- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 2, 2002

A digital divide separating the computer and Internet haves from the have-nots turns out to be more of a gully or small ditch than a Grand Canyon. The political dividers will have to find another gap to exploit.
Survey and related data culled by the Pew Research Center, a team from UCLA and the Commerce Department belies the notion that computers and the Internet have been disproportionately advantageous to a relatively small elite comprised mostly of affluent white Americans with college educations, who live in and around major metropolitan areas. Al Gore and his vice presidential running mate, Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, did their best to make political hay of this issue during the last presidential election and likely will try again come 2004. Other Democrats, including Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski, continue to issue demands for federal aid and intervention, including funding for the Commerce Department's Technology Opportunity Program, which, along with other federal electronic-age boondoggles, would fritter away more than $110 million annually. Last month, Miss Mikulski, along with the AFL-CIO and the National Education Association, joined up to push for fistfuls of federal funding to erase the divide, even though it appears to be disappearing all by itself.
For example, the Pew study found that although just 23 percent of black Americans had Internet access back in 1998 (compared to 42 percent of whites), by 2000, that had grown to 36 percent. If that trend has continued through to 2002, as it very likely has, the divide between black and white Internet access is today close to negligible.
The UCLA study, meanwhile, found that more and more people are using the Internet, irrespective of educational attainment. While 80 percent of those with some college education surf the Internet, the UCLA study also found that fully 65 percent of those who did not finish high school use the Internet too up 5 percent from 2000 to 2001 alone. And the Commerce Department found that claims about rural people being left behind in the Information Age cannot be supported; while 54 percent of the total population has Internet access, in rural areas, fully 53 percent also have access to the Internet. If the information is accurate and the Commerce Department says the margin of error is plus or minus .06 percent then there's no need, let alone justification, for a massive federal assistance program to bring the Internet to supposedly benighted rural America.
Just as televisions were, at first, toys of the affluent, so also are computers and the Internet becoming commonplace. It did not require federal intervention to secure the blessings of television, VCRs or air conditioning for the American people and the good offices of Al Gore, Mr. Lieberman, Miss Mikulski and Co. aren't needed to bridge the digital divide, either. The low search for the next great divide will have to continue.


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