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Society's digital divide

Many Netizens have long thought of the Internet as the great equalizer. A study released by Bellcore Labs says that is not so.

Many Netizens have long thought of the Internet as the great equalizer. A study released today by Bellcore Labs says that is not so.

The same divergence found in society along cultural and racial lines is found online and offline, according to James Katz, who conducted the Markle Foundation-funded study.

Katz calls the phenomenon of who is online and who is not the "digital divide."

And those on the wrong side of that divide--who are poorer, less-educated, and disproportionately African American, Hispanic and female--are losing out big time, Katz said.

Government officials, for instance, are increasingly reaching out online. Last presidential election, political parties held significant online events and campaigned online, and Netizens used the Net to get voting results. Expect 2000 to be the year that online campaigning really takes root.

Many companies are using the Net to announce jobs, and Netizens are getting social benefits, meeting people and conducting business, Katz said.

"There is a wide and growing information divide between the haves and have-nots," Katz said.

And, he said, the future does not look rosy. "I see it getting worse, not better."

"The rich are going to be getting richer in terms of information," Katz said. "The information-poor will become more impoverished because government bodies, community organizations, and corporations are displacing resources from their ordinary channels of communication onto the Internet."

In the study, he adds, "To the extent any demographic group becomes excluded from and underrepresented on the Internet, it will also be excluded from the economic fruits that such participation promises."

His explanations for the divide are surprisingly simple: People tend to log onto the Net by following friends' leads or by logging on at work, and most people have friends within their same socioeconomic class; people with more money tend to have computers in the first place; and so far, the advertising and hype over the Net is largely targeted to upper-middle class whites.

The study also reveals that all users, regardless of class, gender, or race, face two major barriers: cost and difficulty understanding how to use the Net.

The study was based on an October 1995 random telephone sampling of 2,500 individuals. Katz said another smaller sampling was conducted a year later to ensure that the data were still the same.

Katz also adds that most surveys of Net usage have been conducted by companies with financial interest. The Markle Foundation is a nonprofit organization.

Reporter Courtney Macavinta contributed to this report.