Ron Burnett
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Walter Siembab
Lawrence Hecht
Kenneth Pigg
Ron Burnett
Steve Cisler
Jessica Brown
Ryan Turner

Communications Policy and the New Public Sphere: Towards a New Research Agenda
Ron Burnett is the President of the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design  in Vancouver, British Columbia. He was the Director of the Graduate Program in Communications at McGill University from 1990-1996 and is the author of Cultures of Vision published by Indiana University Press. His new book, Images, deals with the transition from analogue to virtual forms of communications.
Ron Burnett

Urban and rural FreeNets and community networks, of which there are many in Australia, Canada, the United States and Europe, have created a radically different public sphere, which is growing internationally. Emergence of this new public sphere presages a profound transformation where community media, for the first time, has begun to shape national and international information networks. Effects of this change on the policy environment will have a significant impact on the democratic rights of individuals and communities to pursue their visions for the future.

A spirit of volunteerism and a dedication to the common good defines community networks and this new public sphere. There are similarities among all community media: radio stations on university campuses, community television channels, cooperative radio stations, and computer-mediated forms of communication such as FreeNets. In Canada, electronic bulletin boards evolved out of the first thrust of Internet development in the middle of the 1980's. In general, regulatory bodies in Canada have been running behind the rather fast-paced evolution of community networks.

In Canada, there is a government grant program called the Canadian Access Program (CAP). It is similar to the American Telecommunications and Information Infrastructure Assistance Program (TIIAP) in that it makes an effort to support creation of community on-ramps to the information highway. In recent years the CAP program has been swamped with requests and has not been able to respond in a timely manner. There has been some increase in access, but far less than originally intended. However, while broader communications policy in Canada has begun to recognize a need to address these local issues, it has so far failed to create any meaningful framework or agenda. In order for this new public sphere to grow, this policy framework needs to change further away from a traditional broadcast television perspective. Although the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) has recognized the fundamental redefinition of communications processes brought about by technologies such as the Internet, it remains focused on issues of globalization and Canadian broadcast television content:

"The advancement of communication technologies, along with the abundance of information in today"s knowledge-based society, is creating a new, integrated 'global' information society. While globalization offers vast opportunities for marketing cultural products, it also provides regulatory and policy challenges that demand new approaches to support domestic cultures. Achieving a successful balance between the demands of the open market, and the need to maintain and promote cultural sovereignty and national identity, reflecting Canada's cultural diversity and linguistic duality, will be key to maximizing gains from the global information society. (CRTC, A Report on Plans and Priorities, 1999-2000, , p. 6)"

The CRTC is a good example of what can go wrong with regulation in the Internet age. Its policies reflect a desire to sustain and encourage the development of Canadian content. At the same time, it has no understanding of how the new media transform content and introduce new and unpredictable political and social alignments. Community networking is not necessarily in competition with global interests. The orientations of these networks are not defined by commercial gain, but rather by the construction of a new public sphere.


(from Playing to Win)

Purpose is:

universal technological enfranchisement.
to broaden the scope of personal capability and interest.
to enable learning and functioning through technology.

Technology is:

a tool.
an information resource.
a vehicle for communication.

Students can:

learn to operate machines and programs.
learn how to create programs.
learn how to use programs as tools.
learn from programs.
learn with programs.

Students are:

participants in the learning process.
working collaboratively.
in control.
actively engaged.

Results are:

empowerment: skill in tool use, success in learning.
increased self-esteem.
ability to use resources.
ability to articulate process and need.
recognition of personal contribution.
respect for contributions of others.
habits of self-assessment.

Teachers are:

facilitators, guides, coaches, gardeners.
participants in the learning process.
role models.


are project based.
reference real-world activity.
respect and use background, culture, skills of participants.
provide for team work.

Assessment is:

the joint task of participant and teacher.
based on personal accomplishment.
substantiated by personal portfolio.
The CRTC tends to bundle the entire communications infrastructure into one rather homogeneous whole, influenced by traditional approaches to broadcast television and Canadian culture. The CRTC assumes convergence, in this case, to be the combination of a variety of different communications industries. However, this obscures the urgent need for the grassroots, or local communities, to define their own mode and modality of interaction within the new public sphere the new media make possible. These cannot be defined through the use of the traditional parameters of nation and locality. Community across a media such as the Internet can mean people getting together from many different nations through common interest and common cause. Here, community is about spontaneous linkages that create social networks. Some of these networks sustain themselves over time and others disappear. Any underlying policy framework to encourage and support social processes in this new public sphere needs to be defined by a recognition of its fluidity.

Transitions, or shifts of the kind that I am discussing here, are never as dramatic as one might imagine given claims about the technology itself. To translate the potential of locally-based community networks, into this larger public sphere with international scope, requires the same kind of time and commitment which has always been a characteristic of earlier forms of community activism with or without community media. However, the potential for community networks to shape international networks has become profound. The extent of inter-connections (as more and more people use the Internet locally) has grown huge. With more local users, orientation of community activism will become more directly linked to the use of media and communications tools, which in turn are linked internationally through the Internet.

What needs to be done? I would like to suggest several approaches to policy research to investigate this transitional area that encompasses what I would describe as virtual communications and for which neither our governments nor our lawmakers have developed clear policies. I believe that we need to develop a new research agenda that highlights exemplary community-based communications systems (of which FreeNets are excellent examples).

This research has to be historical, theoretical, and pragmatic in orientation. We need to account for the synergistic relationship between the history of people's lives in communities and their use of a variety of technologies to communicate with each other and with the outside world. This research agenda should combine an intimate knowledge of the social and interpersonal processes that have made it possible for members of different communities to work together, with an analysis of the political context of participatory democracy. In large measure, the strength of virtual communications can be found in the many ways in which communities translate common needs into political action. The research in this emergent area has to be profoundly interdisciplinary in nature and has to be willing to engage with community members as both oral and written historians of their own activities. Researchers have to get into the field and at the same time, they have to avoid some of the errors of conventional ethnography and sociology. The challenge is to develop new disciplinary models to deal with radical change.

New policy research needs to recognize that community networks developed as a response to the lack of access to traditional broadcast media provided to community members, and also because of a desire to increase the quality of communication between citizens of different communities who shared similar interests. However, the process moved far beyond its initial objectives of public access into political engagement, as community networks became seats of activism and information exchange about social, political and cultural issues. New policy research needs to examine implications for how we think about structuring the regulatory environment to support and expand this new public sphere. The issues of political and commercial control as well as the ability of community members to freely engage with new forms of communication and emerging technologies of information and interaction means that conventional regulatory policies will ultimately have to change to address these effects. How does one respond to material that may be controversial? How does one define local and national interests in the light of community needs? What are the boundaries between regulation, freedom of expression, and the local community standards?

Conditions upon which new kinds of policies can be devised are being changed on a continual basis by the activity of networking itself. At the most fundamental of levels, the Internet should allow if not encourage the continual development of innovative approaches to communication. Policymakers will have to reflect this level of innovation in their efforts to create flexible regulations. The only way that this can happen is if research and policy development in this area begin to share a radically new approach and a similar desire to broaden their understanding of this intense period of transition and transformation.