Digital Equity and Justice in Maryland: Challenges and Opportunities

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Thursday, November 2, 2023

Digital Beat

Digital Equity and Justice in Maryland: Challenges and Opportunities

In “Digital and Equity and Justice in Maryland: Challenges and Opportunities” recently published by Economic Action Maryland, I present findings from a qualitative study that sought to answer the following research question: 

What is the landscape of issues related to universal broadband access, digital equity, and related community standards in Baltimore City and across the state of Maryland? 

My hope was that the findings would be useful for residents, policymakers, and other stakeholders interested in advancing broadband access and digital equity across Maryland.

Colin Rhinesmith

The findings in the report are drawn from the analysis of qualitative data gathered during five focus group sessions with a total of 61 participants in Baltimore City and across the state. In addition, interviews were conducted with 24 experts in Maryland and across the nation to gain their insights for the research. Based on this analysis of the conversations with the 85 total participants in this project between January and June 2023, the following key findings emerged as significant digital equity challenges and opportunities for Maryland.

Digital Equity Challenges

The following five areas were identified as the most significant digital equity challenges, particularly for individuals and families with limited monthly incomes in Maryland.

  1. Affordability is the largest barrier to internet access regardless of where you live in the state. More support is needed to promote awareness and outreach for government subsidies such as the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) and to help residents sign up. 

  2. Reliability of internet connectivity is a major barrier in both urban and rural areas across Maryland. In urban areas, a reliable connection can be a challenge due to dependence on wireless-only connectivity. In Baltimore City, people’s experiences with slow, unreliable internet speeds when they should have faster internet has caused some concern about the practice of digital discrimination.

  3. Reluctance to use and distrust of the internet are two interrelated issues that were reported by several participants in this study. Both issues were identified as barriers to digital equity largely due to people’s concerns about online scams and other predatory behavior online. Distrust includes a lack of faith in government-funded programs, including subsidies to support digital access. This was acutely relevant in Baltimore due to failures and broken promises from city officials in past administrations. This report suggests that additional research may be needed to discern reluctance from distrust as a barrier to digital equity for residents in Baltimore and across the state.

  4. Lack of digital skills was identified as a significant barrier to digital access, adoption, and application, particularly among older adults. Research participants strongly recommended that additional support for targeted digital skills training must be pursued to address social and digital inequities among residents across the state.

  5. Privacy and security are two major concerns for residents in Maryland – issues that are closely related to distrust of the internet. Marylanders are keenly aware of and concerned with being victims of identity theft and other cyber crimes that have targeted individuals, particularly those who are low-income, people of color, and older adults.

Vulnerable populations are even more susceptible to digital inequities. In response, specific measures should be taken to address their unique digital equity challenges and advance opportunities. For example,

  • Older adults experience unique challenges related to digital access due to significant concerns about isolation, internet safety, and a lack of digital literacy skills. Research participants indicated ongoing social and technical support is needed to address the digital equity needs and barriers facing older adults in Maryland.

  • Children and adults with disabilities in Maryland faced unique barriers during the COVID-19 pandemic and many of these challenges remain. Marylanders with disabilities need support in gaining access to affordable, reliable, high-speed internet, while also obtaining the assistive devices needed to help children and adults be successful in their everyday lives.

Barriers to Digital Justice

Study participants experienced significant barriers to digital justice, and national experts shared their insights on digital harms impacting low-income communities and communities of color, particularly at the intersection of technology and the following four areas: housing, employment, criminal justice, and finance.

  1. Housing. Data brokers and tenant screening companies threaten people’s ability to access housing. National experts shared their research on how the profitability of personal data can lead to discrimination against formerly incarcerated individuals and other vulnerable populations.

  2. Employment. Online algorithmic decision-making tools reinforce existing biases in the physical world that impact people’s access to employment. The use of artificial intelligence (AI) in online hiring practices can introduce unintentional bias and discrimination.

  3. Criminal Justice. Predictive policing using AI and facial recognition software present a barrier to digital justice both for those formerly incarcerated as well as those who have not directly experienced the criminal justice system.

  4. Finance. Data brokers and fintech companies' use of aggregated data result in racial discrimination during credit checks and other financial interactions where networked devices are used.

A review of existing state laws, policy recommendations, and advocacy campaigns are included in the report as a way to conceptualize what is being done, as well as what still needs to be done, to address the digital harms introduced above.

Community members offered several recommendations to help mitigate digital inequities across Maryland, rooted in local cultural context and knowledge.

  1. Provide broadband for all. Regardless of where they live, Marylanders across the state shared a unified voice that underscored the importance and need for universal access to high-speed, reliable, and affordable internet service in every community.

  2. Solutions should be informed by intentional engagement with residents most impacted by digital inequities in areas across the state. Digital equity initiatives that involve partnerships between multiple stakeholders must be rooted in processes of mutual trust and reciprocity that are often developed through intentional community engagement efforts over time.

  3. Approach digital equity through a racial justice lens. Respondents, particularly in Baltimore City, noted that this is particularly important because of the history of redlining and other racially discriminatory policies that have disproportionately impacted communities of color.

  4. Engage major healthcare providers as partners in digital equity initiatives. These efforts might include developing local telehealth initiatives and gaining insights from lessons learned in the community health space that involve community members as partners in developing local solutions to public health challenges.

Experts in Maryland and nationwide offered their recommendations for advocacy organizations like Economic Action Maryland working to advance digital equity and justice.

  • Promote public alternatives to commercial broadband internet service providers (ISPs). Maryland should continue to support municipal broadband efforts, as well as consider additional options for the public provision of broadband service across the state. Promoting public alternatives to corporate, monopoly ISPs increases competition in the marketplace and can enhance transparency, accountability, and opportunities for consumer protection, including enhanced protection of users’ data. 

  • Make digital justice a priority. Because those who are impacted by housing, employment, and medical insecurity are often the same people impacted by digital inequality, national experts recommended that organizations like Economic Action Maryland prioritize digital justice in their local and state advocacy efforts.

  • Connect digital justice to other focus areas. National experts interviewed for the research also argued that because digital justice issues are connected to so many other basic needs, organizations like Economic Action Maryland should look across their focus areas to see how each is impacted by digital inequalities and develop campaigns to address these issues for those most impacted.

  • Join national advocacy efforts to advance digital equity and justice. The experts interviewed for this study not only urged Economic Action Maryland to join larger national advocacy efforts to advance digital equity and justice, several offered to collaborate with Economic Action Maryland directly to further develop their digital justice strategy. 

  • Work with local communities to develop a set of digital justice principles. National experts also recommended that organizations like Economic Action Maryland should work closely with local communities across the state to imagine a vision where technology works for people and not the other way around. This work can help to inspire and provide an offensive, rather than a defensive, mechanism to support local and state advocacy efforts.


Practically all participants viewed internet service as a utility just like electricity and water, and, as such, internet service provision requires government regulation to ensure that everyone can gain access. The report also introduces a vision of broadband as a utility.

Several participants offered recommendations to address the digital equity challenges facing residents across the state. In Baltimore City, these recommendations included making sure that digital equity solutions use a racial justice lens because of the city’s history and legacy of systemic racism and structural inequality. Participants also recommended that digital equity solutions must be informed by deep community engagement with residents most impacted by digital inequities across the state. Participants felt strongly that digital equity initiatives should engage major healthcare providers as partners in addressing the barriers to digital access, adoption, and application.

Experts in Maryland and nationwide offered their recommendations for advocacy organizations—like Economic Action Maryland—working to advance digital equity and justice. These recommendations included promoting public alternatives to commercial ISPs, making digital justice a priority area, connecting digital justice to other focus areas, joining national advocacy efforts,; and working with local communities to develop a vision for digital justice.

The full study is available on the Digital Equity and Justice page on the Economic Action Maryland website.

Colin Rhinesmith (he/him) is the Founder and Director of the Digital Equity Research Center at the Metropolitan New York Library Council. He is also a Research Fellow with the Quello Center for Media and Information Policy at Michigan State University and Co-Editor-In-Chief of The Journal of Community Informatics. Previously, Dr. Rhinesmith was an Associate Professor and Director of the Community Informatics Lab in the School of Library and Information Science at Simmons University. He has been a Google Policy Fellow and an Adjunct Research Fellow with New America’s Open Technology Institute, a Senior Fellow with the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society, and a Faculty Associate with the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University.​

The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that all people in the U.S. have access to competitive, High-Performance Broadband regardless of where they live or who they are. We believe communication policy - rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity - has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities.

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