Google has long been seen as a visionary company, one that has ushered in a host of innovations that have transformed the way people live and, in the process, turned the company itself into a celebrated and iconic brand. Its national expansion into broadband is a venture known as Google Fiber.
But as the corporate giant seeks to enter the business of running high-speed Internet networks in cities around the country, Google’s visionary reputation masks potentially troubling practices that recall some of our nation’s darkest days around the issues of race and economic class.
Instead of providing internet, or broadband, service to all residents in the communities it plans to serve, Google appears to be engaged in the abhorrent practice of redlining: depriving these services to certain neighborhoods based on income, ethnicity and race. Should this pattern hold true, the inevitable result will be the undermining of communities that are in most need of broadband access, thereby deepening the digital divide.
Already too many Americans are without online access at a time when such access is no longer a luxury but a necessity in every household for everything from paying bills, searching for jobs, pursuing advanced educational degrees and accessing health records.
In Kansas City, as the deadline approached for neighborhoods to sign up for Google Fiber, higher-income, European-American neighborhoods were hooked-up first, while lower-income, primarily African-American neighborhoods were not. Compounding the problem was that prospective customers need a credit card to sign up for service, something that many residents in poor communities lacked.
In Nashville, Tenn., African-American religious leaders have questioned Google’s commitment to their neighborhoods. Google Fiber has installed service in mainly a few downtown buildings and residencies. Pastor Frank Stevenson of St. Luke’s Primitive Baptist Church has led a group of more than 20 clergy to raise awareness about potential digital redlining. “In this land of fast-moving access, to not have access puts us at a disadvantage,” Stevenson lamented. “We want to make sure that Google will be responsible in how they provide services in this city.”
In Atlanta, Google Fiber is initially offering service in Old Fourth Ward, Virginia-Highland, and Morningside/Lenox Park. These are some of the more affluent and popular neighborhoods in the city. As for poorer neighborhoods, they will have to wait until Google gets to them – and who knows for sure when that will be. None of this should be altogether surprising for anyone who has followed Google, a bastion of wealthy European-American males, not unlike Silicon Valley itself.
News reports have tracked the dismal record that Google and other high-tech companies in Silicon Valley have in employing African-Americans, Hispanics and women. Many apologists for Google have argued that Google’s hiring record is a result of the difficulties the company says it has had identifying minorities who have the specialized education needed to compete in the high-tech industry. Even if true, it is beyond plausibility to suggest that Google does not have the resources to cultivate American-grown talent — whatever the ethnicity or income status — by augmenting STEM programs and local, county, and state education systems.
But Google’s troubling hiring practices have extended beyond its high-skilled workers and have been reflected in its hiring of non-tech employees as well. At a minimum, this suggests that Google’s leaders operate in an insular world of high-tech wizardry. They remain either largely blind to or willfully ignorant of the larger societal issues around them.
The emerging conflicts between Google and the communities within cites targeted for Google Fiber is somewhat ironic — if not hypocritical — given that the Google has long positioned itself as the champion of a principle it likes to tout: “Democracy on the web works.”
Indeed, for all the talk of ushering in a revolutionary era, Google Fiber’s rollout bears many of the trappings of the practices of banks, mortgage lenders, telephone companies, and other corporate actors that have redlined low-income and minority communities in the past. And let’s be candid: some still do. Devotion to higher profits at the expense of greater societal good should not be excused by the thin veneer of Google returning shareholders’ value. Redlining results in the wholesale disenfranchisement of communities and, ultimately, despite short-term profits, a weaker economic foundation for America’s future.
Maybe the algorithm of how redlining undermines American communities is too sophisticated for Google to grasp, but it should halt this discriminatory practice nonetheless. Google could certainly refuse. But, as a colleague said, before we ask Washington to step in to fix this, why don’t we demand this of Google ourselves?