For many, it is hard to imagine life without the Internet, no access to online news sources, no contact on social media, no health information at the tip of one's fingertips. But millions of Americans (13% of adults) are still not online. And among those who are, there has been a decline in home broadband access over the past few years. This also means school children living in homes without Internet access left to fend for themselves when it comes to doing homework assignments increasingly requiring Web access.
On March 31st, the Federal Communications Commission will vote on new subsidies for low-income households to gain broadband access. While such subsidies are a necessary first step in making sure that all Americans can partake in online opportunities, it won't eliminate the digital divide.
My colleague Ashley Walker and I have found that people who are more concerned about privacy are less likely to be Internet users based on data from the FCC's 2009 national survey of Americans' Internet uses. While plenty of prior work has considered demographic and socioeconomic factors in who goes online, this important factor has not been included in existing studies of Internet diffusion. It turns out, perhaps not surprisingly, that those who are more concerned about their personal information being stolen online are significantly less like to be Internet users.
Why rely on data from 2009 in our analyses? Shockingly, in the past several years, no federal agency has collected data about Americans' Internet uses beyond basic access statistics focusing solely on connection speed and device type, making it difficult to advise policy decisions concerning Internet subsidies.
The FCC's upcoming vote about new subsidies for low-income households is an important reminder of why it is crucial to have timely relevant data to advise important policy questions. It is essential for policies to be grounded in empirical evidence. To facilitate this, the FCC should spend some of its resources collecting high-quality data about Americans' Internet uses regularly, data that go beyond basic access statistics. Without such data, it is hard to devise sound policies.
Gathering nationally-representative detailed data of Americans' attitudes about and experiences with the Internet is not cheap. But any related costs are a drop in the bucket compared to the $2 billion dollars on the table at the FCC's vote.
Privacy concerns limit people's willingness to go online even when we take into account other factors that may correlate with these attitudes such as education and age. This suggests that merely providing affordable infrastructure will not prompt everyone to cross the digital divide. Rather, technical subsidies must be accompanied by educational initiatives so that people understand what they are getting into and how they can protect their privacy when they bring the Internet into their homes. This issue is only going to be more pressing as we enter the era of the Internet of Things with an increase in physical objects in people's homes collecting and sharing data about their behavior.
As more and more studies of social behavior rely on data gathered about people's opinions expressed online like on social media, it is imperative that the online population resembles Americans at large. But that cannot happen without a more concerted effort to get diverse populations connected.
The evidence is clear, sociodemographic differences exist in basic access and connection quality to warrant subsidizing infrastructural expansion. But the digital divide is not all about technical access. People with concerns about their personal information are in need of more than broadband subsidies, they need skills to understand the risks of being online and how to protect their information.
Accordingly, while improving affordable high-speed network access is a necessary condition to leveling the playing field when it comes to people's Internet uses, it is not sufficient for making sure that people of all backgrounds and abilities embrace digital media in ways that will eliminate existing divides. Collecting survey data regularly about Americans' Internet uses and skills will provide necessary information for ensuring policy interventions that make a difference for the better.