The COVID-19 pandemic thrust nearly all of public and private life online, exacerbating the consequences for those on the wrong side of the digital divide. Some of those consequences — such as struggles to access employment, healthcare, and education — are more familiar than others. But the less obvious consequences are no less grave, as affordable broadband has become essential for access to justice, civic engagement, and many government services. More so than before the pandemic, the digital divide has become a civil rights divide.
On behalf of Next Century Cities, an organization which supports local governments working to increase broadband access, the Samuelson Law, Technology & Public Policy Clinic has prepared a report to bring greater visibility to broadband’s relationship to these less explored consequences. The report, Cut Off From the Courthouse: How the Digital Divide Impacts Access to Justice and Civic Engagement, is based on conversations with legal service providers, community organizers, and public servants who have witnessed firsthand the struggles that their clients, partners, and constituents face when affordable, reliable broadband is out of reach. These conversations inform the report’s findings and recommendations to think more expansively about both the challenges faced by the under-connected and about the opportunities for bridging the digital divide.
Working with Associate Clinic Director Erik Stallman and Clinical Teaching Fellow Gabrielle Daley, 3L students Shalev Netanel and Ross Ufberg spoke with 27 professionals who provide legal, civic, and government services across California. Among those who contributed valuable insights for the report are Miguel Soto, staff attorney of the Consumer Justice Clinic at East Bay Community Law Center, Ted Mermin, executive director of the Center for Consumer Law and Economic Justice at Berkeley Law, and Judge Jeremy Fogel, executive director of the Berkeley Judicial Institute.
These interviews explore both the promise and the perils of remote participation. The transition to online court proceedings, online city council meetings, and online portals for nearly all government benefits has improved access for many people. But for communities on the wrong side of the digital divide, the migration to online everything has exacerbated existing inequities.
For example, a longtime legal aid lawyer and her client were frustrated that the judge could not see the client during a telephonic hearing to appeal the denial of a social security disability claim. It was simply impossible for the judge to understand the extent of the client’s intellectual and physical disabilities, and a voice over the line could not elicit the empathy that in-person participation might have.
Another lawyer drove eight hours to meet her clients — mostly rural farm workers in the Imperial Valley — to discuss foreclosure notices so that they wouldn’t lose their homes. Lack of broadband access and obstacles to adoption eliminated videoconferencing as an option in the rural regions where her clients live and work.
And a local government official worried about the people who were no longer able to attend city council meetings once the meetings moved online because they lacked broadband access, connected devices, or the skills to keep pace with events in their communities.
The report found that lack of broadband infrastructure in both rural and urban environments isn’t the only hurdle people face trying to connect. Interviewees described that lack of suitable devices and inadequate digital learning skills are also substantial hurdles for those they serve.
While federal, state and local policymakers are working on addressing these challenges by instituting new programs to close the digital divide, lack of knowledge of and trust can stymie the effectiveness of these efforts. However, the same providers who spoke about how their clients and communities could not access affordable broadband or related programs also signaled their willingness to help connect people to those programs. Thus, the same service providers who regularly witness firsthand the harms inflicted by the digital divide may be key partners in redressing those harms.
In addition to the interviews and substantial work researching and writing the report, Netanel and Ufberg are also moderating a panel for Next Century Cities Bipartisan Tech Policy Conference to launch the report. Panelists include, Peter Estes, community resource program director for San Francisco Senior & Disability Action; Olivia Sideman, a public defender for Alameda County; and Javier Trujillo, the chief assistant director for Marin County. Netanel and Ufberg hope to highlight these experts’ compelling stories of how lack of access to broadband impacts they people they serve.
The report is available here.