Spring-Summer 2005

Community Networking On The Night Shift, Part Six: The Rise And Fall Of The Ohio Free-Nets

In 1986 when the Cleveland Free-Net went online, it was one of a small number of community networks across the United States. While most of the other networks were one of a kind, the founder of the Cleveland Free-Net envisioned other communities using the already successful Free-Net model as a springboard for development of their own networks.

To that end, Dr. Thomas M. Grundner, then of Case Western Reserve University, incorporated the National Public Telecomputing Network (NPTN) to serve as an umbrella organization for the Free-Nets. The NPTN Bluebook contained the blueprint for setting up a Free-Net (and the spelling and punctuation were to be exactly that). Eventually a fee was set for membership in NPTN.

My own involvement with the Free-Net model began when I met Tom Grundner in 1991. At the time I was the Associate Law Librarian at the University of Akron , and, as many librarians, concerned about the increasing divisions of the information society into haves and have-nots. In the law library world, the haves could use the costly information databases of Westlaw and Lexis. What, then, would happen to the solo practitioner who could not afford those prices? Moreover, what would happen to the citizen who wanted to research his own legal issues?

Tom Grundner was then writing a newsletter called Letters to the Fourth World, and when I read one, I realized that the Free-Nets were the answer to my questions. In turn, Tom was eager to have Akron involved to complete a northern Ohio group of Free-Nets that included the Medina County Free-Net, the Lake County Free-Net, the Lorain County Free-Net, and the Youngstown Free-Net. There were other Free-Nets across the state, including the SouthEastern Ohio Regional Free-Net (SEORF) in Athens, the Greater Columbus Free-Net (center), the Dayton Free-Net (southwest corner), and the Toledo Free-Net (northwest corner).

Where are those Free-Nets today? The Akron Regional Free-Net is now ACORN, run by the Akron-Summit County Public Library. The Youngstown Free-Net, almost a one-man labor of love of Lou Anscheutz, is gone. The Medina County Free-Net, once affiliated with the Medina County Library is gone, although I still have a Medina County Free-Net t-shirt. The Lake County Free-Net has a minimal presence. SEORF seems to be active but didn't respond to my email.

There doesn't seem to be a really good directory of Free-Nets; the Vancouver Community Network has a directory, Freenets Around the World, but many of the links are dead. John Kurilec maintains the Organization for Community Networks which also has a list of present and past Free-Nets. My favorite directory has been the one organized by the University of Michigan School of Information, but it has been down since last September with a note that the absence is due to database server issues.

Saddest of all, the Cleveland Free-Net went down in 1999. My personal opinion (and I have one degree from Case Western Reserve University) has always been that CWRU made a huge mistake by letting it go. The community used it, it was thriving, but the bureaucrats didn't have the vision to see what CWRU could contribute to the community through the Cleveland Free-Net.

And I have to admit that the surviving Ohio Free-Nets are pale imitations of what was once envisioned, including my beloved ACORN. It's a good community bulletin board, but it doesn't reach far beyond that. Now part of the Akron-Summit County Public Library's (ASCPL) resources, it is the library's gateway to the Internet.

And probably the saddest event of all was the spectacular demise of NPTN. It's a story with all the elements of a potboiler—pornography, carpetbaggers, betrayal, bankruptcy, lawsuits, a federal court sentence and people behaving badly when not illegally. It may make an interesting story at some future time.

Would the Ohio Free-Nets have survived if NPTN hadn't disintegrated? My guess is no. Not that many of them ever joined NPTN, which fell apart far short of its potential. My theory on the fall of the Ohio Free-Nets is pretty simplistic. The Free-Nets flourished in that period of time before ISPs became plentiful and the cost of Internet access became cheap. The Free-Nets were ISPs, and since they were rooted in communities, they reflected their communities. The early Free-Nets offered community information, often organized on NPTN's city buildings model—schoolhouse, civic center, courthouse, post office (email) and forums (Internet Relay Chat). The Lake County Free-Net has a very attractive city layout.

But the commercial ISPs bypass community, and community was the heart of the Free-Nets. The Free-Nets weren't merely ISPs. They were often affiliated with universities—CWRU, University of Akron, Youngstown State University, Lorain County Community College, Ohio State University, Ohio University, and the University of Toledo. Academics were among the early users of the Internet and eager to spread its benefits to nonacademics.

The Internet was different then, too, before spammers, before Instant Messaging, before every company had its online store. It was Brendan Kehoe's Zen and the Art of the Internet, among many other manuals and primers. It was netiquette and sharing. Deb Keller, one of the founders of ACORN, thinks that the Internet still is a place for communities of subject interest; it just isn't a place for geographical interest.

In a sense I'm still hoping to prove that wrong. My local community network, Cleveland Heights-University Heights Community Network, is pretty much a bulletin board, even though it has a forum component. But we have a shot at being part of a project that will involve a five-street, 380-house segment of the community. Will that be the critical mass for a community connection, or is my incurable optimism showing?

Anne S. McFarland, Esq. is a Research and Reference Librarian for the Cleveland Law Library Association and a regular contributor to CTR since 2001.


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