For Now, Minorities Are Falling Through the Net

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As of today, the World Wide Web is going to start living up to its name. That's the word from President Clinton, who on Thursday announced his goal to improve Internet access in minority communities. According to a 1999 Commerce Department report, there is a so-called "digital divide" in America, with blacks and Hispanics having sharply lower access than their white counterparts. And, says TIME technology writer Joshua Quittner, Clinton's interest will draw much-needed attention to the problem. "This is good stuff — precisely the kind of thing the President ought to be doing," says Quittner. "Americans are guaranteed 'universal service' from the phone companies, and there's no reason the same shouldn't be true of Internet access."

Many civil rights advocates have long been troubled by the apparent inequities of Internet use, and May's Commerce report bears out their fears: 47 percent of whites own computers, but fewer than half as many blacks do. And, according to the study, it's not just economics that's keeping computers out of reach for so many minority kids. A child from a low-income white family is three times more likely to have Internet access than a child from a black family with a comparable income — and four times more likely than a Hispanic child. That disparity, says TIME columnist Jack White, is due to the fact that being poor affects low-income black children's lives in a more broad-reaching way than it does poor white children. "Low-income black kids are more likely than poor white kids to attend isolated inner-city schools and visit public libraries without Internet access, or even computers," says White. Given the Internet's famously democratic roots, it seems doubly unfair that so many people find its tools just out of reach.