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Please make Gmail universally accessible

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Google, please make Gmail accessible to everyone by changing your verification requirements for accounts set up within libraries and computer training programs.

I volunteer as a tutor in a computer skills lab that aims to improve basic computer skills among adults. We work with people from all walks of life, but a fair number are from groups who have historically been on the wrong side of the digital divide (e.g., older adults, minorities, low income, low education). Many of the learners have never had email accounts, so one of our first activities with them is to set up a web-based email account. We have preferred to use Gmail because of Gmail’s spam-filtering capabilities and ease of use. Because we set up so many email accounts, we typically do not have the option for Captcha verification, and learners must “verify” their account via a code sent by text message. Many of the learners do not have mobile phones and can’t receive the text messages needed to verify their accounts. In the past, tutors in the lab have worked around this by supplying their own phone numbers, but even that is not an effective solution because Gmail’s verification system will only accept a single phone number a certain number of times.  

This is not an isolated problem - a review of the Google Help forums reveals multiple queries from other computer training organizations and libraries that have encountered the same problem. A search of the help forums at DigitalLearn.org revealed similar findings. Some of these organizations have addressed this by requiring learners to set up email accounts before coming to basic computer classes, though how they are supposed to do this without basic computer knowledge is unclear. Please also note that Gmail’s alternative of verification via landline is not an effective solution for people who only have computer and Internet access at a library or other public location.  

According to a  2011 report by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, email is one of the “nearly universal” online activities, practiced by 92% of online adults. The same report also draws attention to email’s role as the “core of online communication.” Having an email account is a critical first step to online participation, but it is also increasingly important to economic survival. Some of the learners in our lab are unemployed - without an email account, they have no away of applying for jobs that accept only online applications. Government agencies are also moving services online - how can people access these critical services when they can’t even get an email account?  

Maybe I am underestimating the ease of addressing this problem, but two potential solutions come to mind:

1. Create a registration system for ISP’s at libraries and computer training organizations, so that Gmail could recognize these organizations and permit them to create multiple accounts using Captcha verification. 

2. Create a registration system that allows organizations like libraries and computer training organizations to register a phone number (or numbers) so that Gmail recognizes the number and does not max it out after a certain number of uses for account creation.  

Gmail’s verification process not only inhibits libraries’ and computer training organizations’ efforts to bridge the digital divide, but it is discriminatory against people who, whether by choice or by economic necessity, do not own mobile phones. Using email and entering the online arena should be an empowering and emancipatory experience, not one in which one must rely on the kindness or charity of others just to gain access. Google, please stand behind your mission “to make the world’s information universally accessible,” by offering a reliable alternative for those who do not have mobile phones to have access to email and thereby to the online arena.  

Sincerely, 

Catherine Bloomquist



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