Clinton Launches Initiative To Bridge Digital Divide

U.S. President Bill Clinton announced Thursday that he will tour 12 U.S. cities that are falling behind in getting their residents connected to the Internet and e-commerce.

The so-called digital divide between those who have Internet access and those who cannot afford it has been a topic of discussion in the Clinton administration since July, when the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) issued its “Falling Through the Net: Defining the Digital Divide” report.

According to the NTIA’s report, African-American and Hispanic households are only two-fifths as likely to have Internet access as white households. Additionally, households with incomes of $75,000 (US$) and higher, in urban areas, are more than 20 times as likely to have access to the Internet as households with incomes of $15,000 or less, and are more than nine times as likely to have a computer at home.

At the time of the report, the Department of Commerce pledged to look for ways to narrow the gap while private sector companies such as AT&T chipped in with computers and learning centers to be administered by the National Urban League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Within minutes of Clinton’s speech, the DOC kicked off a summit meeting of public, private and non-profit groups to discuss further ways to bring national attention and investment to the problem.

The summit participants, consisting of government and industry representatives, civil rights groups, and community leaders, examined some of those existing public and private initiatives, particularly looking for ways to expand on and coordinate those efforts. Sessions throughout the day focused on how to lower barriers to access by developing new products, how to market to and develop content for under-served populations, telecommunications training and education, and the unique factors facing rural communities.

Daley Tour 2000

Commerce Secretary William M. Daley will make a barnstorming tour of 12 cities over the next 12 months to raise awareness for the Internet access problem and the Clinton administration’s initiatives to remedy the problem.

“Our nation’s most important resource is its people,” Daley said. “In a society that increasingly depends on computers and the Internet to deliver information and enhance communication, we need to make sure that all Americans have access.”

Daley also urged the private sector to continue to lead the way in expanding access to the Internet. “The CEOs here today are hard-nosed people, looking to increase their markets, looking for well-trained future workers, looking for an edge,” Daley said at the summit. “But they also understand, as [former Secretary of Commerce] Ron Brown liked to say, companies can do well by doing good. That is what this effort is all about.”

Internet President?

Closing the digital divide has been a key point of the entire Clinton administration, with the president wanting desperately to leave a legacy of technological and social advancement in his final year in office. Whether he will accomplish all he is setting out to do remains to be seen, particularly with one-third of the Congress running for re-election next year and the Republicans among them looking to deal Clinton as many political defeats as they can manage.

“Competition and advances in technology are driving down the cost of computers and Internet access, which will make these new Information Age tools affordable for more Americans. I believe that we should set a national goal of making computers and Internet access available for every American,” Clinton said Thursday in a memo to the heads of executive departments and agencies. “Furthermore, we should explore ways of using technology to expand the economic opportunities for those Americans who have not yet enjoyed the benefits of our prosperity.”

The increased attention to the White House’s technology agenda may help Vice President Al Gore, who is facing a tight race for the 2000 Democratic presidential nomination and has taken credit for much of the administration’s work in this area. As has become customary, Clinton made a special effort to make Gore the focal point of the Administration’s new efforts in this arena.

“The Vice President shall continue his leadership in coordinating the United States government’s electronic commerce strategy,” Clinton said, directing the departments and agencies to report to Gore on their progress toward several goals the president set out for them.

Earlier this year, Gore invited widespread ridicule by boasting that he had, in effect, been responsible for the birth of the Internet while serving in the U.S. Senate.

Other Role Players

Clinton ordered the Commerce Department to work with the private sector and others to develop a national strategy for increasing computer and Internet access in needy areas. The departments of Education, Housing and Urban Development, Health and Human Services, and Labor, meanwhile, were ordered to work with the Commerce Department to expand the nation’s network of Community Technology Centers and encourage the development of information technology applications to help low-income citizens start and manage their own companies.

Education, Labor and Commerce were ordered to work with the private sector to improve the information technology skills of workers living in disadvantaged urban and rural communities, while Commerce, Education, and Housing and Urban Development were instructed to share the lessons learned from current grant programs and educational technology initiatives.

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