Info Superhighway Still Mostly for White Drivers

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Computers are cheap. Internet access is available almost everywhere. So why does the online world get richer and whiter every year? The third in a series of Commerce Department reports examining the "Digital Divide" finds that although more blacks and Hispanics are booting up and logging on than ever before, they’re still getting connected at a far slower rate than their white counterparts, with the gap between white and minority households online growing by six percent. "This is a problem not only for the minorities who are missing out, this is a problem for the Web," says TIME technology writer Chris Taylor. "This makes the Web a whiter place, makes it country-club instead of cosmopolitan. And that betrays some of the Web’s promise."

Skeptics of the report’s racial implications maintain that it’s just a fact of life that the better-off — whites in general being wealthier than minorities — adopt new technology sooner. When the socioeconomic gap narrows, the Internet gap will narrow with it, they say. But the study clearly show that it’s not just about money: Among those in the $15,000-$35,000 income group, more than a third of white households are online, while among minorities that portion drops to one fifth. Results like that were catnip for Bill Clinton on Thursday as he wound up his four-day visit with the nation’s economic have-nots – "We have to close that gap," the lame-duck President proclaimed – and unlimited access to the Internet is sure to be one of Al Gore’s favorite themes in the months ahead. Hey, the school-wiring veep might even be able convince some newcomers he invented the whole thing.