Protecting Community Networks

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Susan Barnes
Fordham University

Commercial Internet providers are creating walled gardens that make it difficult for community networks to freely exist and provide for open communication on the Internet.


The Internet, originally designed as a low cost method for researchers to work together easily through networked computers, has become the newest means citizens to actively participate in their own governing.


Two forces have been thwarting the success of community networking on the Internet: the move from a text-based medium to a multi-media platform; and the increasing commercialization and conglomeration of the Internet providers. Although the technological changes brought about with digital processing allow for a many-to-many model of communication through the Internet, advances in digital processing have also meant that designing a multimedia message requires a complex set of skills including traditional literacy, visual literacy and HTML or Java programming and digital literacy. Barnes, 1996, 1999). And with the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 creating a competitive commercial telecommunication environment through deregulation, consolidation has occurred in the communication industry and most broadband Internet providers are designing their systems as “walled gardens,” keeping their customers within the confines of the service (Aufderheide, 2000) limiting the Internet from its potential as a fully many-to-many communication medium for all. Although the E-Rate provision of the 1996 Telecommunications Act offers an antidote, it only provides support for K-12 schools and libraries, not community organizations, urban health care providers, church groups, and other not-for-profit organizations. Community networks are gradually being taken over by commercial interests, which are not interested in public access networking. In contrast to the United States, Canada’s community networking systems are highly successful because Canada has established government support and public policies to help community networks (Travers, 2000).
Lack of digital literacy skills combined with no provisions for public networking by Internet providers are keeping many individuals and grassroots community groups from being able to utilize the medium effectively or at all. This pattern will explore the role of community networks and public policy in the United States. And it will describe a community networking research project currently being conducted by the McGannon Center at Fordham University and the General Board of Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church.
Co-author, Margot Hardenbergh, Fordham


We suggest the government pass legislation requiring Internet providers to allow for open access by all groups, and we propose that local groups and organizations such as churches form community networking centers throughout the country.

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