|Published by NetAction||Issue No. 40||August 24, 1998|
Like a lot of other public interest advocates, I would like to see the universal service policy expanded beyond basic telephone service to include universal access to information technology. Within the context of public policy advocacy, efforts to achieve this goal have generally focused on ensuring affordable access to advanced telecommunications services and, to a lesser extent, ensuring that computers are affordably priced or available for citizens to use in public libraries. In a recent article entitled, "Can the 'Next Generation Internet' Effectively Support 'Ordinary Citizens?'" Rob Kling of the Center for Social Informatics discusses an important aspect of universal access that tends to be overlooked.
While the cost of computer ownership, and telecommunications service, are important considerations, they are not the only barriers to universal access. In some parts of the world the barriers include high levels of illiteracy, or the lack of an adequate telecommunications infrastructure. Here in the United States, one of the barriers is what Kling refers to as "social access." As Kling explains it:
"One reason that lower income families use the Internet less -- aside from costs -- is because of various "externalities" such as people needing technical support and access to a community of other people who communicate online. People tend to be able to get help from people similar to themselves, so that low usage levels within a group tends to be somewhat self-perpetuating (Agre, 1997).
In other words, to ensure universal access, some people will need a little help from their friends. NetAction's Webmaster, Judi Clark, says this is why people buying their first computer are often advised by sales clerks to buy what their friends have. When questions come up, as they inevitably do, the new user will have someone to turn to for answers.
This point was brought home to me recently when my brother shipped his used computer to our mother, complete with a Juno.com email account. Since my brother lives in Northern California and our mother lives in Southern California, she has been relying on friends to help her learn how to use the computer. But her friends can only answer questions about the operating system and application software they are familiar with, which doesn't include the mail browser provided with a Juno.com account.
Kling and other researchers who study the way people learn how to use computers have found that there is a "social" element to this learning process, as well as a technological element. One study that he sites in his paper found that many ordinary people felt it was too difficult to use the Internet. Other studies suggest that community networking centers play an important role in helping people learn to use technology.
The full text of Kling's article is on the web at: http://commons.somewhere.com/rre/1998/RRE.access.to.the.NGI.html.
The role that these facilities play is also discussed in "Little Engines That Did -- Case Histories From the Global Telecentre Movement," by Richard Fuchs. The report is a result of an IDRC/Acacia-commissioned study that examined telecentres in Canada, Australia, Wales, Senegal, Sweden, and South Africa.
Telecentres, which we in the U.S. are more likely to know as community networks, are described by Fuchs as the "locus for the diffusion of skills and access to tools associated with the Information Society." As Fuchs explains:
"In all our case studies it is clear that the 'people resource' of the telecentre is the most important asset and component of the service. Without knowledgeable, community oriented telecentre staff who really want to share the tools and capacities of the Information Society, no telecentre can hope to succeed."
The full text of Fuchs' article is on the web at: http://www.idrc.ca/acacia/engine/index.html.
There should be no question that these centers play an important role in promoting universal access to information technology. Yet the U.S. Internal Revenue Service has concluded that providing access to the Internet to people who are poor or otherwise disadvantaged is _not_ a charitable or educational activity. Right now, the IRS is threatening one such center, Oregon Public Networking, with the loss of its tax exempt status. If this happens, it may only be a matter of time before the IRS goes after the other 350 community networks in the U.S., which serve an estimated 600,000 Americans.
OPN, located in Lane County, Oregon, provides Internet access to a mixed urban and rural population that includes people in areas too remote to be served by commercial Internet service providers, and people too poor to afford service from commercial providers.
"These folks use the Internet to hold their families together, to get training for jobs, to access educational information, and for many other worthwhile purposes," according to Shava Nerad, Technical Manager at OPN.
OPN is organizing to fight the IRS, and has posted background information on its web site at http://www.opn.org. To build grassroots support, OPN is asking supporters to post an icon on their web site, which is available at: http://www.opn.org/cn/afelogo.html. They also have information available for people interested in helping with local organizing, which is on the web at: http://www.opn.org/irs/toolkit/index.html.
For more background on universal access, see the following reports:
The U.S. Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) recently released "Falling Through the Net II," is at: http://www.ntia.doc.gov/ntiahome/net2/falling.html. The report contains the most recent and comprehensive census data on telephone penetration and computer and modem ownership and use.
The Benton Foundation's "Losing Ground Bit by Bit: Low-Income Communities in the Information Age" examines the technology gap that separates America's low-income communities from the benefits of the information age. The report is on the web at: http://www.benton.org/Library/Low-Income
The hype surrounding the impact of the Internet on society may be rivaled only by the recent fixation on the possibility of a comet or meteor colliding with Earth, according to Kristin Schneeman, Project Director for Visions of Governance for the Twenty-First Century, a project of the Kennedy School at Harvard University.
"We are routinely assured that the Internet will single-handedly rescue democracy from the snake pit of citizen disaffection and distrust, and alternately that it will be the death of all the communal values we hold dear," she said.
Last month, at a retreat hosted by the Visions project, 35 faculty members from a variety of disciplines examined the potential effects on government of the "Information Revolution." Among the questions these scholars addressed were:
The papers and commentaries that came out of this retreat are on the web at: http://www.ksg.harvard.edu/visions/Meetings_Conferences_Events/Bretton%20Woods%201/bw1.htm and readers are invited to comment, either directly to the authors about their papers, or to the Visions Project staff about the project as a whole. As Schneeman explained:
"Our ultimate goal in understanding the multiplicitous changes being brought by information technologies is to focus attention on maximizing the benefits and minimizing the costs to society. At Bretton Woods it was agreed that particular technologies do not determine specific paths of action or consign us to certain fates but rather present us with choices. _Information_ technologies in particular increase the range of possible options manyfold. The question with which we must constantly wrestle in order to continue to govern ourselves is, what do we do with all of these choices? Our goal is not to close down the range of choices but to lay them out and evaluate them."
Wade Hudson of the San Francisco-based Economic Security Project is inviting readers to comment on a book-in-progress as chapters are posted on the web site. With assistance from Doug Dowd, Jerry Path, Sonya Hotchkiss and Richard Koogle, Hudson is rewriting a previously published book, "Economic Security for All." New chapters will be published on the web site as they are completed, and readers are encouraged to offer feedback as the writing progresses. The chapters that have already been completed are on the web at: http://www.igc.org/esp/newtoc.htm.
The Economic Security Project is also circulating a petition for individuals to sign to endorse the Fairness Agenda for America. The Fairness Agenda for America is based on principles that are supported by over 100 progressive organizations, along with many members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. The principles include: Dignified Work; Environmental Justice; Economic Redistribution; Democratic Participation; Community Empowerment; Global Non-Violence; Social Justice, including Racial and Gender.
The full text of the Fairness Agenda for America is on the web at: http://www.igc.org/esp/FairnessAgenda.htm. To sign the petition, go to: http://www.igc.org/esp/Petition.htm. The Economic Security Project's home page is at: http://www.igc.org/esp.
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