During the five week period of August 26 through September, 1996, Information Renaissance conducted an exercise in what it calls "Network Democracy." The on-line seminar entitled "Universal Service/Network Democracy" brought together more than 500 people with an interest in the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and its application to schools and libraries. Attendees represented all 50 states and Puerto Rico and included a preponderance of local teachers and librarians.
The task of the seminar was to inform this group about the rule making process currently under way at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and enable members of the group to express their views on the Universal Service provisions of the Telecommunications Act. Traditionally, federal rule making involves the publication of a notice of proposed rule making and the invitation of members of the public to respond within a certain time period. Replies to the original comments are invited after a brief period in which the comments are placed in public view.
Under the traditional arrangement neither the notice of proposed rule making nor comments submitted to the agency in question are circulated very widely. This situation is slowly changing as federal agencies begin to use the capabilities of the Internet. The FCC, for example, publishes its notices of proposed rule making on-line, so that an audience of millions can easily and quickly have access to it.
There are limits to the openness of current FCC procedures, however. Comments are made available for public viewing only in the FCC's Reading Room in Washington, and although it is possible to order paper copies of these comments, there is no authoritative list of information supplied to the FCC on any given topic except in the FCC's Reading Room, so it is impossible to remain current in a given proceeding without representation in Washington. This drastically limits the extent to which a public voice can be heard on issues before the agency.
The concept of Network Democracy is a simple one:
Step 1 has already been made by the FCC. This agency does allow for informal comments to be filed via electronic mail, and some fraction of material submitted to the agency has been made available on-line. In the case of the Universal Service proceedings, however, there is outside the agency no authoritative list of materials that have been submitted, and those comments which are made available on-line are only those which have been voluntarily submitted to the agency. Furthermore, the procedures by which the FCC has made this material available are cumbersome to use (which is a by-product of the fact that electronic filings are voluntary and none too uniform in format).
What Information Renaissance has done in the Universal Service/Network Democracy seminar is to carry out all 4 steps listed above. Hypertext versions of relevant FCC notices were made available via the Information Renaissance site on the World Wide Web, which corresponds to step 1 listed above. Comments which had been submitted to the FCC in electronic form were converted to hypertext and placed on-line, and comments submitted only on paper were scanned, converted to hypertext and placed on-line as well. This took care of step 3 listed above and provided a massive archive of information on the topic of the Universal Service provisions of the Telecommunications Act. Not only did this provide this material to the public at large; for the first time there was available to FCC staff a means of rapidly searching this material for desired topics and words.
Given Information Renaissance's interest in reaching a grass-roots audience interested in the applications of the Telecommunications Act to schools and libraries, it was not sufficient simply to place all this material within easy reach of the public. There was a need for an organized discussion of the issues at hand and of the procedures followed by the FCC in developing its rules to implement the Telecommunications Act. This important educational step, which corresponds to step 4 on the list given above, was carried out over the five week period of the on-line seminar.
We will not attempt to summarize the content of the seminar in this note but refer interested readers to the material itself, which remains available at the Web site
http://info-ren.pitt.edu/universal-serviceThis site includes all of the material mentioned above plus the complete text of all discussions which took place in the seminar. These discussions are thoroughly indexed and organized for easy reading and rapid retrieval.
In the course of the seminar project staff were able to extract a number of significant lessons for the conduct of future such activities:
In the final survey administered in the last week of the Universal Service/Network Democracy seminar participants indicated a strong desire to keep involved in the activities which had been initiated by the seminar. On a local level this involves contacts with other groups interested in the subject and expression of individual views to representatives at all levels of government.
On a broader level it seems desirable to maintain the momentum of public participation. Information Renaissance proposes the following specific steps:
Information Renaissance also proposes to extend the concept of Network Democracy to apply to other federal and state agencies. We are therefore seeking upcoming rules likely to be of broad public interest and amenable to consideration under the process developed in the present on-line seminar. It is significant to note that the broad level of public network connectivity which is promised by the Telecommunications Act under its Universal Service provisions for schools and libraries is precisely what will be necessary for the application of the principles of Network Democracy to other agencies at the federal and state level.
Beyond the proof of concept of Network Democracy as applied to a broad range of federal and state rule making venues, we have specific suggestions for agencies wishing to adopt procedures of the sort that have been pioneered in the Universal Service/Network Democracy on-line seminar:
Information Renaissance believes that the Internet allows federal and state governments to redefine the meaning of citizen participation in government. Network Democracy is a tool which can enable the government to draw upon a vastly larger pool of expertise than has been previously available for its rule making efforts. By using the Internet government agencies can assure that their rule making process is open and fair and not limited solely to those groups and individuals which exist solely to influence processes of this sort.