|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.
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
"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, www.crtc.gov.ca , 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.
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.