Advancing digital equity is a core focus for SIIA. For too long, underlying inequalities, racial biases, and discrimination have plagued the United States and communities around the world, denying too many the opportunity to contribute to and reap the benefits of the innovation economy. Roughly one-third of unemployed Americans lack the foundational digital skills required for the estimated 75% of U.S. jobs which require such skills, according to one study. A 2021 report issued by the Federal Communications Commission approximates 42 million Americans do not have access to broadband internet. Other studies contend the FCC report undercounts those without access.
In some cases, innovation carries the biases – conscious and unconscious – of its creators and society at large. This digital discrimination ranges from preventing equal access to the technology itself to using tech in the online space to discriminate in the offline world.
SIIA, our members and the business community at large view digital equity as a critical objective that requires funding, resources as well as upskilling and training opportunities for underrepresented communities, where broadband access and related supports are lacking and yet so critical. Removing the barriers to elevate opportunities for all individuals will lead to the creation of new businesses, foster economic growth and expand access to technology itself as well as the educational, employment and social engagement opportunities technological innovation can foster. Digital equity will ensure civic and cultural participation, employment, learning, and access to essential services, which are integral to a more connected and prepared community in order to ensure lifelong success.
SIIA is working across our policy portfolio to advocate for digital equity. These efforts include but are not limited to:
- Advancing access to broadband, with a focus on underrepresented communities. Broadband equity is achieved when all people and communities are able to access and use affordable, high-speed, reliable internet at speeds, quality and capacity necessary to accomplish common tasks and meet long-term needs. This means addressing broadband gaps across rural and urban communities where more emphasis is critical.
- Advocating for broad access to internet-enabled devices and applications. These devices must meet the needs of the user and provide access to applications and online content designed to enable and encourage self-sufficiency, participation and collaboration.
- Supporting digital literacy and skills training. Digital literacy is the ability to identify and use technology confidently, creatively and critically to meet the demands and challenges of life, learning and work in a digital society. This includes the ability to use technology; find, use and critically evaluate information; curate data and media sources; communicate, collaborate and participate in online environments; manage your online identity as well as your personal security and privacy; and create online content, not just consume it.
- Supporting technologies that advance DEI. As President Biden told the United Nations in 2021, we must, together, “Ensure a future where technologies are a vital tool to solving human challenges and empowering human potential, not a source of greater strife and repression.” Tech companies hold the keys to success in producing equitable technologies, if they channel their energy positively and productively and bake DEI efforts early into product design.
- Encouraging algorithmic fairness. While the growing use of Artifical Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) systems carries enormous potential for society, there are well documented concerns that these systems can embed bias and discrimination. This can happen because of incomplete, unbalanced or poorly collected data, algorithms that reflect unconscious biases, and other reasons. Without balanced and representational data as an input, an AI or ML system can have different accuracy rates for different demographic groups. Similarly, an algorithm can make decisions that are systematically unfair to certain groups of people. Trustworthy and responsible AI practices are essential to ensure that data sets are truly representative of the populations the application seeks to serve and open to validation to analyze the data for fairness. In addition, algorithms must meet best practices before they are put to use. New technologies such as “synthetic data” – created to help fill gaps in data sets – also can help reduce bias.
- Fighting for a comprehensive, balanced federal privacy law. Personal information such as a person’s race, religion, national origin, or gender identity can be used by bad actors online to determine eligibility for vital services like health care or insurance. In some cases, bad actors charge different prices to different groups for the same goods and services or exclude them from access altogether. A comprehensive, balanced federal privacy law can prevent bad actors from engaging in data practices that are harmful or abusive to consumers, while still ensuring that all Americans can benefit from new and innovative technologies.
More must be done. Increasing STEM and apprenticeship programs for people of color and other historically disenfranchised communities. Investing in the current workforce to provide advancement opportunities. Addressing pay equity in the tech sector. Developing incentives to encourage investment in worthy minority-owned startups. The challenge looms large but the opportunities and benefits stand taller. The nation and the industry that has led the development of innovative solutions to the world’s greatest challenges can, and must, lend that same spirit to increasing equity in the tech sector.