In summary

The demands of social distancing have revealed the digital divide to be a chasm. California is partnering with Google to close it. Here’s what that means.

For years, California lawmakers have bemoaned the digital divide. It has remained one of the most glaring of the state’s many inequalities: The cradle of the national tech economy is also home to so many unconnected and under-connected have-nots.

But uneven internet access has never seemed quite so pressing as it does now, when the demands of social distancing have revealed the digital divide to be a chasm. 

Earlier this week, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Google will provide 100,000 free WiFi hotspots to serve California households in need, particularly families who have found themselves unexpectedly homeschooling their children for the remainder of the school year.

“To make sure that people are appropriately getting the resources and access to critical curriculum related to homeschooling, we needed some private sector support,” Newsom said. “Google stepped up in a big way.”

The tech giant also announced it would distribute 4,000 Chromebook laptops to students without computers at home.

Google joins a slew of homegrown tech companies that have announced plans to procure, produce, finance or distribute equipment and other resources needed to, in gubernatorial parlance, “meet this moment.”

The lack of access to reliable internet is another way in which the COVID-19 pandemic spotlights the California divide — and given policymakers new impetus and political license to tackle long-standing social ills in ways that would have previously been deemed too expansive, too expensive or too coercive. But with major private sector players now being invited to patch up these glaring holes, some consumer advocates worry about securing privacy and keeping corporate power in check.

It’s impossible now to argue that connectivity is a 21st century luxury. Millions of Californians require internet access to attend school, work and stay in touch with loved ones.

“Cleavages we’ve been papering over”

Linda Darling-Hammond, president of the State Board of Education, says about 20% of California students lack digital connectivity before the pandemic. Through donations and purchases of mobile hotspots, school districts may have already cut that number in half.

“I am hopeful that by the time we resume school-based instruction, we will in fact have closed that digital gap,” Darling-Hammond said. 

Spotty or nonexistent internet access is not just a problem facing students, said Vikash Reddy, policy research director at The Campaign for College Opportunity. He points to census data, which suggests that 11% of Californians over the age of 65 don’t have a computer at home. 

“Whether it’s seniors or students, the idea that broadband is ubiquitous needs to have an asterisk.”

Vikash Reddy, The Campaign for College Opportunity

The pandemic has “laid bare some of the cleavages that we’ve been papering over,” Reddy said. “Whether it’s seniors or students, the idea that broadband is ubiquitous needs to have an asterisk.” 

Asked for her take on Google’s initiative, state Sen. Lena Gonzalez, a Democrat from Long Beach, described it as nice gesture — but one that’s too little, too late. 

“One hundred thousand hotspots is one school district. In Los Angeles, it’s just one part of the school district,” she said. “Even after this COVID crisis ends, there are still going to be children without access to the internet and small businesses who can’t get online.” 

Earlier this year, Gonzalez authored a bill that would direct state funds, collected from fees levied on internet service providers, to fund the expansion of high-speed internet into under-connected areas of the state. Unlike existing law, Gonzalez’s bill would specify a service speed and focus not just on rural areas, but low-income urban neighborhoods as well.

“There needs to be a long-term plan to engage these companies even further beyond this crisis,” she said.

Raising concerns about privacy

There are relatively few restrictions on what internet service providers can do with their customers data as it is. But the fact that Google will be in a position to collect each new customer’s locations and other details of their web use may be cause for concern, said Ted Claypoole, a privacy and tech security lawyer with the Boston law firm Womble Bond Dickinson.

“Google doesn’t have any more power from a legal standpoint than anyone else,” he said. “But because of the depth of their information management, and because they’re the number one search engine, and because they have the number one internet browser, they’re collecting all this information from you that Verizon and AT&T are not.” 

Last year, California legislators passed what is now the broadest and strictest consumer privacy law in the nation. They did so under duress. A Bay Area privacy advocate was threatening to put an even stronger measure on the state ballot.

As a result of that novel and hastily written legislation, it’s unclear whether Google would be prohibited from gathering data through this new program, said Claypoole. 

“It’s going to be interesting to see how California’s privacy act is applied to companies like Google and Facebook,” he said.

“Elected officials should be very wary about the strings that may be attached to any assistance.”

Samantha Corbin, lobbyist for the Electronic Frontier Foundation

When Google was asked how it would handle privacy concerns, a spokesperson for Google responded by linking to a tweet from Alphabet and Google CEO Sundar Pachai summarizing the hotspot initiative. 

Janet Weeks, director of communication for the state’s education department, which will be distributing the hotspots, said the department did not yet have a response as to whether there will be restrictions on what kind of data these hotspots can gather from users. One may come next week.

Samantha Corbin, a Sacramento lobbyist whose clients include the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the state should be careful about any partnerships it enters into as it desperately seeks help from the private sector during the crisis. 

“There are a lot of companies that are trying to put themselves forward as philanthropists so they can get unfettered access to Californians’ data. That’s very scary,” Corbin said. “Elected officials should be very wary about the strings that may be attached to any assistance.”

Tech steps up, and takes credit

Absent more information about the hotspot project, Gonzalez said she is wary.

“I’m not saying that Google is going to use this for that avenue,” she said “But I am concerned that whoever provides or donates any sort of infrastructure to the state during this crisis, that they’re not utilizing this to further disadvantaged people who have been underserved for so long.”

Verily Life Sciences, the bioresearch company owned by Google’s parent company, Alphabet, recently developed a free COVID-19 screening service, that allows Californians to input their symptoms to let them know whether they ought to be tested.

Earlier this week, five Democratic U.S. senators, including California Sen. Kamala Harris, wrote Verily CEO Andrew Conrad asking the service required “individuals to link to an existing Google Account or create a new Google Account for authentication purposes” and whether the company would agree not to use any data for commercial purposes. 

The project’s privacy policy published by Verily specifies that the company may share personally identifiable information “with business partners or service providers.”

Chris Harris, a spokesperson for the senator, said that Verily has yet to respond. He said that Harris “has applauded companies that have stepped up during this crisis and encouraged others to do the same. But there is no substitute for government fulfilling its duty to help people – especially the most vulnerable – when they need it most.”

“We need more Googles. Contact us. We will make sure you’re highlighted.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom

Since the beginning of the shutdown, Newsom has used his near-daily press conferences to highlight the contributions of California moguls to the state’s COVID-19 preparation efforts. Sir Richard Branson, the owner of Virgin Records, was celebrated for promising to fly in more personal protective equipment from China. His company Virgin Orbit, has received gubernatorial shoutouts for switching from rockets to low-powered ventilators, as has the San Jose-based Bloom Energy for its ventilator retrofitting.

Tesla founder Elon Musk has been name-dropped for shipping ventilators to hospitals. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has been toasted for promising stipends to the California Health Corps, a small army of retired medical professionals and soon-to-graduate doctors and nurses being recruited to join the battlefront alongside working health professionals. 

Now it’s the turn of the world’s most high profile search to bask in Newsom’s praises.

Newsom said that the state recently conducted a survey assessing how many Californian households are without access to reliable, high-speed internet service. The estimated need: 162,013 new hotspots. 

“We need more Googles,” he said. “Contact us. We will make sure you’re highlighted. And we’ll make sure that your good work is distributed throughout the state of California.” 

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Ben Christopher

Ben covers California politics and elections. Prior to that, he was a contributing writer for CalMatters reporting on the state's economy and budget. Based out of the San Francisco Bay Area, he has written...