Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Has the Digital Divide Withered Away?

Since the Web's inception, scholars have raised concerns about how the Digital Divide - the disparity between those people with Internet access and skill-sets versus those without - was leaving behind millions of Americans from the educational and economic opportunities that the Web provides.

A new research study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, however, indicates that the Digital Divide may, in fact, be withering away - or may have even disappeared altogether.

Granted, there are still plenty of Americans with no Internet access, particularly in rural areas, and that's a problem.  However, if we focus on people's technical abilities to use the Web interactively, and one can reasonably argue that regular use of online social networking sites is a measure of that, then many of the early disparities are significantly narrowing.  Consider...
  • Race:  Blacks and Hispanics are now using online social networking sites at a greater clip than Whites (68% and 72%, respectively, to 65%).

  • Education:  High school graduates and non-graduates are using social networking sites at almost exactly the same clip as college graduates (66%-65%).

  • Income:  Those making less than $30,000/year use social networking sites more than those earning more than $75,000/year (72%-66%).

What does this mean?

Surely, there remain great inequalities of wealth in American society, but it's possible that Internet usage is no longer an accurate reflection of those inequalities.  It has become as pervasive as electricity and running water, used by rich and poor alike.

The one object of contention in this study is the finding that those on the lower income and education ends of the spectrum actually have higher rates of Internet access and social networking usage through mobile devices.  At first glance, this may seem to suggest another positive development - if one assumes that technical abilities on a mobile device stem from strong technical abilities on a PC or laptop.  But that's not necessarily the case.  It's possible that such high rates of mobile penetration really indicate an alternative track stemming from a lack of access to non-mobile computing devices.  And, unfortunately, PCs are still where most white-collar office skill-sets still call their home.

So, wither the Digital Divide?  Maybe we're moving in the right direction.  But we're not there yet.


Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Political Parties Struggle to Define Internet Freedom...

The Wall Street Journal had an interesting article yesterday titled, "GOP looks to rebrand as new Internet freedom fighters".  It describes current Republican efforts, led by Rep. Darrell Issa, to establish an "Internet freedom platform" that advocates against regulation, supports a ban on taxes, and focuses on online rights.

These are all apple-pie statements that nobody's going to disagree with.  The devil is, as always, is in the details.  What "Internet freedom" means for one person might mean something entirely different to another.

For example, take the issue of Net Neutrality.  A reasonable argument can be made by the anti-neutrality crowd that Internet freedom means preventing the government from regulating the nation's telecommunications companies.  It's the libertarian principle that the government should stay out of Internet affairs altogether.  On the other hand, the pro-neutrality crowd could argue that Internet freedom really means protecting the rights of individuals from censorship and anti-competitive trusts.

So does "Internet freedom" mean freedom from regulation for businesses, or freedom of speech and choice for individuals?

The WSJ article is right in suggesting that neither political party has thus far succeeded in narrowing their message of what it means to support the concept.  Republicans have taken heat from Internet activists for coming out against Net Neutrality and consumer protections, while Democrats have also come under scrutiny for backing anti-piracy legislation and clamping down on sites like Wikileaks, to name only a few quick examples.

Let's help our nation's politicians get better at this since they often seem so utterly lost in the darkness when it comes to Internet politics and policies.  Here are a few recommendations to help clue them in...
  1. "Internet freedom" should, especially for political purposes, refer to individual freedoms first, and corporate interests second.  This is why talking about no new sales taxes (and how it directly affects the individual consumer's wallet) is good, but talking about letting telecom corporations do whatever they want (regardless of the consequences to the individual) is bad.

  2. Focus on rights.  Freedom of speech, freedom of choice, privacy rights, etc.  These are all big-time winning issues.

  3. Avoid any appearance of "cracking down" on anything, except child pornography and cyberterrorism.  Government should stop overreaching on issues like preventing piracy by fining a 10-year-old girl $20,000, and should instead - oh, I don't know - put those same efforts into preventing the Chinese government from hacking our military's nuclear commands.  I dare any politician to oppose that idea.

  4. Get issue-specific:  Support Net Neutrality, protect individual data from being sold to third-party marketing companies without their consent, oppose the anti-piracy SOPA and PROTECT-IP Acts, support local-level WiFi initiatives, and come out staunchly against corporate efforts to track a person's location and browsing history through their mobile devices.  Oh yes, and on the international front, fight against any state-sponsored efforts geared towards censorship, or control of the Web's architecture, in general.

How's that for an Internet freedom platform?

What's really needed is the establishment of a set of constitutional principles that call for the government to adopt as much of a libertarian hands-off approach as possible, except when it comes to guaranteeing the protection of individual rights and liberties.

Sound familiar?

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Open Source Education Resources...

Open source software has, for years, been touted as the embodiment of the Web's founding principle - resource sharing.  The central idea is that, rather than all content being closed and proprietary, authors could choose to openly share their material and make it available to the general public for use and/or modification from its original design.  Making one's work open source transforms it into a collaborative project, often leading to a better end-product.

This is hardly news.  However, with the start of a new semester, it seemed prudent to raise awareness about an equally valuable yet little-known movement known as Open Educational Resources (OER).  Guided by the same open source principles, OER is a collection of freely accessible, openly formatted and openly licensed documents and multimedia files that can be used by any educator or, really, anybody who wants to learn.  Educators voluntarily share their course materials - including syllabi, readings, assignments, modules, audio and video lectures, and more - all in the interest of sharing and collaboration.

If you take a look at the OERCommons.org website, you'll notice that there are thousands of materials posted covering most major fields of study, and designed for primary, secondary, and post-secondary levels of education.  It's as valuable for a second grade or high school teacher as it is for a college professor.

For example, after a quick search on the topic of "Web Development", this course came up, along with all of its corresponding materials.  And, again, because it is an OER resource, not only can I use these materials for my own course without worrying about copyright issues, but I can also modify them and try to improve upon them, so long as I then re-share my modifications and give attribution to the original creator.  It's not only allowed; it's actually encouraged.

Yes, there are plenty of other projects out there seeking to make educational content freely available.  For instance, my personal favorite is Coursera, which allows anyone to enroll in an ivy-league-caliber class for free.  But while making it free to enroll in a high-quality educational class is a very positive thing, it's still fundamentally different than making the class design itself an open and collaborative effort.

Designing syllabi through open and mass collaboration?  The world is clearly progressing forward.


Monday, February 04, 2013

Mobile Privacy and the APPS Rights Act...

Mobile privacy is suddenly on the national political agenda in a big way.  On Friday, the F.T.C. announced recommended mobile privacy guidelines that "lays out a clear picture of what sort of activities might bring a company under investigation".  This comes right on the heals of Congressman Hank Johnson (D-GA) releasing the APPS Rights Act which aims to "improve the security and transparency of user data in mobile apps".

What's at issue here is the fact that, as people are now statistically connecting to the Internet more frequently through mobile devices like smartphones or tablets than they are through PCs or laptops, the laws regulating the types of data that companies can collect, store, and sell to third-parties are quickly being found to be either obsolete or nonexistent.  There have been cases where companies have collected personal information about underage users younger than 13 and then also accessed information about all of the contacts in their address book, and other cases where companies have conveyed the impression that an app will gather geolocation data only one time, when, in fact, it does so repeatedly.

There has always been some level of online privacy legislation in the works; mobile is just lagging behind.  Thus, there have been policy proposals for a Do-Not-Track setting in common PC-based web browsers like Firefox and Internet Explorer, but not for mobile browsers or apps.

But this is hardly a slam-dunk, no-brainer of an issue.  First of all, there are the familiar competing interests to consider between what is good for individual privacy versus what is good for innovation and macroeconomic growth.  As some tech observers have argued, these types of federal privacy guidelines are usually unenforceable, written by people outside the industry, and place a huge legal burden on small developers.

Second, if you actually read the text of the APPS Rights Act, you'll notice that, when it gets down to it, the noble goals of "Transparency, User Control, and Security" are all addressed by a set of guidelines that will most likely just be incorporated into the legalese of companies' Terms of Service agreements (which nobody ever reads).  Virtually no common practices by mobile developers have actually been prohibited.

That said, I would argue that such federal guidelines still serve an important and positive role.  Whether or not they develop into meaningful regulations with the force of law isn't necessarily the point.  Such guidelines act as policy catalysts.

For instance, while it's been introduced several times in the past decade, a Do-Not-Track bill has never actually been passed by Congress.  Instead, companies like Microsoft, Apple, and the non-profit Mozilla Foundation have chosen to voluntarily incorporate Do-Not-Track features into their software - either because they saw a legitimate market demand for it, or because they sought to preempt government regulation.  Either way, they've done it.  Additionally, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) - the leading standards-setting institution for the Web - is currently in the process of developing a Do-Not-Track technical standard, the DNT header field, to build the feature into the code itself.

What this demonstrates is that, while federal online privacy guidelines might truly be unenforceable, they nevertheless still often serve a vital purpose in guiding the direction of policymaking in the private sector.  And even if the F.T.C.'s new recommendations and the APPS Rights Act ultimately go nowhere, that matters.