The Active Citizen in the Digital Age: Getting Connected

March 6th, 2019 - 5:00 pm

Encina Hall, Oksenberg Conference Room, 3rd Floor 616 Serra Street
Stanford , CA 94305

Democracy depends on participation. In the digital era, participation often depends on access to a free and open internet. Yet for most of the world’s population, digital access remains expensive, unreliable and limited. How are marginalized communities – across both the US and the Global South – organizing digital access for themselves? In this event, we’ll talk to two experts on connectivity and community-led efforts to create equal access to digital resources. Tawana Petty is a researcher with the Detroit Community Technology Project, which brings together technologists, activists, and community members to build wireless networks across Detroit. Jenna Burrell, an ethnographer and associate professor in the School of Information at UC Berkeley, has researched digital connectivity among marginalized populations, first in sub-Saharan Africa and, currently, in rural areas of California and Oregon. Toussaint Nothias is a postdoctoral fellow at the Digital Civil Society Lab whose research explores journalism, social media and civil society in Africa.

The Active Citizen in the Digital Age is an ongoing speaker series highlighting the range of ways people are using digital technologies to make a difference – politically, charitably, as volunteers, and with their career, consumer, and investing choices. 

Tawana “Honeycomb” Petty is a mother, social justice organizer, youth advocate, poet and author. She is the founder and director of Petty Propolis, which organizes transformative art and education initiatives. Honeycomb is a four-time author and co-founder of Riverwise Magazine, Director of Data Justice Programming for the Detroit Community Technology Project, a member of the Detroit Digital Justice Coalition, a Detroit Equity Action Lab fellow, and a board member of the James and Grace Lee Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership. Honeycomb has been widely recognized for her social justice contributions. She is a past recipient of the Spirit of Detroit Award, the Woman of Substance Award, the Women Creating Caring Communities Award, the Detroit Awesome Award, the University of Michigan Black Law Student Association’s Justice Honoree Award, was recognized as one of Who’s Who in Black Detroit in 2013 and 2015, and was awarded the Wayne State Center for Peace and Conflict Studies Peacemaker Award in 2018. Learn more about Honeycomb at pettypropolis.org.  

Jenna Burrell is an Associate Professor in the School of Information at UC Berkeley. She is the co-director of the Algorithmic Fairness and Opacity Working Group. Her first book Invisible Users: Youth in the Internet Cafes of Urban Ghana (The MIT Press) came out in May 2012. She is currently working on a second book about rural communities that host critical Internet infrastructure such as fiber optic cables and data centers. She has a PhD in Sociology from the London School of Economics. Her research focuses on how marginalized communities adapt digital technologies to meet their needs and to pursue their goals and ideals.

Toussaint Nothias is a postdoctoral fellow at the Digital Civil Society Lab. He holds a PhD in Media and Communication from the University of Leeds. His research explores journalism, social media and civil society in Africa. In the past, he has conducted interviews among foreign correspondents to understand how the global image of Africa is produced. He has also done research with Kenyan journalists to examine their work practices and the impact of social media on their reporting of elections, terrorism, and the ICC investigation in Kenya. His postdoc fellowship project, titled Free Basics and the African Digital Civil Society, looks at the implementation of Facebook’s initiative to provide free Internet across various African countries and its impact on local media production and civil society groups. In parallel, Toussaint is developing a sharable, open-source tool, the Africa Stereotype Scanner (ASTRSC), which uses digital technologies to scan for damaging stereotypes and implicit biases in reporting about Africa. In 2017, Toussaint organized the workshop “African Media Studies in the Digital Age” at Stanford, and in 2018 he received the Stuart Hall Award from the IAMCR for his work on Twitter in Kenya. 


  • 5:00 pm - 6:30 pm - Program
  • 6:00 pm - 6:30 pm - Q&A
  • 6:30 pm - 7:00 pm - Reception


  • Toussaint Nothias - Postdoctoral Fellow, Digital Civil Society Lab
  • Jenna Burrell - Associate Professor, School of Information, UC Berkeley
  • Tawana Petty - Data Justice Community Researcher, Detroit Community Technology Project


By Krysten Crawford

Name the Internet’s biggest risk to democracy and hate speech, privacy breaches, or government-sponsored hacking might come to mind. But there’s another threat posed by the web’s 30-year rise that receives scant attention: for most of the world’s population, getting online is too expensive, and for those who can afford it, service is often unreliable or non-existent.

The problem of the Internet-deprived masses—not just in the developing world but in rural and urban communities in the United States—was the subject of a panel discussion hosted by the Stanford Digital Civil Society Lab as part of its ongoing public speaker series, “The Active Citizen in the Digital Age.”

Toussaint Nothias, a postdoctoral fellow at the Lab and the event’s moderator, cited a few examples of the inequalities that the lack of web access perpetuates: a mere gigabyte of data can cost more than five percent of what many people living in poor countries earn in a month; and women around the world are 26 percent less likely than men to use the mobile web. Nothias also noted a significant increase in efforts by governments around the world to limit or cut Internet access in the name of stifling protests or preventing the spread of disinformation.

“In the debates about digital disruption and democracy, access to the Internet can easily be taken for granted—something that is a given,” said Nothias. “The digital divide remains a huge challenge.”

In the United States, some communities are banding together to bring Internet services to their respective areas. Speaking to these citizen-led initiatives were two experts on digital access for marginalized populations: Tawana Petty, a researcher with the Detroit Community Technology Project and coordinator at the Detroit Digital Justice Coalition; and, Jenna Burrell, an ethnographer and associate professor at the School of Information at UC Berkeley who has researched digital connectivity challenges in Africa and, more recently, California and Oregon.

The Call for a Systemic Fix

According to Petty, in Detroit, 30 percent of residents can’t readily access the web. The reason, she said, is simple: ISPs don’t think there’s a good business case for investing in Internet infrastructure in low-income neighborhoods. As a result, children there are often unable to do homework required of them online, and residents risk losing access to basic necessities, like paying water bills, as more government services go paperless.

In 2012 in response, community members began setting up mesh networks linking home routers together to provide neighborhood-wide access. Volunteers, or “digital stewards,” went from home to home, asking residents if they would share their service. More recently, the Detroit Community Technology Project has worked with a Michigan-based Internet service provider to bring the city’s low-income households online.

Petty noted that vast inequities remain despite progress. She doesn’t expect that the much-anticipated arrival of faster, 5G broadband service nationwide will reach poorer neighborhoods, and so the gap between rich and poor is likely to widen. A long-term “systemic” solution is needed. “We’re at the point where we have to head [the digital divide] off and have a more equitable system.”

Impact on Self-Identity

Burrell’s focus on the experience of rural communities underscores their innovative potential — namely how residents in California’s Mendocino County resorted to mobilizing politically and building their own service providers using off-the-shelf equipment. “It’s, literally, a mom-and-pop business [with] local ambitions. They will often provide free Internet service in exchange for using land to put a tower.” According to Burrell, while these so-called WISPs (the “w” for “wireless”) are not looking to become the next Comcast, they are gaining influence among federal regulators.

Burrell, who studies the digital divide’s impact in African communities and finds similar effects in the United States, notes that the harms created by the lack of Internet service extend to self-identity. Low-income communities “start to see themselves in the way they are seen through the technology. They start to see themselves as marginalized.”

One of the apparent challenges is the lack of political will in Washington, D.C. to require ISPs to provide universal web access the way telephone companies were mandated by a 1934 law to ensure comprehensive phone service.

The Implications of Access

Petty and Burrell agree that universal connectivity alone isn’t enough to address inequalities brought about by the digital divide. If anything, it may lead to new problems for disadvantaged groups. The next step is to build awareness of the risks of being online and how that might affect not just individual users, but also entire neighborhoods.

“It’s very important to be teaching about the impact of your data [trail] and how our data is being sold, extracted, shared and utilized,” said Petty. “[There’s a culture] we need to create within access that fosters a way of taking care of one another.”

Minority groups and low-income households are at higher risk in digital contexts. Burrell described them as “vulnerable and easy targets” for government surveillance and other forms of abuse as data becomes increasingly commodified. “And I think we’re seeing that spreading to the rest of us,” she said.

Burrell also sees an opportunity. “That is the frontier…in places where that kind of connectivity is becoming ubiquitous. What are the new forms of harm that we’re experiencing because of that inability to not be connected or make choices or be empowered to be connected in the ways that necessarily benefit all of us?”

Burrell wants to see US communities, rural and urban, unite to preemptively head off problems that digital access can foster. “That sounds very abstract. I don’t know exactly how they would,” she said. “But a little awareness would be a good place to start.”

The Digital Civil Society Lab series, “Active Citizen in the Digital Age,” builds on an online course taught by Lucy Bernholz and Rob Reich that explores how technology shapes citizen engagement online and offline. Previous panels have looked at reimagining democracy, the alleged hypocrisy of elite do-goodism, and different models for mobilizing citizens. The Digital Civil Society Lab is part of the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society (Stanford PACS).