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Former Commerce official blasts notion that digital divide is gone

Christy Mumford Jerding
The Freedom Forum Online

03.17.00

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Larry Irving...
Larry Irving

ARLINGTON, Va. — The notion that minorities have the same access to the Internet as whites is 'the most insane thing I've ever heard in my life,' said Larry Irving, a Web entrepreneur and former assistant secretary for the Commerce Department, at the National Freedom of Information Day Conference yesterday.

Irving, who received the American Library Association's Madison Award for his work toward increasing minority access to the Net, said that some technology watchers were denying 'a self-evident truth' — that in many minority communities, 'the Internet isn't even a rumor.'

'Who are these people? Where do they live? I can take you to a neighborhood 15 minutes away where kids don't have access' to the Web, Irving said. For example, 'last year I went back to my old high school in Queens, New York, and they had no computers.'

In the Clinton administration, Irving worked to promote policies and develop programs to ensure access to technology. He also developed a survey to track telecommunication and information technology access across racial, economic and geographic lines. Now he's the president of UrbanMagic.com, an Internet portal for African-Americans that is scheduled to be launched later this year. Former professional basketball player Magic Johnson is a partner.

Irving said that he and Johnson wanted to 'get to people who don't think the Net is for them.' One way is to promote free and convenient Internet access in libraries, he said. As a child, Irving said he found his way to a bright future through his local library.

'Libraries made a huge difference in my life. I was working class. [My family] didn't have a lot of money, but there was a huge focus on education — an idea that we were supposed to do better than our parents.' Irving eventually went on to Northwestern and Stanford universities. 'If it were not for public institutions, I would not have been able to do that.

'It was sitting in a library in Queens ... reading a book, that made me realize there was something more that I could do.'

When he went to Commerce, Irving met with others who were interested in increasing public institutions' technological capacity. After years of work in the public and private sectors, 'now millions of people have access to the information economy that they didn't have before. Seven years ago, you couldn't go to [a public library] and see ... every ethnicity searching the Web.'

But despite such progress, Irving said there remains a disparity between the technological haves and have-nots. For example, he said, whites are more likely to have Internet access at home than minorities are anywhere, including libraries. He also pointed out that poor whites — as well blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans — still don't have access to the tools of the digital age.

'Why does the digital divide have to be a black-white issue? I work for all the people,' Irving said.

Having to debate whether or not the digital divide exists takes time away from solving the problem, Irving said. 'We need to spend as much time curing the disease as we did diagnosing the disease."

'I'm passionate about this because I know in my soul ... that there's some kid sitting at a desk in a library and learning the world is bigger. ... Imagine how much more powerful an impact the Internet can make for that kid.'

He also criticized some researchers — particularly Ekaterina Walsh of Forrester Research — who have said that the digital divide is gone. He called Walsh the 'Jeane Dixon of the digital divide.'

'This year Walsh has a new thing — Hispanics have access outside the home. ... But this is not equality of access. It just doesn't wash, it doesn't fly — it's offensive to anyone who cares about a democratic society. These are the things that keep me up at night."

Walsh, who did not attend the conference, later told The Freedom Forum Online:

"I've never, ever said that the digital divide was gone. It depends on how you define the digital divide.

"There is a digital divide," she said, "but it's not because of race — it's because of differences in income and education levels."

Walsh, an analyst at Forrester, added, "We are not taking any political stance. These definitions (of the digital divide) come from political agendas" of those involved in various arenas of electronic communications access.

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