WATPA: FW: L.A. Times - Paying for Net Foils "Public Space" Idea

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From: Norman J. Jacknis (norm@jacknis.com)
Date: Tue May 08 2001 - 20:46:53 EDT


Thursday, May 3, 2001

Paying for Net Foils "Public Space" Idea

By Gary Chapman

Copyright 2001, The Los Angeles Times, All Rights Reserved

There has been talk about preserving "public space" on the Internet
since consumers began to discover the Web and e-mail six to seven
years ago. But new developments in online business are creating a
heightened sense of urgency because many Web-based companies are
starting to explore "pay-per-view" or subscription-based fees to
maximize the value of their intellectual property.

Plus, the deployment of more high-speed broadband networks is
accompanied by trends in online content that would replace the
diverse, expansive and largely free Web with fee-based services and
programming that will look more like commercial TV.

So there is a campaign underway to keep some online information free
and accessible, to ensure what Jeff Chester calls "a digital commons."

Next week he will launch an organization called the Center for
Digital Democracy in Washington, D.C., that will fight for open
access on telecommunications networks, especially digital cable and
digital television broadcast.

A number of national leaders are increasingly concerned that public
interest, educational, cultural and civic content on the Internet
might be shoved aside, or overwhelmed, by the digital and interactive
equivalent of "Survivor II" or the Home Shopping Network.

The challenge is not only how to keep networks open to diverse and
free information but also how to fund interactive digital information
that serves noncommercial purposes.

One of the most ambitious and novel ideas has come from two
television and public policy veterans, Lawrence K. Grossman and
Newton H. Minow. Grossman was the president of both NBC and the
Public Broadcasting Service, and Minow is a former chairman of PBS,
the Federal Communications Commission and the Rand Corp. On April 5,
they announced a proposal for a new Digital Opportunity Investment
Trust, a public agency modeled on the National Science Foundation and
funded with $10 billion from the anticipated public auctions of
telecommunications frequency spectrum to digital wireless companies.
(More information is available at http://www.digitalpromise.org.)
This fund would support the development of digital information and
services for educational, cultural, artistic and civic activities,
Grossman said. Online material is increasingly expensive to create
and will get even more expensive as we move to broadband networks
that can support video and high-quality audio as well as

"The federal government has invested billions in wiring schools
through its E-rate program," Grossman said. "We think it's time to
turn our attention to content, which is equally important."

A similar rationale was behind a dramatic decision by officials at
the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who announced last month
that the university will offer nearly all its Web-based courses for
free. This decision threw other universities--many of which were
looking to distance education as a new source of revenue--into an
entirely different position.

Scientists concerned about the availability of scientific research,
especially to researchers in poor countries such as Russia and India,
recently announced a campaign to boycott any online scientific
journals that charge a fee for accessing published research more than
6 months old. The campaign launched by the Public Library of Science
(http://www.publiclibraryofscience.org) has started a heated debate
in the scientific community over who should pay for research

There's a question, however, about whether the Bush administration
will hear these ideas and act. The chairman of the Federal
Communications Commission, Michael K. Powell, has publicly admitted
that he doesn't understand the concept of the "public interest" when
it's applied to telecommunications. That's a bad sign. Bush's
advisors seem likely to let the market dictate how the Internet will
evolve, and too many people in the high-tech industry have tunnel
vision focused on future fortunes in digital services. We'll need
more public activism and understanding about the importance of a
"digital commons." The quality of our cultural legacy is at stake.

Gary Chapman is director of the 21st Century Project at the
University of Texas at Austin. He can be reached at

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