.

Before jumping fully into the discussion of broadband expansion, we'd like to use the group to examine ways in which the Internet may change the way we need to understand inequity. We will present some kinds of privilege and status differentials that exist in the context of the Internet, and compile a list of criteria fo shape the coming discussion.

  • Has the Internet changed the criteria by which we might define inequality? The proposed funding for broadband might suggest it does. What factors other than access are most relevant? Does a person's ability to control what a Google search for one's name calls up impact opportunities?

For future iterations: an alternate activity

This case study, that of the potential utility of U.S. government-funded efforts to increase broadband penetration in the rural United States, was an artifact of the timing of the individual session. The discussion of this particular effort, we believe, was not as illuminating as another potential activity design we encountered in other sessionsnamely, the partition of the seminar into teams who compete to create solutions to the problems of inequality.

Here, the seminar may focus both on U.S. issues and international issues through assigning groups different scopes of action. One group may be assigned to come up with solutions from the perspective of being a U.S. senator, another from a seat at the United Nations, and another from a well-funded NGO, etc. Instead of the Berkman Question Tool, we would ask the teams to add sub-pages to the wiki so that solutions could survive the day of class and remain visible as directions for potential future actionalbeit conceived quickly over the period of a seminar or the few days leading up to it.

We would also propose that the solutions be presented by the groups in elevator-pitch style and then face evaluation by classmates, professors, and guests, leading to a final discussion developing the strongest idea and exploring the challenges it implies.

Concluding Discussion/Case Study

This section remains as a record of the ideas behind the discussion we had. It may serve as a model for the types of questions one might consider when participating in a group effort to make a recommendation to the course. We found that it was difficult to get to these particular points of discussion, and view the group method as more likely to produce thoughtful discussion among members of the seminar, who will then offer better-formed ideas to the course. Those ideas, we believe, will be more fertile ground for discussion than our single case study. Finally, as noted above, we hope future iterations would consider incorporating international issues as core parts of the session, rather than as addendum.

  • Depending on what happens in conference between this writing and our meeting, the U.S. Congress either will or will not fund a large investment aimed at bringing broadband access to rural areas where it is currently unavailable. What are the pros and cons of this policy? What other means might we employ to expand opportunities?
    • Other questions we'll discuss through this section: Are there underlying biases built into legislation like this? Does such an act represent an implicit understanding of how the Internet is to be used? Whose views are reflected in such a vision? When providing expanded access in such a manner, what is it that we are giving people? What would a bill look like that understood differential usage? How active ought a technical elite be in "giving" the Internet to underdeveloped areas? Is it possible to give under-served people the tools to construct their own relationship with the Internet, or do all such efforts carry with them a reflection of the views of their creators? From one viewpoint, educating underrepresented groups resembles an imperialist attempt to impose the worldview of the powerful upon the experiences of the subordinated. From another perspective, this form of education is the only possible way to bridge preexisting divides and denying these groups access to fundamental infrastructure denies them equal opportunity to succeed in a modern networked society. Can these positions be reconciled?
    • Mark Lloyd of Center for American Progress advocating redundancy and wider access. [2]
    • S. Derek Turner, “Down Payment on Our Digital Future,” Free Press, December 2008, available online at: [3].
  • An addendum, if we have time: Our introduction will include data on global use, as it exists. If we turn to a global perspective, how can access to the Internet affect equality in diverse international settings? What policies would be effective when dealing with populations where, as is the global average, only one-fifth of people are online?


  • Eszter Hargittai A present Berkman fellow, has done empirical work on web use in a diverse socioeconomic sample among other things on the topic of social inequality and the internet.


For future iterations

Class Participation

We hope to involve the class during the presentation through the use of the Berkman Question Tool. This is an interactive mechanism by which we can receive feedback, address questions, change direction, and incorporate new ideas. Furthermore, by directing questioning away from traditional hand-raising and face-to-face communication, we hope to reflect some of the ideas we will be discussing. How will such a change alter traditional interactive dynamics between presenters and the audience? Will this empower those who otherwise would remain silent, or will it allow merely a few to continually raise their questions at the expense of others?

Those who do not bring computers to class or do not know how to use the tool will be unable to participate in this practice, a poignant reminder of unequal access concerns that animate much of this section.

Summary of Results

Following Eszter's presentation, we had a discussion about the optimal way for this administration to develop a broadband policy that was sensitive to the issues of access disparity that were discussed.

AK asked a question, referencing an experiment described in the book Irrational Exuberance. The book describes a series of tests administered with different pricing for two of chocolates. When one was offered for free, people flocked immediately to it, independent of the pricing of the other given pre-existing preferences. The proposal was that the Internet should just be made free and that only in doing so could it attract more people online.

Some discussion ensued, and the classic example of Malaria Bed nets was raised. Economists found that utilization of bednets to fight malaria actually increased when people were charged for their use, as opposed to being given them. The belief is that individuals who had to invest in the tool valued it more.

Professor Fisher raised another difficult question about a fear of path dependence. An analogy was made to the federal highway system. Once the infrastructure is in place, will we be locked-in to a system that will eventually be outdated? Is the future really in wired broadband? What about wireless?

Final thoughts

As noted in the notes above, the discussion in seminar covered some interesting ground, but we feel it lacked focus and failed to lead to the useful type of conclusions we hoped for in stimulating discussion of individual solutions. The issues raised by students, professors, and guests, were of great critical value, but will be used better in a case where groups of students are presenting individual ideas on behalf of the organizations they represent.

The core function of the changed structure is to take the introductory period as an opportunity to set out some of the terms of debate in Internet inequity and inequality. Hargittai's emphasis on the Web-use divide in addition to the familiar digital divide complicated the parameters of inequality. We hope future sessions can go one step further and introduce international issues. Then, teams will produce ideas through brainstorming exercises that will be evaluated by the class. The requirement to produce a wiki page for each idea makes it possible for people who are interested in these issues in the future to build on the preliminary ideas produced by the class. No sweeping, graceful solution is likely to emerge from a simple two-hour seminar, but seeds of transformative ideas may be planted.