Gore’s Nearsighted Internet Vision

Last year, U.S. Vice President Al Gore elicited peals of laughter when he took credit for inventing the Internet. But long after the laughter died down, Gore continued to express his strong belief in what the Internet can do for society.

So it was no surprise when the vice president used a campaign stop Monday to announce that — if elected president — he will do all he can to bring nearly every facet of the federal government online by 2003.

Gore said that he will lead a “second American Revolution” using the Internet to return the American government to its people. “The power of government should not be locked away in Washington, but put at your service — no further away than your keyboard,” he said.

Devil in the Details

Unlike many campaign pledges, Gore’s plan comes complete with details. The vice president said that he wants Americans to be able to check their Social Security benefits, apply for federal loans or even report crime tips online.

Gore even proposed a “g-bay” auction site that could do for government surplus property what eBay has done for collectibles. He said he will soon explain how digital certificate technology can be used to make the entire operation secure.

Now remember, Gore is campaigning for president and he made the speech in North Carolina — a high-tech hotbed. So that might account for some of his over-the-top rhetoric. But what I cannot explain is the vice president’s stunning omission: During his entire pitch, he never mentioned the need to close the digital divide.

Conspicuously Absent

Along with President Clinton, Gore has long been a crusader for closing the digital divide. How can he — in good faith — propose a $100 million (US$) plan to put more government services online, when he knows that huge segments of the U.S. population will not have access to those services?

It is not an easy question to answer — unless one takes a cynical approach and suggests that maybe Gore is trying to be all things to all voters.

Clearly, a huge government investment in Internet infrastructure, content and security software would help the high-tech economy. And having high visibility government agencies take up roosts on the Web would be a psychological boost for those who feel the Internet is not a safe place for their money.

Widening the Gap

But what does Gore’s plan accomplish in a larger sense? Would it truly help, to use his words, “an electorate that is too often alienated and often feels voiceless in a system corroded by special interests?”

It seems to me it would do just the opposite. By all accounts, the most disaffected members of the American public are those who would not be able to enter the newly opened government doors — those who lack access to the Internet.

Last Friday, a panel of leading academics and business executives tried to untangle the issues in the digital divide debate at a Harvard University conference on “The Internet and Society.” They did not get very far. In fact, they all but threw up their hands.

The conferees talked about the need to incubate urban and minority-owned businesses as a way of boosting access to and knowledge about technology, but few specific remedies rose from the discussions.

One panelist pointed out that no one knows what the unconnected population wants — that no one has asked them whether they would like to join the digital age.

But one thing is fairly certain: Everyone wants a chance to participate in the greatest economic movement in decades. On Monday, the U.S. Department of Commerce said that high-technology industries have helped fuel as much as one-third of the country’s unprecedented economic growth in recent years. Who would not want the opportunity to be a part of that trend?

Leaping with Blinders On

To his credit, Gore did say that he wants to see America put more money into technology spending, and presumably some of that would be set aside for improving Internet access in poor communities, both rural and urban. But Gore seems to have fallen into a well-worn trap when it comes to how people think about the Internet. Big ideas turn heads and make headlines.

Gore has a vision — one that is ambitious and realistic at the same time. The benefits for everyone in a truly wired country with a government capable of responding in digital time would be immeasurable.

But Gore — like others who dream big — needs to think about taking a few baby steps before he takes a running leap into wiring the entire government.

A true visionary would come up with a realistic, solid, detailed plan to bring everyone who wants to be online into the Internet community and then mobilize both the private and public sectors to make it happen.

A true visionary would put a time frame on making Internet access available to 95 percent of the population and then propose ways to pay for it — even if some of them require difficult sacrifices.

If Gore’s proposal is adopted before the obstacles to access are successfully cleared, then he will deserve credit not only for helping to create the Internet, but also for deepening the divide between those who can get there and those who cannot.

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