In an interesting bill before Congress, Senator Ray Lujan of New Mexico and Representative Doris Matsui of California introduced the Digital Equity Foundation Act of 2022. This bill would create a nonprofit organization called the Foundation for Digital Equity that would work to leverage public and private funds to solve the digital equity gap. Within six months after the bill is passed, the Secretary of Commerce would be required to establish a nonprofit corporation called the Foundation for Digital Equity.
It’s an interesting concept because it would create an organization that would bridge government and philanthropic organizations to formally tackle problems associated with digital equity. The Foundation would have four specific goals:
- Work to raise funds from philanthropic organizations, businesses, and state and local governments to tackle issues associated with digital literacy, digital inclusion, and digital equity.
- Work to promote partnerships and collaborations that would tackle specific hands-on projects that would further digital equity goals.
- Promote equitable access to broadband and associated applications like telehealth, distant learning, and e-government.
- Work to supplement programs from the NTIA that are aimed at solving digital equity issues.
The Act gives the Foundation a wide scope of operations and suggests a number of different activities that the Board would be free to pursue. Some examples include:
- Conduct and support studies, competitions, and projects.
- Award digital equity, digital inclusion, and digital literacy grants (I assume the grants would be funded by the private sector).
- Support training programs related to digital equity for researchers, scientists, government officials, and those in higher education.
- Create for-profit subsidiaries to stimulate economic development.
- Engage in data collection related to inequities and community needs related to digital equity.
- Write, edit, print, publish, and sell books and other materials relating to efforts carried out by the Foundation, the Department of Commerce, or the FCC.
- Developing a publicly available evaluation process to enable communities to identify and quantify digital equity problems.
The Foundation would not be a government agency but instead would be a 501(c) nonprofit. However, there would be some government funding to pay for the administrative operation of the Foundation. Interestingly, donations to the Foundation would not be tax deductible. The governance of the Foundation would start with a Committee of named government officials who would have six months to seek a Board of five non-compensated Board members to permanently operate the Foundation. At least three of the Board members must have broad and general experience with digital equity, digital inclusion, or digital literacy. One member must have experience working with private nonprofit organizations. The Secretary of Commerce, the Director of the NTIA, the Chairman of the FCC, the Secretary of the Treasury, and the Under Secretary of Agriculture for Rural Development will also serve as non-voting members of the Board.
This is an interesting approach and recognizes that it’s going to take a long time to tackle digital equity problems. The IIJA provides for $3 billion in digital equity grants over the next three years, but this Act recognizes that a long-term approach is needed to go beyond the work started with these grants.
The one thing I’ve learned about digital equity in the last year is that the only successful approach requires working with people one by one. Somebody has to sit with the recipient of a first computer to help them learn how to use it. Training somebody to effectively use the web requires individual training. This Foundation is not going to itself solve any digital equity problems. But if done well, it will match government, philanthropic, and business donations with organizations that are going to do the hard work that is needed.
Similar to the corporation for public broadcasting.