After reviewing the goals and abstract regarding the Puget Sound electronic democracy project, I was struck by the difficulty of the issues that it addresses. It seeks to support nonprofit and public enterprises at a time when many are calling for an end to such things.
One of my thoughts in reading was that public access should be made into an issue through the project. I'm inclined to think that our constitution should defend the right to access, as well as pursuit of happiness, et al. But in spite of the tens of thousands of WWW host sites springing up like chain restaurants all over the world, the people who use them amount to an intelligentsia. I've seen the French attempt to remedy this situation by providing basic information services (wire service reports, phone books, weather, etc.) on-line at the post offices. However, for what reasons I'm notcertain, the accessibility of those computer terminals seemed to diminish from my 1990 to 1994 visits. I suspect the machines became a bit outdated, the mandate faded, and the equipment broke down. In any case, the French tried to do something that Americans seem incapable of supporting: declaring information technologies to be a right rather than a commodity.
Several strategies might be employed to advance the cause of access equity. First, initiatives that deliver these services to children would help to establish the expectation of access among younger people. Furthermore, journalistic coverage of these initiatives could raise consciousness about the importance and potential of universal access.
Secondly, community-based efforts are needed to offer quality, non- subscription information that is popularly valuable, such as information regarding election issues and candidates, forums concerning local government, weather updates, school closings, library reference, public events, etc. By adopting the themes and functions of public access television and public service publications, these on-line services could link new communication technologies in the popular imagination with public service rather than merely with the private sector.
I am imagining the possibility that people could submit editorials, opinions, etc. via modem, or by dropping them off on floppy disks to highly visible locations. These would then be sorted as with editorial precedents and published on-line as a community forum or "publication." At these same sites, citizens could spend time perusing the WWW. Others who have their own computers and modems could, of course, look on from elsewhere.
The project might also focus on the regulation of network services and network use. Since the national government seems to be deregulating as fast as possible, local and state government is left to provide provisions for equivalents of public access television in the domain of the new information technology. It is not inevitable that all network access services will allow people to navigate as freely as is currently possible. I believe that the institution of long distance rates would be a major blow to the functioning of the WWW. The name of the network seems to preclude such, but stranger things have happened.
A network dominated by commercial sites is quite conceivable, especially since many of the physical network service providers are attempting to merge themselves with content providers. In order to maintain the relative freedoms of the existing internet-based services, the public will need to demand them. And this is another reason why it is so important to make people aware of the possibilities of the WWW.
One's impression of the function and services germane to these new technologies depends largely upon the nature of the interface to the network. If it is one formed by the interests of commerce, then it will assuredly form blinders to less "profitable" uses that are feasible. Commercial interests will undoubtedly lead to subsidized "access." But it is not likely that that access will resemble today's non-commercial WWW. A proliferation of "demo" services, requiring subscription is already beginning to clog the web with annoying dead-end publicity. The beautiful potential for creating library- like, free public access are still uncertain and unfulfilled. And so one of the biggest challenges facing people who would like to see such things develop is to demonstrate prototypes and benefits of public access.