The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights  & The Leadership Conference Education Fund
The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

Civil Rights Monitor

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The CIVIL RIGHTS MONITOR is a quarterly publication that reports on civil rights issues pending before the three branches of government. The Monitor also provides a historical context within which to assess current civil rights issues. Back issues of the Monitor are available through this site. Browse or search the archives

Volume 11 No 4

Civil Rights Communications and Internet Technology Forum "From Digital Disconnect to Digital Opportunity"

On Thursday, September 7, 2000, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and the Leadership Conference Education Fund hosted their inaugural Civil Rights Communications and Internet Technology Forum, "From Digital Disconnect to Digital Opportunity: Building a More Equitable Society Through Leadership, Investment and Collaboration." This historic meeting provided civil rights organizations, foundation leaders and technology industry representatives with an opportunity to explore how the mission of the civil rights community can be furthered and enhanced by the digital age.

The day long forum began with a morning program for foundation staff, members of the civil rights coalition and communications policy advocates. In the morning plenary session, Leslie Harris of Leslie Harris and Associates, a public interest government relations firm with considerable background and expertise in emerging technology issues, led a discussion about the Leadership Conference's Baseline Needs Assessment Survey. The survey was administered in June and July of 2000 to examine the civil rights community's capacity and use of technology, and provided an important first look at where the civil rights community stands with respect to the digital age.

The results of the needs assessment survey validated concerns that advanced technology has not yet been embraced as a capacity priority by the civil rights community, nor has communications and Internet policy become a priority of the community's public policy work. Technology undoubtedly will continue to reshape the world in which we live. In order to effectively advance positive social change in this digital age, the civil rights community needs to be at the policymaking table to help define and shape policy. From a civil rights perspective, the future of technology should be one in which all people have equal access to the internet and other advanced communication mediums regardless of their race, culture or economic status.

The survey reaffirmed the Internet's revolutionary impact on society in both positive and negative ways. It has provided new opportunities for the world to access capital. It has the potential to be a community builder, and to give a voice to the voiceless. It serves as an interactive forum for group discussion by decreasing geographical barriers and therefore uniting people who otherwise wouldn't interact. Conversely, that same interactive forum provides hate groups an opportunity to unite and spread negative messages. Cyberspace has introduced new threats to basic civil liberties such as the right to privacy. Concerns have also been raised regarding content regulation. How can one control what information enters his/her home? Unfortunately, many Americans do not have access to technology and therefore cannot take advantage of the numerous benefits of this revolutionary tool. Technology advances have the potential to aggravate existing patterns of inequality between those with access to Information Age tools and the skills to use them and those without (a disparity commonly referred to as the "digital divide.")

Following the forum's morning plenary session, Commissioner Gloria Tristani of the Federal Communications Commission delivered a keynote address on the civil rights e-agenda. Ms. Tristani voiced the FCC's concern about availability and access issues that primarily affect disenfranchised communities because of economic, cultural and educational barriers. Her remarks provoked a thoughtful discussion among attendees about these issues.

Professor Charles Ogletree of Harvard University School of Law moderated the afternoon plenary session addressing cutting edge uses of technology in the 21st century. Panelists included: Jerry Berman, Executive Director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, a Washington, DC based policy organization; Karen Radney Buller, member of the Comanche Tribe and Founder, CEO and President of the National Indian Telecommunications Institute; Darien Dash, Founder and CEO of DME Interactive Holdings, a company with the mission of "Expanding the Hardware and Software Infrastructure within Minority Communities"; David Eisner, Vice President of Corporate Relations at America Online; Larry Goldberg, Director of Media Access at the WGBH Educational Foundation as well as Director and Founder of the CPB/WGBH National Center for Accessible Media; Jerry Kang, UCLA Professor focusing on civil procedure, race and cyberspace issues; Mark Lloyd, Executive Director of the Civil Rights Forum on Communications Policy; Lucia Corral Peña, Program Officer overseeing the Work and Health Initiative's computers In Our Future grantmaking program for The California Wellness Foundation; Jorge Reina Schement, Professor and Co-Director of the Institute for Information Policy in the College of Communications and the School of Information Science and Technology at Pennsylvania State University; Andrew Jay Schwartzman, President and CEO of the Media Access Project.

The panelists responded to the questions posed by Professor Ogletree regarding critical communications and Internet issues and their effect on the civil and human rights community. Key points of discussion included: affordability and equal access to technology, the government's role in balancing access and content regulation, the reality that the Internet's agenda is driven by corporate needs with little consideration of the public interest, and the current and future state of the digital divide.

The day concluded with a third panel of civil rights leaders addressing the logistics of sorting through, prioritizing and moving forward with the issues raised at the forum. This discussion focused on the many objectives of the civil rights e-agenda. The panelists included: William Taylor, President, Leadership Conference Education Fund and Vice Chair of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights; Marcia Greenberger, Founder and Co-President, National Women's Law Center; Cecilia Muñoz, Vice President for the Office of Research, Advocacy and Legislation, National Council of La Raza; Karen Narasaki, Executive Director, National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium; Mark Pelavin, Associate Director, Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism; Hilary Shelton, Director, Washington Bureau, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; William Spriggs, Director, Research and Public Policy, National Urban League; Patrisha Wright, Director of Government Affairs, Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund; Joel Yudkin, Sectoral Economist and Technology Policy Analyst, the Public Policy Department, American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO).

The technology forum served as an important starting point in defining those objectives and mapping a course of action. It is in the interest of the civil rights community to ensure that the Internet is equally accessible for all, regardless of race, culture or economic status. As was recommended by several panelists, the civil rights community needs to define what an "equitable society" looks like in the information age. It is critical that the civil rights community's needs be represented at the policy table and not leave the development of such policy to the discretion of others who do not share its view of a fair and just society.

This Initiative has afforded the civil rights community the opportunity to play a prominent and informed role in the debates shaping the modern communications medium -- the Internet. Based on the results of the Baseline Needs Assessment Survey and the daylong session focusing on communications and technology policy, the Leadership Conference has reaffirmed its commitment to helping the coalition in its efforts to participate fully in the Digital Age.

The Leadership Conference believes that now is the time for the civil rights community to develop public policy for closing the digital divide and shaping the new digital communications and technology environment. Through the Leadership Conference's Communications Policy Project it will take a first and significant step toward including the civil rights community, and the larger non-profit sector, in the policy debates about this critical medium and ensuring that the non-profit sector fully utilizes the medium to advance the welfare of the country and ultimately the world.

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