According to recent reports released by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and Mediamark research, the co-called “digital divide” is quickly disappearing. As many as 134 million Americans currently have access to the Internet and conservative estimates have that total increasing to 197 million by 2003.
What is striking about this surge in online population is the make-up of the new users. According to Mediamark, nearly 40 percent of Internet users are either blue-collar workers or unemployed. Given the rarity of Internet-using retirees and the historically low unemployment rate, it follows that the number of blue-collar workers online has increased dramatically.
Other demographic groups have also increased their presence. The number of women online has increased significantly. In 1996, only 42 percent of Internet users were female, that number now stands at 50 percent. Likewise, in 1996 50 percent of online users had a college degree; now only 38 percent of Internet users have college degrees.
If user trends continue as expected, it is conceivable that all talk of a “digital divide” will end within the next few years. That is, of course, unless taxes act as a prohibitive expense to keep the poorest Americans from accessing the Internet.
According to the OECD report, taxes make up twice as much of Internet access costs in America as they do in Japan. American prosperity overcomes this disparity in tax rates, but they may pose a problem to the poorest Americans. With over 10 percent of Internet access costs going to pay taxes, those at the margins may still find it difficult to afford going online in the coming era of Internet ubiquity. If government is truly concerned about a digital divide, it should remove the taxes and barriers it has erected.