Smartphone internet policy gap widens digital divide

Whenever we talk about online feminist activism, the digital divide is brought up. And understandably! If feminism moves online, anyone who is not in our spaces–anyone who may not have access to the internet–loses out.

Vanessa mentioned this in the What We Missed yesterday, but I think it deserves a more airtime, especially since our website, well you know, is all about online feminist activism.

It’s clear by now that the internet is fundamentally changing the world, and activism as well. But in the last five years, the issue of addressing the digital divide has seen promising shifts, primarily because of the advent of smartphones and their wide usage even among low-income communities and communities of color.

Cell phones reach across economic groups in a way that computers and internet access never has. From Jamilah King’s new report at Colorlines:

A remarkable share of that revenue is coming from people of color, who are adopting smartphones at faster rates than white consumers and are doing far more with them. Research shows people of color are more likely to surf the Internet, send and receive messages, engage social media and produce or publish media on their phones. The reason for that, many say, is simple: It’s the most affordable way to get onto the information superhighway. A couple hundred dollars for an Android and a data plan is much less than $1,000 for a laptop computer and broadband connection.

Unfortunately it’s not that simple.

Colorlines’ new report shows how federal policy protecting free and open access to the internet is not being applied to smartphones. This means if you get most of your web-based information on your blackberry, android or other smartphone, your cell phone provider can block access to certain types of information. A recent example related to reproductive rights:

Verizon customers, for instance, learned the hard way in 2007 that they’re not in control of the content on their cell phones. NARAL Pro-Choice America, like many political candidates and advocacy groups, decided that year that text messaging was an effective tool to communicate with people who care about abortion rights. But Verizon disagreed—and decided its users wouldn’t receive NARAL’s texts. The company said that it had the right to block what it deemed “controversial or unsavory” messages.

This is seriously bad news for the digital divide and the gains we’d hoped to make with cell phone access in low-income and POC communities.

So what does this mean? It means we need to fight harder for free and open access to the internet, regardless of what platform we use to access it. It means we have to make sure that AT&T, or Verizon, or MetroPCS can’t control what websites we visit, or what we see via social networks.

If the Arab Spring or the Occupy Wall Street movement were any example, the future of our democracy is going to depend on it.

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