Healing the Digital Divide With Community Equity, Not Corporate Extraction

Written by Katie Hearn and Janice Gates

Nowhere are the intersections of racism, poverty, and technology more visible than in majority Black Detroit. With a pre-COVID-19 median household income of about $29,000, quality internet access-- much like water-- is unaffordable to many Detroiters. While it's true that a concerted effort from public, private, and grassroots communities is necessary to impact Detroit's digital divide, a lasting, just, and equitable solution begins with dismantling the structures that created it. These structures, rooted in capitalism and racism, cannot support an equitable solution for bridging the digital divide. From our orientation to data and digital justice, the Detroit Community Technology Project seeks to further interrogate familiar dynamics of harm creeping in with seemingly new solutions.

The current political moment presents opportunities for high-powered partnerships and numbers-driven responses. It also threatens the use of top-down, "move fast and break things" style initiatives that minimize Detroiters’ needs by failing to involve them directly in shaping resources and access. We know that when community members are excluded from “the business” of designing solutions, limited only to low-level or superficial decision-making, what results is an extractive approach rather than genuine, equity-driven repair. For example, the City of Detroit's project to address internet access in Detroit, Connect 313, seeks to funnel community input-- from anyone who works, plays or lives in Detroit-- into a mechanism designed first by corporate partners. Connect 313 borrows the language of grassroots organizing, but by the nature of its structure holds a vested interest in profit-generation and data extraction. As the initiative spins up its governance framework, we will learn how Detroiters, including those not already online, are represented at the highest levels of its leadership. We will learn how marginalized Detroiters are centered throughout the process. More pointedly, we will learn whether Detroiters can trust that a new corporate-convened and hierarchically-structured project will create meaningful digital equity when some of the same private interests are also behind failing infrastructure and mass surveillance.

The issue of the digital divide is more nuanced than connectivity and adoption alone, it is also an issue of safety and privacy, of investment and divestment. Take the charitable arm of the now public Quicken Loans/Rocket Companies. Its foundation has committed millions to close Detroit’s digital divide, and is at the helm of Connect313, but has yet to address their parent company's investment in surveillance technology now marketed widely as public safety. Real-time private surveillance for public policing was pioneered in Detroit by Quicken Loans, leading to the Detroit Police Department's launch of Project Green Light (PGL), a program emblematic of the over-policing of Black and Brown bodies enacted through public-private partnership. Over 2800 cameras across 700 locations currently stream live footage to the city’s Real Time Crime Center, where still photos can be fed into facial recognition algorithms, reinforcing and automating the criminalization of Blackness.

A commitment to surveillance infrastructure is prioritized over neighborhood infrastructure in the case of Comast, which financially benefits the business internet subscriptions required for participation in PGL. Comcast is especially notorious in Black and Brown communities like those in Detroit, Baltimore, and Philadelphia for slow speeds, unreliable connections, and frustrating processes and eligibility requirements for low-income subscribers. Despite refusing to improve their subpar Internet Essentials affordable rate service, Comcast stands to gain millions of dollars by connecting newly desirable student households residents in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The money that Comcast, one of the nation’s wealthiest corporations, earns through Project Green Light and through partnership with school districts whose families they previously would not serve, must be divested and reinvested in resourcing Detroiters with digital access through grassroots initiatives, not hotspots and other short-term gestures.

The ethos of community stewardship over public resources is at the heart of the Detroit Community Technology Project (DCTP). Our Equitable Internet Initiative (EII), is a decentralized approach to bridging the digital divide that centers digital and racial equity. We train Detroit and Highland Park residents as Digital Stewards who build community wireless infrastructure, ensure adoption, and support the healthy integration of technology into communities. We are building a world where traditionally marginalized and excluded Detroiters - seniors, youth, Black, people of color, LGBTQIA, differently-abled, and low-income - shape their city and its technology, not the other way around.

DCTP maintains that our communities must experience not only equitable inclusion in the Connect 313 leadership structure, but access to community-governed internet infrastructure, a collective understanding of true digital equity, opportunities to be trained in community organizing and wireless engineering, and a virtual learning experience shaped by students. Together, we will create a future where our communities are connected, safe, and resilient, and where Black and Brown residents are free from undue surveillance and extraction.

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