Net Election

Deriding the Divide 

Slate and the Industry Standard join forces to examine the effect of the Internet on Campaign 2000. 

Hand-wringing about the digital divide—the gap between Internet haves and have-nots—is about to intensify. In two weeks, the president will spend two days crisscrossing the country to promote technology access for underserved communities. The president will warn the nation that if the digital divide isn’t redressed, the technologically deficient will be doomed to poverty. Clinton and Al Gore propose some $2.35 billion in tax incentives and grants to ameliorate the problem. During the primaries, Bill Bradley went even further, arguing that the digital divide required the information technology equivalent of food stamps.

Yet a growing mound of evidence suggests that policies designed to wire impoverished areas are pushing against an open door. In 1998, when the Commerce Department’s digital divide study was issued, white households were more than twice as likely as African-American households to have Internet access at home. But Forrester Research projects that by the end of this year, 44 percent of white households and 40 percent of black households will be online. A hearing held yesterday by the House of Representatives’ Small Business Empowerment Subcommittee made an even stronger anecdotal case that the digitally deprived won’t require a new Rural Electrification Project to enter the Internet age.

In a staid meeting room, the gray-suited, permanently perplexed-looking chairman, Joseph Pitts, R-Pa., greeted his panel of experts on “Bridging the Technological Gap.” Cheerleading for private initiatives to expand high-tech access was the order of the day. Pitts and ranking Democrat Juanita Millender-McDonald of California spent most of their allotted question time sucking up to the assembled Internet gurus, who seemed for their part more interested in networking with each other than in making friends with members of Congress.

The first member of the panel to testify was Leslie Steen, the president of the Community Preservation and Development Corp., a public-private partnership that claims to have rescued residents of a District of Columbia housing project from informational oblivion. With seed money from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, software from Microsoft, and volunteer tutors from Catholic University, Steen wired the Edgewater Terrace apartment complex and trained residents for high-paying, high-tech employment opportunities. She brought along three young African-American “graduates” of her program who have well-paid technology jobs. One was a former welfare recipient. Steen summed up her remarks with the stirring prediction, “In three years, the electronic village at Edgewood Terrace will be the click heard ‘round the world.”

Next to speak was Scott Mills, the Wharton-polished COO of Mills briskly informed the committee that his company planned on closing the racial gap in Internet access by offering a low-cost PC/Internet service bundle to African-Americans for $30 a month—less than the cost of basic cable. Mills seemed lost without the assistance of a PowerPoint overhead, but he managed to convey that to lure African-Americans online, BET has launched a black-oriented Web portal and deployed a $10 million targeted advertising campaign through outlets such as Essence magazine.

The most impressive witness of the afternoon was millionaire Internet messiah Darien Dash. Dash is the 28-year-old founder of the first publicly held African-American Internet firm, Digital Mafia Entertainment. Prior to entering the e-business, Dash launched the career of rap artist Jay-Z. DME recently formed a partnership with AOL to create an urban-oriented Internet portal. Unlike the witnesses who preceded him, Dash—outfitted in a three-piece navy suit and a French-cuffed shirt—eschewed written testimony so that he could speak to the representatives “from his heart.”

His message was inspiring: By launching their own sites, urban role models such as Puff Daddy and Jay-Z are convincing kids that technology is cool. Minority youth are beginning to see the high-tech biz as “the new hustle.” Dash dramatically concluded that now that musicians like Nas—the artist formerly known as Nasty—are rapping about IPOs and Bill Gates, inner-city kids will pursue high-tech dreams.

The last to testify, AOL’s perfectly coifed Chief Communications Officer Kathy Bushkin, told the three remaining committee members that she and Steve Case “believe we have a moral responsibility to make sure every person has the chance to succeed.” Bushkin boasted about AOL’s Power On program, which sponsors Internet workshops in 250 locations. She made these events sound so appealing that Millender-McDonald interrupted Bushkin to demand that AOL open a branch in her congressional district in South Central Los Angeles. At the conclusion of the hearing, audience members peppered the panel with star-struck questions and half-joking requests for stock options.

The empowerment subcommittee will eventually consider the White House’s $2 billion tax incentive package, designed to prompt companies to underwrite technology access, as well as a $380 million spending program intended to train teachers, sponsor community tech centers, and spur the wiring of underserved areas. The digital industry welcomes tax deductions and the like, of course. But the hearings left no one in much doubt. Impresarios such as Darien Dash will close the digital divide with or without a federal subsidy.