Clinton to IT Execs: Help Close Digital Divide

CHICAGO (04/24/2000) - By highlighting his campaign to close the "digital divide," President Clinton made a passionate plea last week to the IT community at Comdex/Spring 2000 in Chicago, asking for help in the interest of not only society but the new economy as well.

The appearance marked the first time a sitting president has addressed a major IT event, and Clinton recognized the venue as an opportunity to reach a good portion of the major industry players.

"The problem we have in America with social change is getting things to scale, is reaching a critical mass of people," Clinton said. "That's why I came here today. This is a critical mass of the IT community."

Foremost, Clinton asked that IT business leaders understand that closing the digital divide is not only a social responsibility but also an economic necessity to keep the digital economy moving forward.

"It's not only morally the right choice, it's not just good social policy," Clinton said. "It is imperative in my judgment, if we're going to keep the economy growing, to find new places where we create not only new customers but new businesses and new employees."

To that end, Clinton made three specific requests for IT businesses to turn technological exclusion into digital opportunity.

First, he asked that businesses donate computers and software to schools and provide them high-speed Internet access. He then asked that businesses create more internships within the high-tech arena.

"We can do a lot to close the digital divide just by equaling the representation once people do have the education and skills they need," the president said.

Finally, he admitted that the federal government needs help in its fight and that it is in the interest of businesses to acknowledge that fact and assist in the crusade.

"If we work together, we can empower people with the tools and the training they need to lift themselves out of poverty," Clinton said. "If we work together, we can close the digital divide and open digital opportunities."

Throughout his speech, the president also recalled the stops he has made on his digital divide campaign, summarizing visits with American Indian tribes that have yet to gain basic telephone access and urban community technology centers where underprivileged children and adults can learn how to use technology.

Clinton also addressed the issue of broadband network access, noting that in rural places it could open up opportunities on the Web for people isolated from jobs in cities.

"I can't do it alone, but if we all do it together, there is nothing we can't do," Clinton concluded.

Reno touts accessibility

Attorney General Janet Reno last week detailed new government regulations requiring that technology vendors interested in doing business with the federal government make more products accessible to people with disabilities.

Specifically, she outlined Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1998, which requires federal agencies themselves to make their own technology operations and resources more available to the disabled.

Section 508 covers federal Web sites, telecommunications, software, hardware, printers, and kiosks. It states explicitly that inaccessible technology may be purchased only if its accessible equivalent creates an "undue burden" by adding difficulty or expense.

"Section 508 is a recognition that people with disabilities should not remain an afterthought," Reno said.

Reno, however, maintains that an afterthought is exactly what the disabled have been, stating that 75 percent of people with disabilities are either unemployed or underemployed.

Regardless, she did stop short of saying that the government would mandate new accessibility regulations on the entire IT industry, saying, "We are not regulating."

Instead, Reno said that Congress was looking to provide incentives that would encourage the IT industry to voluntarily develop new accessible technology.

President Clinton also included the disabled as a population cut off by the digital divide in his address to the IT community at Comdex last week and intimated that the disabled would be a focal group in the upcoming months.

"In a couple of months, we will have a part of this digital divide tour devoted solely to the potential that Web accessibility offers to disabled Americans to participate more fully in the educational and economic life of the United States," Clinton said.

The Rehabilitation Act of 1998 can be found on the Department of Justice's Web site at www.usdoj.gov.

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