What role should companies be playing in bridging the digital divide? This question seems particularly relevant to AOL Time Warner, described by David Eisner, Vice President of the AOL Time Warner Foundation, as ‘the premier company around convergence, the first Internet media company’. So what should the company and its new foundation be doing in this area, Caroline Hartnell asked Eisner.
AOL Time Warner Foundation
Established just after the merger between Time Warner and AOL, the new AOL Time Warner Foundation ‘seeks to use the power of media, communications and information technology to serve the public interest and strengthen society’. It has identified four priority programme areas:
- equipping kids for a better future;
- extending Internet benefits to all;
- engaging communities in the arts;
- empowering citizens and citizen participation.
The Foundation is managed within the Corporate Relations Department, of which David Eisner is also Vice President. Corporate Relations has the task of ensuring that all the various businesses units work together on the company’s social priorities.
Companies and the digital divide
Asked about the role of Internet companies, and AOL Time Warner in particular, in bridging the digital divide, David Eisner begins by distinguishing two ways of looking at the digital divide. One question is whether people are going to be left behind in technology. The other is whether people will be able to benefit from it. ‘They are actually very different. Technology has the ability to enable individuals and communities that never had access, for example, to capital, to participate economically. Or to give them access to goods and services that they have never had access to before. The Internet can give people in communities that have been politically disenfranchised a new way of making their voices heard. It can give people who have not been able to participate in society, because of geographical barriers or disability or other social and cultural barriers, new ways to participate.
‘If we do it right, information technology becomes an enormous tool for greater social justice and equity. If we do it wrong, it actually exacerbates existing problems.’
One focus for industry must be on lowering prices in poor countries. ‘As we see prices for computers, televisions, cellphones and other access points going down, we will see greater penetration.’ Satellite and wireless technologies will be very important both in driving down cost and in expanding availability in developing countries.
Companies also have a responsibility to find ways to help produce content that is relevant to people’s lives. Some of the most important applications in developing countries are around healthcare information and education, ‘and it’s up to us to make sure that that we really bring the power behind distance learning, telemedicine, and some of the powerful ways that those applications can be helpful to bear in those countries’.
Distinct roles for the three sectors
Eisner sees industry as just one of three sets of players that have a role to play – government, industry and the non-profit sector. Bringing down prices in poor countries is clearly something that has to be done through the business model: ‘Philanthropy is not going to connect the vast majority of people in developing countries.’ Foundations could have a role to play in developing content. ‘We can try experiments, we can incubate some interesting models. It wouldn’t surprise me to see some foundations begin to experiment with distance learning, for example in Africa.’ The better models can then be picked up and used in businesses: ‘A lot of initial online education was done by philanthropy and foundations and now it’s being managed domestically in the US by businesses.’
When it comes to using new technologies to bring about connectivity in rural areas in developing countries, Eisner sees a distinct role for all three sectors. Business can test new applications to see the extent to which they can make them more broadly scaleable and revenue-producing. Government has to find a way to connect all of its citizens, ‘and it needs to figure out what are the standards which constitute adequate connection’. The non-profit sector can stimulate new ideas.
The AOL Time Warner Foundation is currently working with the US Peace Corps to provide 120 ‘AOL peace packs’, which include computer, printer, scanner and digital camera. Peace Corps volunteers will take these packs into developing countries – often to communities for which they will be the only contact they have with the outside world – and train local NGOs in how to use them.
Eisner clearly sees a growing role for inter-sectoral collaboration on digital divide issues, but is the relationship between AOL Time Warner and the Foundation too seamless to be called a partnership?
‘We deliberately kept it very seamless, because we know that, however much money the Foundation has, that is not nearly the true power we have to benefit society. The true power that we have to benefit society is 85,000 employees, the world’s largest dial-up network, half the Internet, an incredible ability to generate mind share – through People magazine, Time magazine, CNN, etc. So the closer we bring the Foundation to the company, the more we believe we will be able to fulfil our mission to act in the public interest.’
Technology due diligence
What about grantmaking foundations and technology? What role can they play? Several, is Eisner’s answer. First of all is to develop ‘some cutting edge pilot projects for international digital divide work’. ‘But I would also make a plea that funders – even those who are not focused on digital divide issues or on capacity-building or on technology per se – should see it as part of their responsibility to ensure that the non-profits to whom they give funds are adequately equipped from a technology point of view, in the same way that they do due diligence around staffing and financial management.’
Any substantial support grant by a foundation, in Eisner’s view, should look at their technology plan in the same way that it takes account of staffing, board structure, financial management, insurance – ‘any of these other big pieces’.
He sees what he calls ‘non-profit adoption’ as one of the biggest problems around the digital divide. ‘When the non-profits that represent a community, that advocate on its behalf and provide services to it, are not themselves connected, we know that we are not going to be able to reach that community.’
The real Internet revolution
A final question addressed the Internet revolution. As far as civil society and non-profits are concerned, what is it really going to be about?
Eisner accepts that the Internet will help non-profits with a lot of their activities – recruiting volunteers, publicity, advocacy, fundraising. ‘But that isn’t really the transformational impact that the Internet will have. That will be in building communities, enabling people who care about similar things to come together in a virtual way, to relate to each other, to share ideas, to feel that they are a part of other people.’
In his view, looking ten years ahead, the strongest communities in the world should be those that are based around non-profit causes, around coming together to help people. ‘If we do it right, that is what the Internet can be. It will take a lot of what are now peripheral causes around society and make them central, because these causes are going to be part of the strongest engine that is driving society and the economy in the information age.’