Inequality and the Internet

How the Internet can be a powerful tool for greater equality and social mobility. The latest installment in our series “Our Digital Future.”

By Ronald Klain

In the beginning, the Internet was supposed to be the great equalizer. A source of learning that would allow students in the poorest and most remote areas to have access to the same information that the most privileged children enjoyed. A way for small merchants to sell their goods to vast global markets previously accessible only to the largest, most powerful corporations. A medium where communication was virtually costless, allowing everyone to market anything to anyone without the crippling expense of television, radio or newspaper ads, or direct mail. A vehicle to distribute content from one to many and many to many—creating a utopia of free speech, easy distribution, and an end to the power of the media middlemen. From communications to education, from trade to text, from video to politics, the promise of the Internet was the promise of a more equal society in almost every way.

Twenty years after the dawn of the Internet era, two things are unquestionably true. First, in terms of its reach, impact, and transformative effect, the Internet has exceeded anyone’s wildest imagination. And second, we live in a less equal country than at any point since the Gilded Age. This gaping inequality may not be the fault of the Internet, but we can fairly ask why the Internet didn’t live up to its promise as an equalizer in American life. Is it too soon to see the Internet’s equalizing effects—or too late to do anything about it? And ultimately, is the Internet the enemy of a more equal society—or a tool with yet-to-be-realized potential to make our country a more just place?

A Progressive Agenda for Internet Policy

There are five items that I think are essential to help convert the Internet into a more powerful tool for equality and social mobility. These policies go beyond Internet regulatory policies; rather, they are Internet-related policies that seek to ensure that the benefits of the Internet are more broadly shared, its impact on our society more equitable, and its potential more widely accessible.

Universal Broadband Connectivity

The starting point for any progressive Internet policy has to be universal access to high-speed Internet. Last year I caused some controversy at a panel discussion when I said that I wished the same amount of energy and intensity that was being poured into the net neutrality fight would also be devoted to making sure that everyone in our country had quality broadband Internet access. My point was simply this: For the 50 million Americans who lack any access to broadband Internet, hearing the 250 million who have such access debate whether or not Netflix should have to pay Comcast for rapid streaming must sound like a very abstract debate indeed.

The Obama Administration has had three major initiatives in this area that have overlapped and have had mixed results. Even while the National Broadband Plan was being drafted for release in 2010, the Administration moved forward with an ambitious proposal to increase broadband deployment to underserved urban and rural communities as part of the Recovery Act, starting in mid-2009. As the White House official with overall responsibility for implementing that act, I spent a good deal of time in meetings in 2009 and 2010 trying to ascertain how we could use funds given to the Commerce and Agriculture Departments to close the broadband gap for poorer urban dwellers and more remote rural communities.

Ultimately, the National Broadband Plan, released in March 2010, laid out a strategy for a more comprehensive approach for closing the “digital divide” between broadband haves and have-nots, and a recent fifth-anniversary seminar on progress under the plan noted some improvement. Even so, as many as one-fifth of all Americans still lack access to 25 Mbps broadband, and so, in late March 2015, President Obama announced a new “Broadband Opportunity Council,” a third thrust at closing the gap. The council is supposed to report back by mid-August 2015 with a plan for more universal broadband, which the President called “no longer a luxury . . . [but] a necessity for American families, businesses, and consumers.”

While some critics have argued that many Americans lacking broadband have simply made a “choice” to spend their disposable income on other things, such claims fail to appreciate that overly expensive broadband prices effectively make this necessity a luxury for many families at the bottom end of the economic spectrum. At a time when so much commerce, learning, and public dialogue takes place over the Internet, having one-fifth or one-sixth of our people lack a high-speed connection to that medium should be seen as a serious form of inequality requiring urgent redress. That this problem has not drawn even a fraction of the public discussion and concern that net neutrality has attracted is a reminder of how the absence of these Americans from the digital policy-making debate has so profoundly colored that debate.

Progressives should press the Broadband Opportunity Council to adopt aggressive and creative policies and proposals. State and local building codes should require broadband deployment in all new housing, just as running water and electricity are basic mandates. In the private sector, in addition to efforts by Internet service providers to address this problem, content creators, e-commerce players, and educational institutions should see universal broadband connectivity as a social good they should help achieve.

And the FCC should take every step possible to use its power under Section 706 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act to preempt state laws that forbid local governments from building municipally owned broadband networks. It is almost inconceivable that such laws exist—they are modern successors of early-nineteenth-century laws that granted all sorts of indefensible private monopolies—and they are prime examples of the sort of private-interest lawmaking that should outrage everyone. President Obama has urged the FCC to use its authority to preempt these absurd statutes, and even a critic of the FCC’s earlier efforts to use Section 706 to promote net neutrality, conservative jurist Laurence Silberman, has acknowledged that the provision gives the FCC the power to overturn these state laws.

Widely Available Free Wi-Fi

Just as we must have policies that provide broadband connections to every person’s home, a second area of progressive advocacy should be for free Wi-Fi in every public place in the United States—in parks, city centers, shopping malls, airports, libraries, town squares, public buildings, and, especially, our schools.

The fight between government and industry over the nature and reach of free public Wi-Fi has been raging for years now; this conflict overlaps with and is closely related to the battle over the FCC using its Section 706 authority to enable municipalities to deploy their own broadband networks (which could, in part, be used to power free public Wi-Fi). FCC proposals to promote free public Wi-Fi not only have support from many public-interest advocates, but also from big tech players like Google and Microsoft, which favor having as many people with as much access to the Internet as possible.

President Obama’s ConnectED initiative, which aims to provide universal free Wi-Fi in all schools by 2018, is an important step in the right direction. ConnectED is a pragmatic approach to making sure that—for several hours a day, at least—all young people have free access to a fast Internet connection for learning and expression.

But Wi-Fi in schools is only a start, and is far from sufficient. While national policy in this area remains mired in conflict, some visionary local leaders—like New York Mayor Bill de Blasio—are taking action. De Blasio has proposed to turn 10,000 moribund former telephone booths into Wi-Fi hot spots, covering a substantial part of the public space in America’s largest city. Other cities are also pressing similar efforts: From the boardwalk at Bethany Beach, Delaware, to the downtown access program in Newton, North Carolina, to the free access program in The Dalles, Oregon, more than 75 U.S. cities of all sizes have free Wi-Fi in some or all of their public spaces. But most of America’s major cities lack such programs, and as a whole, the United States has a long way to go.

More than 150 years ago, reformers advocated a system of free public libraries to help promote learning and advancement for people of all economic groups. Today, many times the information and enrichment opportunity of any library is available quickly and easily via the Internet. Having that information be available for free, not just in libraries or schools, but extensively in public spaces in a community, could empower young people in ways never imagined before, help working people find access to job training and job search information, and enrich the lives of our elderly far beyond run-of-the-mill outreach programs.

Common-Sense Regulatory Balance

From its birth as a mass medium in the mid-1990s, the Internet has largely been a regulatory-free zone. Nothing illustrates this as much as the absence of sales tax on goods bought on the Internet. There are plenty of reasons to hate the sales tax as a tax, but there is really very little justification for the idea that the sale of a book bought at the local bookshop is taxed 4 to 8 percent, but the same book bought from an online retailer is free of taxation. At first, this disparity in tax treatment was de minimis when e-commerce was de minimis; it also avoided a lot of complexity in assessing and collecting taxes from multiple jurisdictions when online sales platforms lacked such capacity. But in 2015, it is virtually inexplicable. No doubt that is why a large, bipartisan majority of senators (69-27) voted last year to change this policy; it is time for the GOP House, which has blocked this legislation, to relent. Restoring this lost revenue to state and local coffers would fund countless needed programs, and/or potentially lighten the sales-tax burden on necessities like groceries (which are still largely bought offline).

More broadly, as I have argued previously in a variety of venues, we need to find the right balance of innovation-promoting regulatory disruption, without having the Internet’s deregulatory culture sweep away common-sense protections for consumers. Uber’s disruption of the taxi regulatory scheme is absolutely a good thing, but it should not wipe away protections that ensure that drivers are qualified and passengers ride safely. Regulatory schemes should not stifle innovation in commercial drones, or new drugs and tests, or financial services—but homeowners, patients, and consumers should not have to fear for their lives or their pocketbooks due to a lack of appropriate safeguards.

As progressives, we have a special role to play in this regulatory dialogue. Our activism and participation are likely to be the key drivers of protecting workers and consumers as the pace of innovation increases. But at the same time, we need to be mindful that the underlying root of “progressive” is progress: We need to avoid Luddism or faux nostalgia for eras that were not, in fact, particularly great for working people. Innovation can create more opportunity for more people, more ladders to the middle class, better lives for everyone. We need to be pro-innovation, even as we insist on rules to prevent the innovators from exploiting or endangering everyone else.

Online Learning and Training

Online learning has the potential to break the inherent limitations on access to the best teachers, curriculum, and institutions that the expense and physical constraints of in-person learning create. Why shouldn’t every student in America learn philosophy from a Harvard professor, math from an MIT scholar, music from a Juilliard instructor, and computer science from the best teachers at Stanford? And why shouldn’t they be able to do it for a fraction of the cost and difficulty of obtaining an on-campus degree?

But alas, the effort to promote online learning has become an ideological battleground in which progressives are prominent among the forces of resistance. In part, it is because online learning has become widely identified with private, for-profit colleges that charge vast sums and have produced dubious results for some students. In part, it is because online learning is associated with corporate donors and board members at institutions of higher education who have taken an adversarial (and often dismissive) approach to professional educators and their concerns. It is also because of close ties between progressives and members of the academy, who see online learning as threatening their livelihoods and job security.

It is time for a fresh start in this broken relationship. Of course, nothing replaces the incredible experience of face-to-face learning with an amazing teacher, and a key goal of education policy must be to enable as many people as possible—from all income groups—the maximum possible access to such experiences. But almost by definition, those experiences are a finite resource, and the need for more learning and training is nearly infinite.

Let’s begin here: With all the work that President Obama and other advocates have done to make community college affordable and accessible to all, it is the cost of textbooks—sky high, and in many cases greater than any remaining tuition charged to students after aid and initiatives—that is the most burdensome out-of-pocket cost of higher education for many students. Why shouldn’t every textbook be online, be available for download, or be available as an e-book at a fraction of the cost of traditional print editions? Harvard Law School’s H20 initiative, for example, creates online law course casebooks that are free for students (printed casebooks cost $150 to $200 each) and that have learning tools that far exceed those of printed editions.

More significantly, however, it is time to find a form of online education that progressives can embrace and promote to provide the millions who will never be able to access on-campus learning with the best possible opportunities to learn new things, develop new skills, and broaden their minds. Democratizing access to information, training, and learning has always been a core progressive objective, from the days of the first public schools in America to the land-grant colleges, to the GI Bill, to Pell Grants, to today’s battle over student-loan interest rates.

While we should not let up on efforts to increase access and affordability for in-person learning for all who want it, shouldn’t we also enable every person in the country, at little or no cost, to access the very best teachers, providing the very best lessons, on virtually every topic under the sun—at any time of the day or night (before or after work, on weekends, during work breaks)—from any location that is convenient for the young, the elderly, the disabled, working parents, and everyone else?
The fact that highly touted, venture-capital-backed MOOCs (massive open online courses) have had some visible commercial failures should not be a cause for cheering from progressives. It should be a call to action to find ways to repurpose failed initiatives in this area into better models that will provide the most learning for the greatest number of people.

Finally, we must have much better programs and opportunities for in-career learning via online training. As noted above, the vast majority of efforts to move learning online have been in the high-cost, high-margin business of higher education. But at a time when the need for adults to learn throughout their lives has never been greater—and especially when that need is acute with relation to technology-sector jobs—better and more online training must be a priority. The same effort and priority being given to teaching children how to code should be made to teach coding to adults who want new careers—or who might be able to launch new businesses. And that’s just one example of training that must be expanded online.

Simply put, online learning offers the prospect of reducing virtually every barrier that stands in the way of people improving their economic prospects through acquiring new skills and information: It is accessible, affordable, and convenient. While many progressive policies are already focused on making such training more affordable, the cost barrier is only one of many—and in many cases, for working people with family obligations, child care obligations, limited transportation options, and other “real life” burdens, cost is not even the most serious impediment. Using online learning to overcome these other obstacles is a critical potential pathway.

Worker Mobility

Policies that make it easier for people to move from job to job, with minimal restrictions and cost, will enable countless people to benefit from opportunities in the Internet economy that are now inaccessible to them.

The most important of these policies has already been enacted: The Affordable Care Act, which gives all Americans the opportunity to have health-care coverage divorced from their employment arrangement, means that no person need remain in an unproductive or undesirable job merely to have health insurance. But having more portable health insurance—and that is not completely facilitated, even by the ACA—is only the start.

First, we need to change the law to limit excessive use of non-competition clauses. These non-competition clauses prevent workers from leaving their jobs and taking new ones, or starting new businesses, in the fields they know best; this often means that employers can fire their workers, but workers lack the leverage to quit and do more productive work elsewhere. Such clauses are appropriate in specialized circumstances for a small class of workers, but they are now being abused to restrict a dizzying array of workers, from sandwich makers to dog sitters. Reform is necessary to make sure that an economy that provides little protection from employers who want to change employees gives similar flexibility to employees who want to change employers.

Second, like health care, other basic working benefits—from child care to sick leave to retirement benefits—need to be decoupled from the work place. Allowing people to switch jobs, start their own enterprises, or embark on new careers without putting their personal safety net at risk is critical for promoting social mobility and economic opportunity in our Internet era. We cannot turn back the clock to an era where workers had a long-term and stable relationship with a single employer (leaving aside the question of whether such an era was more desirable). [See Nick Hanauer and David Rolf, “Shared Security, Shared Growth.”]

Overall, policies that allow workers to switch jobs as they acquire new skills and as technology changes will promote social mobility and decrease the unequalizing elements of the Internet era.

A New Progressive Digital Consensus

Universal broadband access, free public Wi-Fi, common-sense regulation, widespread high-quality online learning and training, and policies that support a mobile workforce are just a few of the Internet-related policies that will harness the power of that medium to be an equalizing force in our society. Two decades ago, progressives might have plausibly believed that unleashing the Internet was, by itself, enough to bring about the kind of social change we seek. Twenty years later, we certainly know better.

Twenty years from now, will progressives look back on our era and wonder why so many (wrongly) saw technology and Internet policy as technical, non-ideological matters that don’t merit the same sort of activism as tax or health-care policy? Or will they see this era as the launch of something different—of adding a “helping hand” to the “light touch”? The time has come for progressives inside and outside the tech industry to advocate policies that will help deliver the change for the better that the Internet can make in all of our lives.

Ronald Klain served as the White House Ebola response coordinator from October 2014 through February 2015. He serves as an adviser to the Skoll Global Threats Fund Project on Ending Pandemics.

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