There is much debate about whether a digital divide still exists within the United States. While some believe that Internet access is now widely available and affordable, others warn divides will continue to expand unless more government resources are made available to offset this recurrent social problem. The tension between these two oppositional positions lies within the broader issue of how speech rights are framed within the U.S. While the First Amendment guarantees freedom from censorship in some cases, it does not necessarily guarantee that the means to communicate are available to all citizens. Historically, the government’s role is to protect a 'marketplace of ideas', allowing conditions for the best ideas to prevail. However, there are differing ideas about how best to promote the marketplace. In relation to media regulation, Supreme Court rulings on speech rights focus on media specificity, balancing access, such as interpreting how airwaves should be used for the public interest in broadcast policy, and content, such as protecting commercial speech over individual speech as in the case of print media. Framing speech rights in this economic context fails to address why communication is a crucial component to democratic processes. Since the 1990s, policymakers apply this ideology of the marketplace to address the digital divide. Funding for initiatives such as the E-rate program and public access centers assumes that providing infrastructure will necessarily lead to community development, with little understanding of why citizens should have the means to communicate. The technological determinism present in these policies not only overshadows the underlying role of communication in sustaining democracy, but also fails to make provisions for technological change. Trends toward media consolidation and convergence call for new frameworks for addressing media access.
This chapter argues for a re-conceptualization of digital divide policy based on the emerging notion of the right to communicate which is present in international social movements. International efforts, including the United Nations sponsored World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) held in Geneva in 2003, incorporate a sense of collective rights into their initiatives. Collective rights broaden the notion of access to technology to an understanding of how communication helps sustain democracy, indigenous culture, and basic human needs (Hamelink 2004). Some communication scholars and activists, however, advocate adding the category of the right to communicate to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) to ensure that as access to technology is distributed, so is access to communication processes (D’Arcy 1969, Fisher 1982, Golding and Murdock 1989). Using a comparative analysis of international efforts that place communication rights, rather than speech rights, at the forefront of policy, I highlight some of the shortcomings of U.S. approaches to the digital divide. U.S. involvement in these projects is limited because of conflicting ideologies of how governments should intervene to develop media access policies. However, incorporating communication rights into U.S. interpretations of speech rights helps to reveal what is at stake in addressing the digital divide both nationally and internationally.
In Making Our Media: Global Initiatives Toward a Democratic Public Sphere Vol. Two. Sub-title: National and Global Movements for Democratic Communication. Edited by Laura Stein, Dorothy Kidd, and Clemencia Rodriguez. Hampton Press (2009).