On September 22, people worldwide participated in the fourth annual celebration of OneWebDay 2009. Through education and activism, a globally distributed network of activists, educators, entrepreneurs, and creatives coordinated their efforts to deliver a simple message: Everyone, regardless of their socioeconomic status or where they live, should have access to fast, affordable Internet service and to the skills and tools they need to empower their communities and improve their lives through 21st century communications.
This year, more than 700 volunteer organizations in at least 20 countries launched workshops, celebrations, and volunteer service events to expand Internet access in their communities and spread the word about Web equity.
In Manila, the Philippine Internet Users Society organized contests for bloggers, entrepreneurs, and artists, culminating in a day of free computer repair and a “OneWebDay Jam” party.
In Amsterdam, the Secure IT Foundation hit the streets, offering literature and free advice on personal online security.
The Bay Area had a flurry of activity: 50 volunteers provided six digital skills workshops in three languages and installed free Wi-Fi access points for 805 low-income housing units. The Media Alliance hosted a workshop at the University of California-Berkeley to release the Media and Democracy Coalition’s Public Interest Internet Agenda.
In my adopted home of Washington, D.C., OneWebDay provided 30 hours of volunteer service to Byte Back, an organization that delivers digital training to the lowest income D.C. residents, and hosted a panel on Capitol Hill to hear from the leaders of the Federal Communications Commission, and many others, about increasing Web equity.
OneWebDay 2009 demonstrated a growing understanding that crossing the digital divide requires local social action and community engagement. In the U.S., the Federal government is investing $7.2 billion dollars in expanding access to broadband and the FCC will submit a national broadband plan to Congress in February. But public investment and policy decisions alone will not deliver a future of fair, ubiquitous connectivity.
One fifth of Americans don't access the Internet, and 63 percent of those without Web access say they can't use the technology or don't see how it is relevant to their lives, according to a study released in June from the Pew Internet and American Life Project. With some rough math, that works out to 38 million people in the U.S. who don't understand or are intimidated by internet technology. That means the voices, perspectives, and ideas of a population equivalent to the state of California are missing from the digital discussion.
I believe this resistance to technology has everything to do with the legacy of “old media,” especially television and radio. Communities of color and impoverished people have never seen their experiences fairly represented in electronic media. With a history like that, is it any mystery that some people have missed the “wow factor” of the Web?
That’s why it’s up to us to work both at the local level and coordinating globally, to cross the many digital divides in society, as well as the historical divisions of race and class. We need to share, person-to-person, the revolutionary power of the Web. People need to hear that the Web isn’t about what “they” are saying about “you.” The Web is about telling your own story, building up your community, and creating opportunity through the power of your ideas.
I have been asked why we should work on closing the digital divide in a time when so many lack the basic security of shelter, food, and water. At our core, humans have an innate need to communicate, and we can do amazing things when our right to speak is enabled. Around the world, people in the poorest nations develop life-saving innovations using low-bandwidth networks; imagine what could be done with even more capacity to communicate.
At a time when we are faced with so many global challenges, we have to take advantage of all the tools available to us—including the most powerful platform for communication and coordination in history. With so many still disconnected from the Web, this new human network, we may be excluding the very people whose ideas will see us through to a prosperous, sustainable future.
Nathaniel James wrote this article for YES! Magazine. Nathaniel is executive director of . He has years of experience advocating and organizing for universal, equitable access to the Web. He holds a Master's degree in media and communication regulation and policy from the London School of Economics and Political Science.