Clinton firmly urges IT industry to get involved in digital divide efforts
COMDEX speech closes out latest 'New Markets' jaunt
CHICAGO (CNN) -- President Bill Clinton took his quest to close the so-called digital divide to the "critical mass" COMDEX gathering at Chicago's sparkling new convention center on Tuesday, where he firmly told industry executives that their participation was essential to the success of his endeavors.
President Clinton spoke Tuesday in Chicago on the digital divide.
"This is the 'critical mass' of the IT community," Clinton told the mid-afternoon speech audience. "You need to reach a critical mass of at-risk kids and distressed communities" to bring the promise of the new economy to those who need it most.
The COMDEX spring trade show is perhaps one of the most important yearly gatherings of high-technology corporations large and small, and its influence has grown as the information technology sector has exerted a significant pull on the nation's economic performance.
Clinton, the first U.S. president to address such a gathering, recognized as much when he opened his remarks.
"The information technology industry has accounted for 30 percent of our economic growth," the president said, "but accounts for only 8 percent of our rate of employment."
"I am glad to be the first president to address this conference, but I am confident I will not be the last," he continued.
Tuesday's appearance marked the final event in this latest administration "New Markets" tour -- an ongoing set of presidential trips intended to shed a spotlight on communities and population sectors that stand to be left behind in the race to grow the so-called new economy, and to devise ways in which people in these areas might be brought up to speed.
The president spent Monday in East Palo Alto, California, where he lauded local public and private efforts to bring underprivileged citizens into the digital age with open computer access and training; and then in Shiprock, New Mexico, where he introduced an administration effort to provide low-cost telephone service to an outlying Navajo Indian reservation.
"We have tried everywhere to shine the spotlight on the potential, not the problems of these places," Clinton said on Tuesday.
But while making his COMDEX appearance, at Chicago's McCormick Place convention facility, the president shifted gears, choosing not to highlight successes, but rather to deliver the message that a great deal was left to be done, and that the federal government could only be counted on to set the process in motion.
"We have a very important choice before us," Clinton said. "With your help, we can make the right choice."
And that choice, Clinton said, was for information technology businesses of all sizes to devote resources, material and manpower to an all-out effort to close the digital divide -- to educate those who might not now have access to the benefits of computer technology in a way that will allow them to use that technology to their own economic advantage.
"Closing the digital divide is one of the most important things we can do to eliminate the kind of poverty that is inexcusable in an economy like the one we have today," he said, hinting that those companies that have benefitted most from the robust economy should take some responsibility for helping others.
The president outlined a handful of specific requests for these firms, including responding to the administration's "National Call to Action," which implores business and industry to assist localities by helping to stock schools with up-to-date computer equipment, and to aid in the creation of new, high-speed connections to schools and individual classrooms.
"Ask if there is anything you can do that you are not doing," he said.
Clinton also asked participating companies to broadly expand their internship programs, deepening their talent pools and providing extended opportunities to those from low-income communities.
And last, Clinton advised the industry operatives in attendance not to expect that the federal government would be able to do the lion's share of the work required.
"Recognize that there is a limit to what the federal government can do. We need more public-private partnerships," he said.
By way of example, Clinton highlighted some of the successes of the 1995 welfare reform bill, under which the government has worked with the private sector to place one-time welfare recipients into jobs; and Vice President Al Gore's work with the "Big Three" automakers to create vehicles that are expected to burn less fossil fuel while improving mileage rates.
"I am asking you to do this because you can," he said. "Because it is morally right, and because America needs it to have a continually growing economy."
Clinton gave a brief synopsis of where the ongoing New Markets tour will next take him, saying he plans to travel to rural North Carolina next week to focus on the benefits of broadband technology, and will hit the road again in two months to showcase ways in which Internet access is benefitting the disabled.