By Peter Brennan
October 2000 - About 33 percent of U.S. Hispanic households now use the Internet – a relatively small number compared to the 60 percent figure for Anglo households online, according to a recent Jupiter Communications study. But does this so-called digital divide result from a language barrier or from lack of access to computers and the Internet?
A study sponsored by the Tomás Rivera Policy Institute and conducted by Fiera.com Inc. – a Miami Beach-based e-tailing site similar to Amazon.com but aimed at Hispanics – indicates that the problem is limited access to computers and the Web.
Of 36 Hispanics in four focus groups interviewed for the Latino Internet Content Study, 28 preferred online information in English, mainly because there is so much more of it. Poor translations also were a turnoff.
"It was so obvious that [someone] decided to pull out his translation dictionary to try to put the same thing that was in English into Spanish – it was just awful," one participant said of a visit to a Spanish-language site. "And I think that has a lot to do with why I rarely visit Spanish Web sites."
Other participants, however, preferred looking at bilingual sites to improve their Spanish and promote their culture, and they said Spanish-language sites might serve to bring other family members online.
A previous study suggested that the online cultural divide could be due to a lack of cultural sensitivity, community relevance, and bilingual Web sites. The Fiera.com study, on the other hand, indicates that computer hardware and Internet access are what's important.
Derene Allen, Fiera.com's general manager for the U.S. Hispanic market, predicts that there will soon be an explosion of Hispanics on the Internet as prices keep falling and utility increases. "With advances in technology, there will be rapid penetration in all markets in the United States," she says.
While he didn't read the study, Paul Casanova, president of Hispanic ad agency Casanova Pendrill Publicidad Inc., agrees with its conclusion. He says a secondary reason that Hispanics don't use the Internet is that many are unaware of its benefits and thus are reluctant to invest in the necessary equipment.
Bilingual Web sites, he adds, are not necessarily the key to attracting U.S. Hispanics. "Most Hispanics who get onto the Internet are proficient in English," he says. "Bilingual Web sites are not a necessity, but an added benefit."
Study participants who use the Internet expressed preference for obtaining news from sources such as The Los Angeles Times and CNN, although they enjoyed non-U.S. sites for a wider range of coverage of Latin America. They also have found Web telephone and e-mail services to be relatively inexpensive alternatives for contacting friends and relatives in Latin America.
Respondents reported visiting a variety of Web sites, from alegria.org to Ebay to Yupi.com. No one site predominated for making purchases online. The most popular site, Amazon.com, was mentioned by only four buyers. Like the general population, study participants tended to gravitate toward e-tailers they trusted. Many said they use the Internet to compare price and product information but make purchases offline. Participants expressed a willingness to support businesses that make charitable donations in support of the Hispanic community.
Asked to identify factors that contribute to a good Web site, participants specified easy-to-find information, good and reliable links, site interaction, regular updates, phone numbers and addresses, quick downloading, and accurate information that includes identified sources.
Fears that their children could be exposed to pornography and the potential for misuse of personal information were cited as reasons for not accessing the Internet. Some participants also said they couldn't afford a computer or Internet service and lacked information on how to get online.
The Latino Internet Content Study adds to the growing body of sometimes conflicting data concerning Hispanics' use of the Internet. Undermining the contention that a digital divide exists at all, a recent HISPANIC BUSINESS/Zogby International poll found that almost one-half (49 percent) of Hispanics had made an online purchase in the previous three months, compared to 34.7 percent of Anglos, 31.3 percent of African Americans, and 14.9 percent of Asians ("Wired Generation," May). The same poll also found that Hispanics are more likely to spend larger amounts on the Web than other groups.
A U.S. Department of Commerce study found that 31.6 percent of Hispanics indicated lack of concern about Internet confidentiality, compared to about 23 percent of Anglos, 24 percent of Asians, and 28 percent of African Americans – suggesting that Hispanics are in fact embracing the Internet with fewer reservations than others.
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