News and analysis
February 11, 2015

Bill de Blasio Urges Philanthropy to Tackle Inequality Through Internet Access

Megan O'Neil, for The Chronicle

"For so many families, Internet access is just out of reach, and therefore, for those families, a lot of economic opportunity is out of reach," New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said at the event.

Mayor Bill de Blasio spurred foundation leaders Wednesday to invest in projects and technology tools that protect and expand the accessibility of the Internet.

"We know that you can fill in some of these gaps more effectively than any government, and you can spark change more agilely than most governments ever could, and we need you to do that," Mr. de Blasio said.

Life opportunities increasingly correlate to education levels and, in turn, to access to high-speed Internet, the mayor said. More than a quarter of American households do not have such access.

"For so many families, Internet access is just out of reach, and therefore, for those families, a lot of economic opportunity is out of reach," Mr. de Blasio said. "For their children, a lot of educational opportunities are out of reach."

The comments came during a daylong event at the Ford Foundation offices marking a new multifoundation effort aimed at identifying and building solutions to problems of Internet accessibility and security. Formally titled "NetGain: Working Together for a Stronger Digital Society," the effort was made public last week.

It represents a partnership among five major foundations: Ford, Knight, MacArthur, Mozilla, and Open Society. Collectively, they already spend about $50-million annually on Internet and other technology-related projects, according to the Ford Foundation. Under the new effort, they may increase spending on such projects, Chris Stone, president of the Open Society Foundations, said Wednesday, but did not specify by how much.

Principally, the foundations plan to better align existing efforts while each takes on a leadership role on one or more "NetGain Challenges." The partners are using the website netgainchallenge.org to solicit ideas about what the challenges should be.

Those already proposed include creating an alternative to commercial social networks, safeguarding against Internet shutdowns in regions with gross human-rights abuses, and preserving civil liberties while also enjoying the benefits of digital innovations like Netflix recommendations.

Documentary filmmaker and Internet-privacy advocate Laura Poitras, among the presenters Wednesday, said she never could have helped break the story of Edward Snowden and the NSA surveillance program without open-source tools like those that could be supported under NetGain.

"I couldn’t have communicated with Snowden securely," Ms. Poitras said. "I couldn’t have done the research I needed to do. I wouldn’t have been able to collaborate."

Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Center for Civic Media and an Open Society Foundations board member, said the effort will not put broadband access in every American household. Instead, it is an attempt to identify some of the most grisly threats to a free and open Internet and to suss out the best ideas and the most compelling talent to tackle them. He described it as a high-risk, potentially high-reward strategy.

"We are interested in trying to make a set of interventions that are more ambitious than we generally take on—and more likely to screw up than we generally take on," Mr. Zuckerman said.

The effort is the first time that a group of major foundations has coalesced around this set of issues, according to the Ford Foundation.

As part of their commitment, the foundations also adopted six "technology principles" that they said will guide their work. The principles include making the Internet an open, secure, and equitable space for all, supporting opportunities created by a networked space, and ensuring that philanthropy leads in digital security and data ethics in its own practices.

"We know quite well our digital society can be an extension and an expansion of our democracy," Ford Foundation President Darren Walker said.

Other speakers Wednesday included the World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee and Knight Foundation President Alberto Ibargüen.

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