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The Moral Imperative of Digital Inclusion

Bowling Green, Kentucky (January 18, 2024) - In 2021, as part of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), U.S. Congress passed the Digital Equity Act (DEA), which provided $2.75 billion in funding for digital equity projects through the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) through state programs and competitive grants.

What is digital equity? The IIJA defines it as:

“The condition in which individuals and communities have the information technology capacity that is needed for full participation in the society and economy of the United States.”

That sounds reasonable, if a little vague. True digital equity must also be inclusive of infrastructure, since one reason you might not be able to fully participate is if no one offers decent internet service to your home. But it goes beyond technology to include affordability and digital skills. You’re still digitally disadvantaged if you can’t afford the internet service that’s available, lack devices, or don’t know how to use them.

You might be thinking, society is full of inequities, and we don’t all treat them as the government’s concern. Some people enjoy more roller coasters, more steak dinners, more beach vacations, more roses in the garden than others. Those things, too, depend on incomes, skills, where they live, and lifestyle choices, and the government doesn’t concern itself too much.

So why is the internet different? Why do we need new terms like “digital equity” and “digital inclusion,” and to define “digital disadvantage” as a new form of privation that society urgently needs to remedy?

To be sure, not being online is a legitimate lifestyle choice. It’s possible to flourish without an email address, and without looking at a webpage. But very few people today would choose to be totally offline, and many would hardly know how to survive.

Realistically, the time has come when digital participation has to be recognized as part of the social contract.

Individual rights, the social contract, and the internet

The concept of a social contract has been articulated by many thinkers, in different ways, down through the generations, and it seems to be embedded in the popular consciousness.

The most famous statement is in the Declaration of Independence, which proclaims that all people are “endowed … with certain inalienable rights … [including] life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and that “to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men.”

The American tradition has generally emphasized the protection of “negative” rights, such as the right not to be prevented from speaking your mind or practicing your religion, from using your labor or developing your property. But sometimes “positive” right — rights that must be met with positive government action — are needed to make life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness possible. Government needs to secure the right to education by running, or at least funding, schools. Government also needs to secure the right to basic mobility by maintaining public roads.

In exchange for government benefits like these, people pay various taxes, and most generally play by the rules and obey the law, holding up their end of the bargain. In one sense, the social contract is a fiction. I never signed one, did you? But people’s belief that they ought to obey the laws and pay their taxes should be, and usually is, reinforced by their gratitude to the government for the benefits that it provides, which enable that degree of human flourishing that we call normal life.

It’s imperfect. Surely no society has ever really made it so that no one at all fell through the cracks. But earnest effort and substantial success at securing decent conditions undergird the legitimacy of the policy, the social order, and the demands it has to make on the citizenry to conform and contribute.

The concrete character of the social contract varies a lot over time with the state of the economy, technology, and culture. In the late 20th century, public schools, piped water, sewers, electricity, telephones, paved roads for automobiles, welfare programs for hard times, national parks, a stable currency, and a reasonably job-rich labor market were the major means by which the government — through direct provision, regulation or arm’s-length management of market outcomes depending on the case — shored up the social contract and brought the normal conditions of life within everyone’s reach. And all of that is largely still needed, and still in place, today.

It follows that the practical concept of rights must evolve somewhat with the state of society, the economy, and technology. What sufficed for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness a century or two ago might not suffice today. Examples are legion, but internet connectivity is a particular case in point.

In fact, the rise of the internet has added a new dimension to what normal life comprises. Not too long ago, Facebook, Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Netflix, Instagram, Wikipedia, email, web search, online banking, and the rest of it didn’t exist. People got by somehow without them. But now they’re so ubiquitous, normal, and useful that to lack them is a serious privation and hardly conceivable to younger generations. The more the uses of the internet multiply and pervade everyday life, the more those who still lack it find themselves relatively, or absolutely, impoverished.

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The day-to-day meaning of digital inclusion and digital privation

Want to watch a movie? You can’t go to Blockbuster anymore. If you can’t get Netflix, Hulu, Prime Video, or YouTube, you may be out of luck.

Want to read the news? In much of America, there are no paper-delivery newspapers left. It might still anachronistically be called “the paper,” but there’s no physical paper involve. Online is the place to find out what’s going on.

Do you want to keep in touch with friends? To find a business? To sell something? To pursue your education? To open a bank account? To apply for a job? To pay a utility bill? To pay your taxes? Increasingly, the normal way of doing all of these things is online, or at least involves online activity. Offline workarounds are difficult or disappearing.

Most people have adapted. They write emails and post on Facebook, sell things on Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace, and use Google to look up businesses they need to connect with, to apply for jobs, to look for ways to continue their formal education, or just to carry on an informal self-education by satisfying passing fits of curiosity with impromptu online research.

They have online bank accounts and may never visit a traditional brick-and-mortar bank branch. They jump online to do their taxes every year, to pay the electric bill, to shop for Christmas presents and specialty groceries. They look up the weather forecast or the sports scores, and they have a handful of websites they track to keep up with local, national and world news. They go online to help decide who to vote for, and to find out where to vote. In hard times, they apply for government benefits online. That’s “digital inclusion,” if you want to call it that, but for most of us, it’s just normal life in the 21st century.

It’s important to remember that these “normal” things are hard for some people. Part of the problem is that we don’t really know how many are affected, and in what ways. Even a crude metric like how many people have an email address (probably over 90%) is hard to ascertain, but digital inclusion is a lot more complex than that.

Again, digital nonparticipation could be a legitimate lifestyle choice, and nonparticipation in any of the many internet functions might also represent choice rather than privation. Not everyone has to be on Facebook, watch Netflix, or read online news. But it seems clear that digital nonparticipation is often not so much a choice but a problem that limits practical liberty and pursuit of happiness.

Some people want devices and can’t afford them. Others know that they’re being left out of something but don’t know where to start, and meanwhile, time and opportunities are being wasted, and life is slipping by.

Now, technological change is mostly a good thing. For most of us, to varying degrees, the internet revolution has been enlightening, empowering, and liberating. It opens up so many new possibilities to learn, create, connect, explore, have fun, and flourish. And it’s so convenient, too. But for some – probably for many millions of Americans but again, the data is very inadequate – the internet has disrupted old ways and done damage, while its benefits remain out of reach. Some people alive today might be better off if the internet had never been invented.

To be sure, a certain stoical acceptance that capitalism is a wild ride and change has winners and losers is the price of freedom. Still, there comes a point where digital disadvantage becomes a breach of the social contract. Most of us have pulled off a DIY makeover of our habits and skillsets to fit in with the 21st century, but not everyone has the means or aptitude for that.

For those left behind, society is failing to provide the tools necessary to meet basic needs by not helping those at a disadvantage to adapt to technological change. The very legitimacy of society’s demands on people to play by the rules and obey the laws may be jeopardized.

How widespread is this problem, really? The short answer is, we don’t know. We need better data. Part of the problem is that we don’t know the extent of the problem.

The DEA has its work cut out for it.

Bureaucracy vs. creativity

The DEA has three appropriations: $60 million for digital equity planning; $1.44 billion for the State Digital Equity Capacity Grant (SDECG) by which states can fund digital equity activities; and $1.25 billion for a nationwide competitive grant program. The first fruits of the planning funding may now be seen, since most states have now completed digital equity plans, to which the NTIA provides links. States’ digital equity planning efforts have been somewhat hampered, however, by the fact that the Notice of Funding Opportunity (NOFO) for the SDECG has not yet been published.

The NTIA probably has good reasons for taking its time. First the NTIA, and then the states, will have some delicate navigation to do. The awkward reality is that DEA funds are insufficient to fund universal programs. At best, they can fund good pilot projects.

But pilot projects don’t achieve much unless they find sustainable revenue and scale up. The impact comes through ideation, through innovating and demonstrating and establishing examples worthy of emulation. But it’s hard to measure such impacts, even in retrospect, with all the benefits of hindsight. It’s much harder to define the metrics in advance.

For the DEA to succeed, administrators will need to act with intelligence, creativity, and visionary public-spiritedness, and civil society will need to be audacious and imaginative, as well as compassionate and hopeful.

Administrators must remember that one person’s “accountability” or “stakeholder engagement” is another person’s “red tape,” and stay nimble and entrepreneurial. Data collection could be a victory in itself, but it should never stray too far from intuition and persuasion. Data that can’t be translated into convincing narratives probably isn’t worth much.

Some states don’t like the word “equity” and are calling it “digital opportunity” (Texas) or “digital adoption and use” (Florida). In this case, the politicized semantics are rather fortunate, because they help to express what this emerging effort is all about.

Digital equity is about promoting digital adoption and use, digital opportunity, digital empowerment, digital flourishing, or better yet, human flourishing in a digital age. More than that, it’s about learning how to promote these things, and thereby to repair a social contract that has been strained by the internet age of creative destruction.

Digital equity is a generational, society-wide challenge. Even in the best case, the DEA will only raise awareness and seed some good ideas. And realistically, the state broadband offices that will run most of the new state digital equity programs will — and to play to their own strengths they probably should — focus on the more infrastructure-adjacent aspects of digital equity, boosting subscription rates, keeping service affordable, distributing devices and the like, and focusing less on the subtler issues of digital skills and online conduct.

Such activities might help the network deployments funded by the BEAD program succeed commercially, while helping some people adapt to the 21st century, but they will fall far short of exhausting the digital equity mission.

Let’s keep our eyes on the larger prize: an America where everyone is equipped with the connections, devices, digital skills, and online habits they need for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

About the Author: Dr. Nathan Smith is the Connected Nation Broadband Policy Specialist. Dr. Smith monitors federal broadband policy, writes public comments for federal agencies that request advice on broadband policy implementation, and helps with business development and proposals.

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