Rhetoric and Reality in Canadian Community Networking

Garth Graham <aa127@freenet.carleton.ca>
Director for Research, Board of Directors
Telecommunities Canada
Box 86, Ashton, Ontario K0A 1B0
Tel. +1 613 253 3497

Leslie Regan Shade <ac900@freenet.carleton.ca>
Graduate Program in Communications, McGill University, and
Consultant, Constructive Advice
221 Patterson Ave., Ottawa Ontario K1S 1Y4 CANADA
Tel. +1 613 234 5038

1. The policy problem: Access to what?

This article discusses a disjuncture between the definitions of community networking [1] used by the community networking movement, federal policy, and the business view and highlights the tensions between the grassroots organization of community networks and their control and reconceptualization by policy making bodies.

Access to national communications and information infrastructure must occur on two levels, only the first of which is addressed by Canadian "Information Highway" policy. The first level of access is "hook up," involving connection to communications technologies, applications and services. The second level is a function of the interactive, distributed, and open systems nature of the Internet, involving access to the means of participation in the virtualization [2] of social networks. In effect, the Internet creates a new zone of socialization. In order to acculturate to it, you need to be there.

The social sector gets left out of the loop of policy dialogue that occurs between government and business. Perhaps because of inexperience with the social impacts of interactive communications, the federal government appears reluctant to address the significance of the second level. On the other hand, responsible citizens who become active in the creation of electronic community networks are immersed in that reality. They fully understand that the purpose of community networking is local control of access to electronic public space as a new zone of socialization.

2. The purpose of community networks

2.1 Electronic public space as a new zone of socialization

Community networks share a broad-based focus on serving the communications and information needs of a local community in a specific geographic location. Because of Internet connection cost consequences, that location is usually bounded by the local telephone flat rate dialing zone. Beyond geography, community networks encompass the description of needs within the metaphor of community "space" within an "electronic commons," whereby members can visit the electronic equivalent of a school, hospital, town hall, post office, citizens' forum, etc. They emphasize the role of the member as citizen of that electronic public space, and encourage dialogue and interaction among those citizens by offering them equal access to a common and convenient medium of computer-mediated interactive communication.

People need to connect with as little control and interference as possible. The existence of a viable structure of community networks across Canada would provide a guarantee of affordable access to some means of open networking that is citizen controlled.

Community nets are not inherently content providers. Their purpose is to defend universal participation in, and access to, electronic public space as a commons. The community itself is the network. It supplies the content as a byproduct of its communications behaviors in electronic public space. In defense of the public good, both Canada's Telecommunications and Broadcast Acts assume that traditional media operate in a commons. Yet we seem to be abandoning this assumption in the extension of public policy into cyberspace.

Community nets are a means whereby communities can participate in the design and evolution of the Net as a new zone of socialization and learning. Communities must have a say in how that learning occurs by experiencing it directly through participation in the design of the process. Because the strength of community is grounded in locality, externally imposed communications systems can sever that link. Whenever a sense of control in self-definition of community is lost, the impact of the Information Highway will be to increase social isolation. Canada, as a knowledge-based economy, needs community networks to learn its way toward social integration in a context that is changing beyond recognition.

2.2 Learning through universal connectivity

The rapid movement toward setting up community based computer networks across North America, which is growing expansively in the 1990s, is indicative of the need felt by many localities and individuals to assert the primacy of the local community in creating and sustaining educational opportunities, communicative associations, economic development, and civic participation. In the emerging sociotechnical and policy landscape, community networks have often had to define themselves by what they are not. These definitional tensions posit the duality between the local versus the global and the noncommercial versus the commercial.

Indeed, community networking activists have championed the idea of community networks as being a distinctly Canadian communications facility, reflective of the goals of the federal Information Highway Council: jobs, cultural identity, and universal access. As well, community networks have fostered the creation of public spaces in the communications and information infrastructure. This conviction that "cyberspace is public space" and that spectrum and bandwidth are in the public domain, reflects the belief that there must be electronic areas where all citizens can post information, conduct free and unfettered communication on a diversity of topics, and interact with their municipal, provincial and federal governments, and with community and national groups. It is believed that creation of such an "electronic commons" would allow all citizens to participate in the widely bandied "knowledge economy" in support of >life long learning."

More than conventional wisdom underlies the importance of the phrase "life long learning." We have departed from an age where the concept of universal education shaped what we could think and know. In the age we now inhabit, what we can think and know is coming to be shaped by the concept of universal connectivity.

It is our thesis that the social activists who apply computer-mediated communications in the development of electronic community networks understand the impact of this shift in our way of seeing the world. As "early adopters," they seek to retain community control of communications in a milieu where all of the processes that allow people to group and to structure local community and governance are being virtualized. Their experience is a necessary and vital resource in understanding how communications technology and social change can interact to enhance the quality of life in the physical locations where we actually live.

The ultimate purpose of community networking is to use a period of "restructured" instability to localize political power. The key objective of community networks must be to find the means of sustaining significant community ownership of the application of converging communications technologies at the local level. There is evidence that some governments at the municipal and provincial level in Canada understand this "bottom up" grassroots objective and support it. There is also evidence that government at the national level in Canada understands this objective and chooses to ignore it.

We submit that this federal rejection is based on a model of political power from the age of universal education that seeks to balance tensions between the center and the periphery. On the other hand, the model of power in the age of universal connectivity that motivates community networkers is based on achieving balance through distribution of functions across a range of self-defining networks in an open systems context. In effect, it is participation, and not the correct pricing of electronic products and services, that increases the utility of networks. The route to maximizing socioeconomic benefit in an age of universal connectivity depends on unblocking the channels that allow connecting links among people to form. The closer you get to the "ground," the better your ability to increase the rate of flow in these channels.

3. The status of community networks in Canada

3.1 Mapping community network experience

In Canada, the widespread creation of community networks has become a powerful model to many for enabling citizens to support and sustain community, participate in the public sphere, exercise democratic imperatives, and also to reinforce Canadian identity. At this moment, the number of operating community networks is not clear, but likely exceeds 35; and the number of community associations in the planning stages has increased since the May, 1995 count, but likely exceeds 200 (Graham 1995). There is no current collation of the membership of operating networks, but it could not be less than 250,000 and could easily exceed 600,000.

With the recent emergence of an organizing committee in Prince Edward Island, every province in Canada now has a community networking presence. The federal Industry Canada program, Community Access Project (http://cnet.unb.ca/), in December 1995 approved 271 grants for "sites" for basic public Internet connectivity in remote and rural communities. A substantial number of the sites intend to use the grant to implement a community network.

In their recognition of the continuance of Canadian cultural protectionism, official policy-making bodies such as the Information Highway Advisory Council (IHAC), the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) and public interest groups such as the Coalition for Public Information (CPI) have recognized that local community-based networks can foster Canadian content, revitalize communities, contribute to network literacy, and reinforce tenets of universal access at the level of service. But they have never really seen community networking on its own terms.

As a dynamic and essential component of the "Internet culture," the experience of electronic community networks provides visible evidence of Canada's social transformation toward a knowledge-based economy. Provincial and local governments are willing to explore that experience, but federal politicians and bureaucrats apparently ignore it. In effect, as conventional governance institutions continue to disintermediate toward the global on the one hand and the local on the other, institutions where power depends on centralization exhibit the strongest negative reactions. The Canadian federal government's obliviousness to the emergence and socioeconomic advantages of a grassroots electronic community networking movement demonstrates this reality in specific ways.

3.2 Telecommunities Canada [3]

Telecommunities Canada (TC) is a registered not-for-profit national corporation, but its formal organizational structure is very embryonic. Substantively, all that is in place is seven elected volunteer board members. Although an informal structure and interim board came together at the second annual conference of community networks, in Ottawa, in August 1994, it was not until May 1995 that TC was formally incorporated, and the third annual conference in Victoria, August 1995, that the board was first formally elected. In its first year of operation, the board is exploring national community networking activities, methods, and priorities within the limits of extremely small resources.

The board members are scattered across Canada, and all of them are more active in local community networking organizations than they are in national activities. Most of the board's collaborative work is accomplished via e-mail. There is no office, no staff, and no consistent source of funds other than project grant administrative overheads and residual annual conference revenues. There has been some Department of Industry funding for each of the three annual community networking conferences. The revenue generated in the current operating year will be just barely sufficient to cover the logistical costs of four face-to-face board meetings. There is no money for anything else.

TC is an association of associations that either operate or intend to operate community networks. Membership fees have not yet been set or charged, although possible membership criteria were discussed at the August, 95 Victoria conference and board recommendations on this subject will go to the August, 96 Edmonton conference. There are two activities that have defined declared "membership" to date. The three annual conferences and a project to produce a directory (now one year old and thoroughly dated by the rapid growth of community networks) have produced a mailing list. There are two subscription-based mailservers-can-freenet and tc-members-that self-generate lists of community networking activists and surface new community associations. TC was definitely created by community networks to give themselves a capacity to articulate community networking interests in Canada on their behalf, regardless of the current informality of membership.

3.3 Virtualizing community development processes [4]

It is useful to spell out just what the experience of community networks actually means in terms of social change. The following factors describe shifts in social networks that occur as a consequences of applying the technologies of computer-mediated communication. Understanding the interaction of these factors gives a picture of how a virtualized community organizational structure may appear and what it will do.

Understanding these factors is also a way of anticipating what may happen to an organization that initiates a networking project with communications as its central focus. In effect, a virtualized organizational structure becomes a community. It moves toward learning systems and away from managing for control. Applying an understanding of these themes can result in them becoming drivers in making conscious choices about change.

3.4 Lanark County Integrated Community Network Project (LCICN) [5]

The issues now facing community networks can best be illustrated by a concrete example. The people of Lanark County, Ontario, are organizing a not-for-profit, community-controlled public communications utility. Their chief partner in this project is Bell Advanced Communications, which has trademarked the name "Integrated Community Network."

LCICN held an open meeting to develop an action plan in Carleton Place, December 1, 1995, attended by 165 community leaders representing key local government organizations, businesses, and institution partners. Key partners in the provisional Board of Directors include boards of education, municipalities, hospitals, the large multi-site CAP project, and the former municipal "Umbrella BBS," as the "content" side of a community network in the Telecommunities Canada sense of the word.

Bell asked LCICN to identify 30 institutional clients for advanced "applications" requirements for what is viewed as a cooperative local mix of proprietary WANS, and LCICN does not anticipate difficulty in meeting Bell's threshold market target. When they deliver the "customers," Bell has indicated that, assuming certain regulatory changes occur, implementation via installation of Newbridge switches in several local exchanges is possible in the summer of 1996. LCICN objectives include:

The real significance of the involvement of this particular corporate arm of Bell in the plans of one rural Canadian community is really a matter of balancing local/national concerns. The community control of communications represented by Lanark County has implications for the national issues of privatizing the backbone. Ca*Net, the Internet backbone in Canada, is moving to the private sector. When the "transfer" is complete, it is most likely Bell Advanced Communications that will "own" what mostly public money and (and a huge amount of volunteer effort) has built. It is also Bell Advanced Communications that has implemented the national ATM network. It is not yet clear how the "culture" of the Internet can survive this transfer.

The stated reason for completing the quiet privatization of the Internet in Canada relates to costs. The doubling of use of the Internet eventually results in a doubling of the costs of "supplying" access to it (the relationship of rising supply costs to rising rates of utilization is not linear). Ken Fockler, head of Ca*Net, refers to this as the "grains of rice on the chessboard problem."[6] But what is really broke is not the technology. It is the cobbled-together nature of the alliance of for-profit and not-for- profit regional organizations that manages it. Orchestration of the transfer is largely driven by Industry Canada. The real reason Ca*Net becomes a business is because its 75 percent federal funding via CANARIE soon disappears. When that money goes, apparently the will to hold the alliance together also disappears.

However much we might wish that the federal government saw the Internet as more than a market opportunity, the survival of the Internet may not depend on federal understanding. The disintermediation of the national level of Internet public management in Canada to a global private corporation (Bell Advanced Communications) may not matter all that much. With community communications utilities like the Lanark Community Network prototype controlling the local "backbone" at the head-end, and control of the national backbone and the ATM network on the flow-through, Bell Advanced Communications implements an end-to-end approach to satisfying the communications needs of everybody. But the capacity to think about the public interest that disappears from the Internet at the national level stays in place at the local level, where it really does matter.

In energy sector public utilities, "demand side" planning is called least-cost end-use planning. By picking the most efficient and effective means of meeting energy demands, huge cost savings are achieved, so much so that new demands can be met out of existing generation capacities, without building expensive new power dams or nuclear reactors. Lanark Community Network is establishing itself consciously as a public communications "utility." The "shared common services" approach of LCICN's planning for communication is an example of demand-driven planning. By focusing on the actual need (demand) for local communications, it becomes easier to see that there are many ways of supplying it. As long as Lanark's planning methods remain similar to those of demand-driven energy utilities, they should have very similar effects on cost reduction.

The Lanark experiment will probably show that local partnership relationships, rather than "customer" relationships, are a win/win deal for both the demand and the supply sides of the communications digital bit-flow equation. It also highlights that, essential to its success, is that community control of communications infrastructure via local social institutions stays in place.

The leaders of the LCICN Project understand that the community is the network, not the technology. In effect, the Internet is merely the tool that virtualizes relationships among community residents and institutions. Viewed in this way, it becomes clear why the survival of community depends on not-for-profit community control of communications infrastructure. With community control, we get to know both the price and the value. Before the big infrastructure decisions are made, we can answer the socioeconomic impact question of who benefits and who pays within a framework of local responsibility.

Although you might imagine that Bell Advanced Communications' chief interest in the Lanark County Project is connectivity and signal traffic, in fact, it is content. [7] Bell is developing a content strategy including: Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) development support, server farmers, electronic commerce including virtual office software for intranets, and partnerships with any content providers "where there is a business case." Clearly, Bell is anticipating that reciprocal interactive communications will create business opportunities for both partners, and that they will get to support the community's "voice" going in both directions.

4. An absence of federal policy

There are gaps in Canada's approach to national communications and information infrastructure that make it difficult to discuss the needs and significance of community networking.

4.1 Information Highway Advisory Council (IHAC)

The IHAC'S final report, "Connection, Community, Content: The Challenge of the Information Highway," was released in September, 1995, and called for a competitive, deregulated, market-driven environment. [8] Its insistence on calling Canadian citizens "consumers" of information grated on many, and the report was not without controversy; a minority report by Jean-Claude Parrot, of the Canadian Labor Congress was submitted, reflecting his concerns on behalf of the Labor movement and workers.

Even though our real shift to an age of universal connectivity is more than a matter of technology, the IHAC report gives little sense that the implications of this are understood. Despite its appropriation of the word "community" in it's title, it placed a peculiarly negative spin on it's few brief references to community networking:

Commercial and non-commercial networks--including community-based networks such as FreeNets, which are being used more and more across Canada--will also increase access to the Highway. ... However, many community-based networks do not have stable funding. (Industry Canada 1995, p. 45).

In a side box that describes community networks as access without charge, they say, "Community nets are victims of their own success; busy lines often make it difficult to get through." (Ibid., p. 46).

In Recommendation 13.11, the opportunity is missed to legitimize the vitality of the community networking movement by centering the major action example within the scope of a particular federal program: "The federal government, working with other stakeholders whenever applicable, should develop a variety of financial support mechanisms such as tax measures and seed-funding programs to ensure the long-term viability of community networks and to establish and maintain a network of public access points in all communities to enable Canadians lacking other means of access to connect to the Information Highway. For example, the scope of programs such as the schoolnet community access program should be extended to meet this objective, and Canada Post service outlets could be equipped for use as public access centers." (Ibid., p. 173).

"Re-inventing" government means steering the boat, not rowing it. A kindly interpretation of the recommendation might suggest that it is an open door. But, to date, there has been no public attempt by any federal agency to follow it up in a concrete manner. The example of the CAP program mentioned in the recommendation, however beneficial to rural connectivity and federal experience of community networking it turns out to be, is a unilateral, internal, and top-down initiative. It is not an endorsement of grassroots citizen initiatives that are characterized by self-generated, community-based action that is somehow unregulated, and beyond control.

4.2 Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC)

Telecommunities Canada's interest in CRTC Telecom regulation is a public and not-for profit interest. Generally, its members are concerned with community-based control and participation in the local utilization of digital interactive and converging communications technologies. As a national "voice" for community networking issues, this makes TC's chief long-term regulatory interests the Internet and community control of computer mediated communications (or "backbones") at the local level.

These issues are apparently not CRTC's direct responsibility. In fact, there is not yet a specific regulatory responsibility for Internet-related issues in Canada. TC has made decisions to intervene in CTRC's educational special rate and convergence hearings. But these decisions were, in fact, just "best guesses" at where it might gain some attention on long-term public interest issues that the Information Highway policy process has not yet fully addressed. In effect, TC has asserted to the CRTC that the existence of community networks in an age of universal connectivity society is an essential public good. On the face of it, almost nothing in the current climate of national communications and Information Highway policy debate actively endorses this view.

Telecommunities Canada has told the CRTC that it believes the changes occurring in Canada's communications and information infrastructure cannot be fully understood by reference to the word "design." Rather, a set of ideas about new means of achieving cooperation and responsibility are converging around the word "Net." In a social sense, Canada is a network of people, just as, at the local level, a community is a network of people. As a tool, the Internet is an extension of social networking by electronic means. Electronic community networking associations help Canada achieve this externalization of social networking by:

4.3 Is the policy problem political or structural?

In a January 28, 1996 speech to the Canadian Political Science Association, David Cameron of the University of Toronto made a distinction between understanding the problem of Canadian unity as "political" or "structural."[9]. If governments perceive a problem as political, then nothing is fundamentally wrong except what citizens believe to be true. Appropriate action becomes a matter of political manipulation of opinion. However, if the problem is perceived to be structural, that is to say, a matter of substance rather than belief, then the approach to action would be quite different.

The public utterances of current Canadian federal cabinet ministers provide ample evidence of a conviction that fundamental problems of public policy are merely matters of belief, and that blind public trust in their outcomes can still be achieved [10]. This conviction does affect Information Highway policy planning. In December, 1995, journalist Greg Weston wrote an article [11] on Minister of Industry John Manley's Information Highway public relations strategies. He describes how two well-connected public relations firms quibbled over the fairness of government contracting procedures:

Earnscliffe was originally hired on an untendered contract by Manley's shop in May to help prepare the Minister's June pitch to cabinet on the status and proposed future of the Information Highway. ... After Manley had flogged his information-highway strategy to cabinet, it was time to try out the idea on ordinary folk. That's when bids were called to build awareness, understanding, and support for the plan ... The government must be seen to be showing leadership and that Industry Canada is capable of managing the initiative.

In effect, public perceptions of how the minister's department was coping with Information Highway policy was of sufficient concern to justify the letting of a $100,000 contract.

4.4 Price and markets

Policy researchers [12] are also finding a "what's the problem?" attitude in the federal government, because of an ideological feeling that the right "price" will allow the market to address the affordable part of affordable access to the Information Highway, without the necessity of considering public interest, social policy, and socioeconomic impact. In effect, if the price is right, Canadians do not need to know who benefits and who pays to make correct decisions. This attitude ignores the magnitude of social transformation. They can avoid the necessity of making hard choices about power and first principles because of the presumed superior quantifiable rationality provided by market price. As David Noble (1995) said, this is "progress without people." Public interest groups can understand why business likes this. But it baffles them why their government would allow business to avoid accountability for the consequences of its actions.

4.5. Communications is about talking, not the transmission of bits

As Menzies (1996) has pointed out, the transmission model of communication has been the dominating sensibility inherent in economic ("market-driven") evaluations, and this model is reflected in the current discourse on the information infrastructure.

In contrast to the community model, which sees communication as a dynamic social and cultural process, the transmission model posits communication as a transportation mechanism in moving static goods (i.e., information as a product and ever-expanding commodity) over vast stretches of geography. "From a policy perspective, supporters of this model interpret content as a separate issue and suggest that policies appropriate for the goals of content can be achieved within an infrastructure devoted to transmission. But the infrastructures are far from hospitable to any communications content: far from it; because of the bias of the communication built into those structures" (Menzies 1996, p. 146). These biases include the compulsion toward a centralization of decision making and authority, while decentralizing work; the persistence of global "virtual" corporations over local organizations; and a consequent homogeneity of participants and content.

Given that most government public policies in North America and other parts of the world are advocating that privatized and market-driven initiatives be the catalyst for successful deployment of information technology across all strata of society, the community model, which indeed embraces inclusivity, aspects of "strong democracy," and notions of conviviality, is in danger of being sideswiped by the powerful interests of the global marketplace; increasingly characterized by a potpourri of stakeholders joined together through convoluted mergers and acquisitions.

Not surprisingly, then, "it follows that a privately owned and managed Information Highway will be turned toward the interests, needs, and income of the most advantaged sectors of the society ... sometimes this systemic tendency can be modified, but to do so requires the pressure of a strong political movement" (Schiller 1996, p. 96).

4.6 Provincial information highway policies

The BC government's "Accord" has specifically negotiated a support for the BC Community Networks Association to take on the role of community networking development throughout the province.[13] The Ontario ONIP program recently hosted a series of five regional meetings across the provinces where community networks were provided an opportunity to share their experiences and concerns.

5. Conclusion: Clarifying ambiguities

5.1 Balancing the global through the local

Conventional macro-economic thinking causes nation states to view globalization-export-oriented industrialization that integrates national economies into a world market-as the only strategy for competitive advantage. In effect, they judge that the best transition from an industrial economy to a knowledge-based economy will only occur through the development of more industry. The "Catch 22" in this strategy is that an integrated world market works by ignoring the controlling role of nation states.

There is a difference between making Canadian corporations globally competitive, and making Canada globally competitive. A "Canada" strategy would include a micro-economic dimension that puts community networking on center stage. If there are no viable, healthy, and confident communities, there is no base for global competitiveness. The federal strategy should begin with local community and end with global competitiveness. Instead, it begins and ends with global issues and leaves out any reference to the essential qualities of a knowledge economy that would make it worth living in.

Canadians know their communications tools. As the world leader in using telecommunications to overcome problems of distance, Canada is probably further ahead than most countries in reaching a national consensus on the value and impact of changes in communications technology. But how do we get to building the public sphere from the bottom and the top?

The climate in which to raise this issue is improving. The federal government is becoming a hands-on user of the World Wide Web, if not the Internet. This will make it increasingly difficult to ignore the impact of interactive communications and virtual social networks on organizational structure in government. There are people scattered throughout the federal government who know a "Netizen" when they see one. The vitality of the community networking movement and a rapid but largely invisible growth in social sector networking is becoming harder to ignore. Because they are not "connected," many politicians and senior technocrats do not appreciate the speed of the shift. But what is to them an unknown is on the brink of becoming ordinary. All that is missing is an acknowledgment that a top-down/bottom-up strategy gives more leverage than any other approach.

From the Lanark example, we can see how community networks are finding ways to point out to business just how effective they can be in generating and concentrating market demand for Internet-based services. Even if the national dialogue on change in communications and information infrastructure continues to stand apart from the social sector, government's partner, the business sector, through experience may bring a broader definition of access to the table.

In summary, a federal government that views language as merely broadcast messages is confronting local self-organized initiatives to virtualize community development processes that view language as communications in the broadest sense of the word. The feds want to speak, but the communities want to talk. Talking is about reciprocal sending and receiving, speaking and listening, at the same time. This is the essence of the "interactive" in interactive communications.

5.2 Post-IHAC Canada

In contrast to our current scenario where federal policy makers and technological pundits envision national information infrastructures as existing in a privatized and deregulated environment, early wired-city proponents saw the technological infrastructure as a public utility, rather than a private commodity. Public policy was thereby encouraged to support universal service in a just and equitable fashion, with appropriate subsidization.

Given that national and global information infrastructures are now being promoted and legislated in such a deregulated and competitive environment, where private industry can have unbridled (albeit interoperable) control, community networks, which are indeed a social utility, and those individuals and entities seeking public spaces, could find themselves in a vexatious position. McChesney (writing just before passage of the U.S. Telecommunications Reform Bill of 1996, yet close enough to anticipate its passage) is blunt when he says that "the current promarket policies are going to be little short of disastrous for the quality of life for a majority of people in the United States and globally. In the coming generation there will be a pressing need for alternative policies that place the needs of the bulk of the citizenry ahead of the demands of global capital" (McChesney 1996). How the U.S. policy trajectory will influence future Canadian policies as the fate of post-IHAC Canada is determined is not known as of the writing of this paper, but if the past is any indication, then the assimilation of American policies and sensibilities will become the Canadian de facto standard.

Miller (1996) has persuasively argued that we need to build this public sphere from the bottom up as well as from the top down: "Focusing the implementation of the NII at the bottom of our social hierarchy will also help influence those who set policy at the top. Rooting cyberspace in the social realities of neighborhood organizations increases the odds that the needs and priorities of potential 'have-not' areas will be aggregated and expressed effectively. It is the activism of these kinds of grassroots organizations that eventually will push top-down NII policy in democratic directions" (Miller 1996, p. 248).

Community networks and other seekers of public spheres find that they occupy the ground between government and the private sector which Barber (1995) calls civil society, or civic space: "It is not where we vote and it is not where we buy and sell; it is where we talk with neighbors about a crossing guard, plan a benefit for our community school, discuss how our church or synagogue can shelter the homeless, or organize a summer softball league for our children. In this domain, we are 'public' beings and share with government a sense of publicity and a regard for the general good and the commonweal; but unlike government, we make no claim to exercise a monopoly on legitimate coercion." (Barber 1995, p. 281). This civic space is voluntary, embraces cooperatism, consensus, and the common ground. The challenge that we face now is in ensuring that in our current rush to privatize, deregulate, and commodify the information infrastructure, we do not dynamite our social infrastructure. We cannot afford to neglect the multiplicity of people and the wider public sphere that need to shape and be accommodated by this information infrastructure.

If you believe that structure, and not "politics-as-usual" is the problem, then you rethink principles in different way. The grassroots actions of community networks provide one serious (and free) way of directly tapping the experience of the public in doing just that. The public's ability to understand change in social structure is better than that of the ruling elites.

6. Notes

[1] The Morino Institute, a nonprofit organization concerned with the impact and development of community networking, identified in 1995 over 300 community and public access networks in North America, alternatively and interchangeably referred to as: freenets, community-based computer networks, community computing, community telecomputing, community bulletin boards, civic networking, telecommunity systems, public access systems, and community information systems. See Morino Institute. Directory of Public Access Networks. Reston, Virginia: The Morino Institute, 1995. http://www.cais.com/morino/htdocs/pand.htm.

Schuler (1994, 1996) has likened community nets to a democratic participatory medium, whose characteristics include: "Community-based: the system promotes participation because everyone has a stake; Reciprocal: any potential 'consumer' of information, commentary, issues, or questions is a potential 'producer' as well; Contribution-based: forums-both moderated and unmoderated-are based on contributions from participants; Unrestricted: anyone can use the community network; Accessible and inexpensive: the systems are readily accessible from a variety of public as well as private locations; Modifiable: users can design or codesign new user interfaces or services." See Doug Schuler, "Community Networks: building a participatory medium." Communications of the ACM, v.37, n.1 (January 1994):39-51; and Doug Schuler, New Community Networks: Wired for Change. Reading, Massachusetts: ACM/Addison-Wesley, 1996.

[2] As we are using the term, "virtualization" includes two interlocked processes. The first is "disintermediation," whereby material and human "resources" are replaced with knowledge processes and the middle of things disappears. The second is the simulation or modeling of "reality," whereby you become the creator and consumer of an artificial experience. In effect "modeling" and "replaced with knowledge processes" are two different ways of saying the same thing. Current models are crude in relation to what they will become.

[3] Telecommunities Canada is the "national voice" for the rapidly developing Canadian community network movement. In August 1994, over 40 Canadian community network associations and freenets came together for a conference in Ottawa. They recommended the formation of a national association, to support their common interests in the development of the Canadian community networks movement. They affirmed their interest in having the means to share the practical experience that they are gaining of Canada as a knowledge society, and to speak to federal-provincial-municipal interests that affect their development. But, they want that "means" (i.e., Telecommunities Canada) to be true to the grassroots nature of community networking and to be autonomous from governments.

As a national voice for the needs and concerns of community networks, Telecommunities Canada is an association of associations. Ordinary membership in Telecommunities Canada, with full privileges, is limited to Canadian electronic community network organizations that: operate on a not-for-profit basis; have their legal membership open to every citizen of their community; and provide equitable access to all citizens in their community. For more information see TC's Web page at http://www.freenet.mb.ca/tc/index.html.

[4] This description of change drivers is adapted in part from: Kuhn, Marilynn and Garth Graham. Connecting for Canada's children: A Report for the Child Welfare League of Canada. Ottawa, CWLC, April 1996, 29-31.

[5] Project contact: Bob Leitch, Chairperson, Provisional Board of Directors, LCICN Project, Lanark County Board of Education, 15 Victoria Street, Perth, Ontario, K7H 2H7, Tel. +1 613 267 4210.

[6] Personal communication with Ken Fockler.

[7] From a public presentation on Integrated Community Networks by Joe Murphy, Associate Director, ICNs, Bell Canada, in Smith Falls, Ontario, 2 May 1996.

[8] The Information Highway Advisory Council (IHAC) was established in 1994 with the mandate to make recommendations to the Minister of Industry on a "national strategy to govern the evolution of Canada's advanced information and communications infrastructure respecting the overall social and economic goals of the federal government" (Industry Canada 1994, p. 33).

Five working groups were established to cover the following broad areas of interest: Access and Social Impact; Canadian Content and Culture; Competitiveness and Job Creation; Learning and Training; and R&D, Applications, and Market Development. Also identified were three main objectives of the government's information infrastructure strategy: (1) the creation of jobs through innovation and investment, (2) the reinforcement of Canadian sovereignty and cultural identity, and (3) ensuring universal access at reasonable cost.

The tenor of the initial IHAC issues paper reflected the conviction that the implementation of a national "Information Highway" is of paramount concern to ensure that Canadian businesses can remain internationally competitive; to ensure that economic growth and new jobs will accrue from the development of an advanced information infrastructure; and that Canadian content will be retained in the global information infrastructure. The Canadian Information Highway: Building Canada's Information and Communications Infrastructure. Spectrum, Information Technologies and Telecommunications Sector, Industry Canada. http://info.ic.gc.ca/info-highway/rpt-fnl.txt.

[9] Cameron, David. "National unity: our problems can't be wished away." The Ottawa Citizen, 22 February 1996, A13.

[10] Sheila Copps speaking on unity: "It is the duty of each of us to build faith in our country." (Paul Gessell. "Copps urges nation to recapture spirit of '67." Ottawa Citizen, 1 March 1996, p. A2). Paul Martin speaking on economic policy in a meeting with the Ottawa Citizen editorial board: "I think that perhaps the most important issue you have raised is the question of confidence." ("Economic policy key to peace with Quebec." Ottawa Citizen, 12 January 1996, p. A13).

[11] Greg Weston: "Well-connected Liberals fight over spoils from federal Infobaun contract." Ottawa Citizen, 5 December 1995, A2.

[12] Personal communication, Dan Dorner, University of Western Ontario, from research in progress on "defining essential services on the Canadian Information Highway."

[13] Province of British Columbia, Information and Technology Access Office. (1995). British Columbia Electronic Highway Accord. http://www.itao.gov.bc.ca/accord.htm.

7. References

Barber, Benjamin. (1995). Jihad vs. McWorld. New York: Random House.

Canadian community networks directory. Telecommunities Canada, 26 May 1995. http://www.ncf.carleton.ca/freeport/freenet/conference2/menu

Graham, Garth. "Freenets and the Politics of Community in Electronic Networks," Government Information in Canada, 1, no. 1.6 (1994). http://www.usask.ca/library/gic/v1n1/graham/1.html.

Graham, Garth. "A Domain Where Thought Is Free to Roam: The Social Purpose of Community Networks." TC Brief to CRTC Information Highway Hearings, 29 March 1995. http://www.usask.ca/library/gic/v1n1/graham/1.html.

Graham, Garth, with Cornelius F. Burk and Henry E. McCandless. (Winter 1994). Governance and information: myths, realities, and the future. Canadian Parliamentary Review 17(4):22-27.

Industry Canada. Information Highway Advisory Council. (September 1995). Connection, Community, Content: The Challenge of the Information Highway. Ottawa: Minister of Supply and Services Canada. http://info.ic.gc.ca/info-highway/ih.html.

McChesney, Robert W. (1996). The Internet and U.S. Communication Policy-Making in Historical and Critical Perspective. Journal of Communication and Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 4(1). http://www.usc.edu/dept/annenberg/vol1/issue4/mcchesney.html.

Menzies, Heather. (1996). Whose Brave New World? The Information Highway and the New Economy. Toronto: Between the Lines Press.

Miller, Steven E. (1996). Civilizing Cyberspace: Policy, Power, and the Information Superhighway. New York: ACM Press and Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley.

Noble, David F. (1995). Progress Without People: New Technology, Unemployment, and the Message of Resistance. Toronto: Between the Lines Press.

Schiller, Herbert I. (1996). Information Inequality: The Deepening Social Crisis in America. New York, London: Routledge.

Shade, Leslie Regan. Roughing It in the Electronic Bush: Community Networking in Canada. In Communities in Cyberspace, ed. Peter Kollock and Marc Smith, University California Press, 1997.

Shade, Leslie Regan. Computer Networking in Canada: From CA*net to CANARIE. Canadian Journal of Communication 19(1) (Winter 1994): 53-69.


The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the authors and do not represent the views of Telecommunities Canada or any particular community network.