Don't Snooze on Cyberrules

Whether or not you have access to a personal computer and the Internet, you should be concerned about the development of the electronic frontier.

Even if you don't spend hours every day "surfing" the World Wide Web, and if your eyes glaze over at the prospect of browsing 150 million pages that already exist in cyberspace, you ought to worry about the attempts of government to regulate the Internet while big business seek to control the World Wide Web.

Until 1990 the Internet was an ingenious way for computer nerds to exchange messages electronically, but it was largely a province of scientists and others with high-tech jobs. Then the World Wide Web was created in a Swiss laboratory, allowing the possibility of posting graphics as well as text which someone could browse and pull off the Internet. Businesses scrambled to figure out the possibilities of marketing on such a medium.

A little more than one-third of households in the United States had personal computers by January 1996, the most recent figures available. A little more than one-half of those with computers had modems to communicate with the Internet. Of those, 7.5 million had on-line service and 6 million had used the World Wide Web in the previous month. So Internet browsers are still members of a relatively elite group, but the Net already had surpassed the U.S. Mail in the amount of messages transmitted and dataflow on the Net has surpassed voice calls on telephone lines.

The Internet has been vital to the creation of the Progressive Populist. I probably send a dozen email messages for every letter I mail, saving a few dollars in the process, and I spend hours on the Net nearly every day looking for useful information. (And with all the junk that is posted there, browsing requires careful analysis of sources.)

Of course we at the Progressive Populist do not assume you have a personal computer and we try to be sensitive to readers who do not have access to the Internet, or who do not care to waste their time on the World Wide Web. But whether you like it or not, the future of communications is the Internet. You can learn about it and perhaps help shape its growth or you can be left behind and let others make the policy decisions. (How many of you thought you never would use CDs, or VCRs, or ATMs either? Some of us are still warming up to the telephone, never mind faxes and answering machines.)

The Internet has been good for small businesseses and with every advance in technology another multimillionaire is made in a startup company. But as the Internet grows, big business is starting to flex its muscle, coveting the billions the Internet is expected to generate in the next few years.

In the past couple years the Clinton Administration has defended of business and police interests on the Web at the expense of individual and libertarian interests. Clinton in February 1996 signed the telecommunications reform bill that not only cleared the way for consolidation of media corporations but also asserted that the Internet is not worthy of the free-speech protections of the First Amendment. The Administration has pushed for greater copyright control on the Internet, which would primarily benefit entertainment conglomerates at the expense of the individual's right to browse and copy documents for private use. And the Clintonistas have led the push to prohibit software that can encrypt email messages so that snoops - not even government snoops - can intercept and decipher them.

Clinton's Federal Communication Commission has held off telephone company demands that a surcharge be placed on Internet connections, which could spell the end of the unlimited Internet access that now is widely available, at least in cities, for $20 a month. But don't expect the phone companies to give up easily.

These new policies, written by lobbyists, members of Congress, the FCC and world trade organizations in Geneva before most civilians even know the terms of debate, will determine whether low-income and working-class groups participate in the Internet and whether it remains a democratic - even anarchic - forum for free and robust expression or just a wholly owned subsidiary of Microsoft.

What can you do?

Form a local freenet organization. There are approximately 200 groups around the country that provide community access to the Internet. Austin Freenet, working with a grant from the Texas State Library, is one that has placed Internet access terminals in public libraries and now is hoping to place them in recreation centers, job training and adult literacy centers. Gary Chapman, a cybernet activist and director of the 21st Century Project at the University of Texas, said the biggest challenge freenet organizers face is generating demand in low-income areas, getting people to understand that computers and Internet access can help them and their communities. (If you are interested in starting a freenet, email Chapman at or write him at the 21st Century Project, LBJ School of Public Affairs, Drawer Y, University Station, University of Texas, Austin, TX 78713.)

If you are in a rural area, make sure Internet service is available and affordable. Many rural residents must pay long-distance charges on top of Internet access charges, which makes service to rural areas prohibitively expensive. Texas has assessed a levy on the state's telecommunications companies to provide $150 million a year for 10 years to connect rural schools, libraries and nonprofit hospitals to the Internet. But that won't help individuals and small businesses get wired, in Texas or elsewhere, and many states with large rural populations don't have the Texas' urban base to generate subsidies for rural service. Rural residents should write their state legislators, outline the problem and urge the lawmakers to find a solution.

Support public libraries, which are logical places to train a generation of Internet democrats. Chapman noted in a speech to librarians last year that "while young hotshot programmers are turning into multimillionaires overnight, libraries and librarians are under attack. ... Many librarians and teachers find the new enthusiasm for putting computers into libraries and classrooms paradoxical, because libraries and schools have seen the rest of their budgets sink." But, he said, electronic dissemination of information is producing a global revolution as profound as the industrial revolution that spawned public libraries. If librarians are to continue their advocacy of democracy, literacy and an informed public, they need allies against the push to privatize libraries and make them "revenue sources."

Demand Internet access to public documents. Many governments are balking at the prospect of offering the public easier access to public documents. Instead they are looking at ways to make money off the release of public documents. Ameritech, the Baby Bell telephone company based in Chicago, has contracted with Marion County (Indianapolis), Indiana, for the exclusive right to provide "offsite electronic access" to various records through its CivicLink subsidiary. According to the Society for Professional Journalists, fees for county records have increased from $1 per copy to $5 for the add-on cost of "enhanced access." An official of a paralegal company said the monthly cost for records would increase from $261 a month to $4,000, but in December a federal court judge in Indianapolis dismissed a class action lawsuit challenging the contract. Ameritech also has contracts with Illinois and California giving it exclusive rights to distribute court records on-line. It is pursuing enhanced access legislation in a number of states, including Missouri, Washington state, Michigan and Colorado. Other states also reportedly plan to enter exclusive contracts with private firms to resell government documents.

Finally, check out The Progressive Populist web site established at . Since September 1995 it has drawn more than 6,100 browsers, who have sampled some of the paper's features from each issue, texts of speeches and historical documents and other resources on populist politics and economics. Also check our links to other selected Web sites. With 150 million Web pages out there, these are a few of the better ones.

Troublesome Creek

Troublesome Creek: A Midwestern, a film by Jeanne Jordan and husband Steven Ascher, is an intimate and wry documentary of the efforts of Jordan's family to save their 125-year-old farm in western Iowa after a new banker from Des Moines who doesn't know faces, just numbers, decides to call in the $200,000 loan on her parents' farm. Jordan and Ascher, a filmmaking team living in Boston, brought a camera and filmstock and captured one family's effort to save their way of life. The film waited more than a year in the basement freezer between the chicken and the frozen peas before they could raise the money from the BBC and PBS to process and edit it, but once released it won the Grand Prize and Audience Award from the 1996 Sundance Film Festival and was nominated for an Academy Award for the best feature documentary. Troublesome Creek was to be broadcast nationally on PBS' The American Experience series on April 14. It will show in theaters after (see a list on the Internet at , and it will be released on home video.

Meanwhile, our friend Karen Shaw in Vermont points out that Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman has imposed a moratorium on farm foreclosures by federal agencies. Good for him.

- Jim Cullen

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