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What Is Digital Redlining? Experts Explain the Nuances

Digital redlining shares many things in common with traditional redlining, the deliberate withholding of loans and other key resources from residents of certain neighborhoods, largely along racial divides.

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As digital equity and digital inclusion become bigger priorities for government, advocates in the space say we must collectively tackle one of the work’s biggest obstacles — digital redlining.

Digital redlining is not a new conversation, not entirely, but it is one that like most things digital inclusion is getting more attention after the COVID-19 pandemic. When the virus forced people to stay home, it became clear that Internet in every house is vital for a community. Simply put, people need high-speed Internet at home to be part of a heavily digital society. But digital redlining can make getting or affording Internet access difficult.

So, the question then becomes, what is digital redlining? Digital redlining is underinvestment by Internet companies in providing service to communities that are lower income — disproportionately communities of color — and it results in plans that have lower speeds and are often less affordable than those found in wealthier — and often whiter — areas, said Vinhcent Le, senior legal counsel of tech equity for The Greenlining Institute, a California-based organization that works to fix digital redlining.

Basically, Internet service providers make investment decisions based on profit, factoring in an area’s wealth as well as competition from other companies. In some cases, they may decide to invest in upgrading networks or providing vital network maintenance in wealthier areas instead of extending basic infrastructure or similar service to low-income areas.

As a result, they may charge higher rates for the same or slower Internet in digitally redlined areas. What then happens is potential users would have to pay more for worse Internet, and they wouldn’t have the market competition that would push providers to do better.

“The market doesn’t work in lower-income areas, and the problem with the market analogy in general is that Internet is now an essential service,” Le said. “The way we designed our broadband systems doesn't account for everyone needing Internet and needing it at fast speeds.”

As the name implies, it’s all similar to redlining, a discriminatory practice where resources like housing loans are withheld from certain neighborhoods that institutions have deemed hazardous, generally because they are predominantly home to communities of color or low-income residents.

Angela Siefer, the executive director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA), said that while her group first wrote a report about what is digital redlining roughly five years ago, it realized recently that it could use clarifying. This was in large part because folks started to use digital redlining as a blanket term to talk about the digital divide, which isn’t really what it means. Using it this way, she said, downplays the role of discrimination and is “going to keep us from getting real answers about digital redlining.”

What’s key to note from the NDIA’s definition is that this “denial of services has disparate impacts in certain areas of cities or regions, most frequently on the basis of income, race and ethnicity.”

This means that looking at longtime redlining maps can give someone a pretty clear indication of where digital redlining is also occurring. There are, however, differences between the two, Siefer said, largely owing to gentrification in major U.S. cities. This means some neighborhoods that were once redlined are now home to wealthier communities, making digital redlining less likely to happen there.

Both Siefer and Le, however, noted that there is momentum for work to fix digital redlining.

Le said that there are actions that can be taken at the local level to fix digital redlining, or to at least start the process. In California, for example, some local governments have formed regional groups to pool resources and knowledge around the problem. Another key to the work is taking action that fosters more competition between Internet service providers.

Le noted it all takes a hyperlocal approach, but this can mean government building open access infrastructure along highways, infrastructure that can then be used by private companies or municipal projects to provide better and more affordable Internet service. More accurate data about what rates Internet service providers charge would also help, giving those who are trying to fix digital redlining — from local governments to advocacy groups — a clearer idea of where the problem is at its most pressing.

At the top level of government, Siefer pointed to the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) recent call for public comments about what constitutes digital discrimination. The goal there is to get a working consensus on what digital discrimination is so that action can be taken by the commission to address it. Digital redlining, Siefer said, will almost certainly be a big part of this work. It’s complicated, of course, but the FCC making an effort to even start these conversations is progress.

“What we’ll all be trying to figure out is what do we want from the FCC?” Siefer said. “Can they take any action to stop discrimination in the future? Can they do anything about discrimination in the past? These are all things we collectively need to talk through.”
Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.