Sounding the Alarm on Electronic Discrimination
To Dr. Oscar H. Gandy Jr., putting computers and Internet access into the hands of disadvantaged minority and poor Americans falls short of addressing what he defines as one barely recognized version of the digital divide in the United States. Gandy, the Herbert I. Schiller professor in the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, has begun to point out the danger that digital technologies pose in making “cyber-redlining” and other types of discrimination a reality.In one example, a community group in Dallas last year accused Wells Fargo Bank of redlining on the Internet after the bank posted controversial neighborhood descriptions on its Web site. After people complained that the Web site relied upon stereotypes to describe minority neighborhoods, the bank pulled the controversial content from the Internet. “Wells Fargo Home Mortgage Inc. has decided to disable our ‘Community Search Service’ link at <www.wellsfargo.com/mortgage/> until we can determine if the editorial content is compatible with our demonstrated commitment to low- and moderate-income and minority homebuyers,” the company said in a statement. In another case, African American residents in Washington filed a class action lawsuit last year against Kozmo.com, an online consumer product delivery service that promises to deliver items from the Internet to your door in less than an hour. The suit was filed shortly after a news media investigation by MSNBC.com revealed that Kozmo.com was failing to offer delivery to many neighborhoods with high concentrations of Black residents in cities where the company does business. While the company, which recently closed, claimed that it only considered Internet usage when deciding which areas to serve and denied that race was a factor, some attorneys and advocacy groups say that Kozmo.com was guilty of cyber-redlining. “Kozmo.com has been accused of racial discrimination because its Web-based delivery system appears to systematically avoid serving African American communities, despite their close proximity to the upscale White customers they do serve,” Gandy has noted. What Gandy sees as an overarching problem with digital technology taking over the delivery of the media and influencing public policy is the consumer-driven orientation it brings. “As a marketplace, logic comes to dominate the thinking of information system managers. It is important to recognize that this is a framework that is increasingly oriented toward shaping and responding to people’s interests as consumers, rather than to their interests as citizens and members of communities and social groups,” Gandy has said.
Technology as a menace In a recent symposium on democracy at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio, Gandy presented a wide-ranging talk about the menace that new digital technologies pose in fostering discrimination based on segmentation and targeting practices. He says that while redlining and other forms of discrimination are not new, he believes new technologies, such as the Internet, have the potential to make the practices worse than ever before. “The first claim that I wish to make is that segmentation and targeting are parts of a complex technological system, the purpose of which is to facilitate discrimination. This is discrimination that can easily be shown to be rational and economically efficient for some actors within the society, but it can also be seen to be inefficient, irrational and ultimately destructive at the society level,” Gandy declared at Kent State. Gandy argues that segmentation, while advantageous to marketers in identifying well-to-do buyers for their products and services, “shapes the supply of content and promotional material that produces increasingly narrow and more homogeneous audience segments.” One consequence of audience segmentation is that advertisers and marketers consistently value audiences of one racial and ethnic background over another. “The rates paid by advertisers for access to White as compared to minority broadcast audiences also reflect an important digital divide,” Gandy explained. The University of Pennsylvania professor says his research on information technology and discrimination combines the work he has done on cyberspace privacy issues and racism in the media. A former Howard University faculty member, Gandy has written widely on race, media, privacy and public policy. “My work primarily draws upon social science, economics and political science,” he notes.Gandy says that while activists and a few others have responded to instances of cyber-redlining, he wants to see academic researchers and major civil rights groups take on the issue of electronic segmentation and marketing and racial discrimination.“I don’t want to be out here all by myself,” Gandy says.
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