- By Paul McCloskey
- Jul 31, 1997
he community network movement is a phenomenon that seems to attract some of the most dedicated people in the civic IT community-in and out of government. These are typically people-social service professionals, municipal managers, librarians and journalists, to name a few-who started out with a passion for improving community life. As a community-building technology, the Internet has now galvanized this group even more.
The passions of those who started the Charlotte, N.C., community network, Charlotte's Web, were essential for getting the community network off the ground. But as our cover story in this issue documents, they also may have contributed to the breakdown of the partnership.
In this case, a proposal by the county to fund the network under the aegis of its information systems department led to fears that the county government would control, rather than enable, free community information flow and expression over the network. These, of course, are fears that are not ungrounded. In a nation founded on the principle of free expression, we still need to be reminded once every few years that it is illegal for the government to get into the editorial business.
On the other hand, as one of the people quoted in our story points out, the government does not have the franchise on wanting to control what it funds. Providers of commercial funds can be just as manipulative. The operators of Charlotte's Web or any other community network have to be no less vigilant of the self-interests of their future private-sector sponsors.
Should local governments fund community networks? The answer is yes, provided that either of two scenarios operate. In one, the local government would act like any other content provider, compensating for the use of a single network channel, either by paying outright or in-kind. In this case, the government would exercise control only over content on that channel.
In the other scenario, if the government takes a deeper financial position in the network, it should accept a seat on a board of directors made up of a broad cross-section of the community. There, its interests would compete with other community interests to help set the direction and policy of the network.
It is ironic that in the case of Charlotte's Web-which rides the communications medium of the 21st century-government and community players agree that a breakdown of communications was the primary reason for the split. Perhaps it could have been avoided had the Charlotte's Web funding "community" set up its own channel of free expression.