We Must Take Up the Banner of Affordable, Equitable Access to the Internet
By Marnie Webb, Chief Community Impact Officer, TechSoup
Today, Connect Humanity released the largest survey ever conducted on digital access. With results from over 7,500 civil society respondents worldwide, the Digital Equity Survey confirmed what many of us already know: It is too expensive to access the internet, neither we nor the people we serve have reliable skills to participate in the internet of today, and many of us do not feel safe participating in the public forum offered by the internet.
Taken together, this means that we are excluding our most vulnerable community members from civic discourse, access to jobs, and the ability to be in virtual fellowship with others who share common interests.
We must take up the banner of affordable, equitable access to the internet. Connect Humanity is doing that, and the TechSoup Global Network has signed on to this work. We want more reliable internet in more places, more government subsidies to support that access, and more innovative programs like Endless Laptop to get devices into the hands of individuals, especially young people.
Even where access is available, there exists a huge gap in digital devices and literacy. Communities served by nonprofits rely mainly on mobile devices for internet access, and digital training is available to less than half of them. When training is available, it is overwhelmingly delivered by social benefit organizations.
It may feel like, in this reality, the role of a small civil society organization is to watch and wait. For policies to be advocated for and put in place. For funders to step up and provide additional support. For social media platforms to institute more safety features. For infrastructure to be put in place and activated.
We cannot watch and wait. We have to define and participate in all of these efforts, for ourselves and for the people we represent. What does that mean?
We have to connect the people we serve to information, and we have to do it now.
We need to build as many public access points as we can, and we need to use them. Libraries top this list. They are access points anyone can use. We need to make sure our clients know how to — and can — access the resources at their local libraries. We need to work with the library teams to bring meaningful content to our clients, and we need to lead activities at the library with our clients so that they have trust in their ability to reliably and safely access information.
And we can’t stop there. We need to look for other opportunities to introduce devices that connect our clients to the internet. We need to build kiosks in our waiting rooms, we need to advocate for open laptops in community anchor institutions like schools, and we need to advocate for direct funding for our clients to help make in-home access, where possible, affordable and reliable.
We need to be a source of trusted information. This means we understand how to identify and debunk mis- and disinformation. We need to be clear about the ways people may try to defraud, entrap, or otherwise take advantage of the people we serve, and we need to do what we can to block those attempts. This often means sharing this information off the internet. If we learn of a scam directed at the people we serve, we need to print flyers and make them available. We need to send alerts through trusted channels such as chat groups set up just for our clients. Those trusted channels take time to build up. We have to start and develop them before we need them.
We need to represent our communities in public discourse. If our community is not included in the current digital public square — by public access points in shopping malls, educational institutions, and more — the future internet will not be built for them. Tools like ChatGPT, which are trained on publicly available discourse and data, will not include their voices. Biases will become coded into even more of our society. Governments will not include the needs of our clients when they are making urban planning and service resource decisions. We need to bring their voices into the conversation. Surveys like this one — which asked for you to represent the people you serve — support this important work.
The challenge ahead of us is how to organize in small and large ways to do these things. Across the TechSoup Global Network, we already are committed to lowering the costs of technology. We need to do more. We already help individuals access training that supports digital literacy and safety.
We need to do more.
In the coming months, we will host small idea sessions with the organizations we serve to get more practical and specific advice as well as collect tangible projects doing this work. If you are interested in participating, just drop a comment below.
We will not change this reality if we do not work together.