Tangled in Charlotte's Web

In E.B. White's story Charlotte's Web, a spider becomes the savior of a barnyard and dies happily in the end, content in the knowledge that her good deeds will live on.

In Charlotte, N.C., the story of Charlotte's Web reads more like a political potboiler crossed with a treatise on social democracy. The saga of the Charlotte freenet, now called the Charlotte's Web Community Network, includes a cast of characters as varied as any that White invented, political intrigue, money scheming, e-mail firestorms and plenty of political rhetoric. But unlike the children's story, no one's sure this one will have a happy ending.

Charlotte's Web was embraced and funded-sometimes exclusively-by the county government for the last three and a half years. But as of this past July 1, its network operators and county government sponsors went their separate ways after agreeing that no more local government funds would be spent on the project. The major players-the library director, the county manager and the leader of a dedicated group of community-minded employees and volunteers-agree that philosophical differences caused the split. But at times, those differences were draped in professional and even personal conflicts over copyright ownership, intellectual property and the specter of censorship.

"It was a terrific learning experience for me, but I won't do it again," said Bob Cannon, director of the Charlotte/Mecklenburg County Library, one of the network's first local government sponsors and the fiscal agent for its first years of operation. "No one was right or wrong, but our goals turned out not to be their goals. My advice [to government] would be to be a player and a partner but not a sponsor. Identify your goals for your own organization and stick to them."

But despite a rocky divorce, the government and the volunteers did produce a healthy, legitimate heir. Some 7,000 Web pages strong, Charlotte's Web averages 65,000 hits daily and offers citizens in Charlotte and surrounding Mecklenburg County online access to job postings, arts listings, religious organizations, AIDS outreach groups and other health and human services, fraternal groups, clubs and professional associations.

Furthermore, the network's partnership with the Charlotte/Mecklenburg school system, which initially contributed $1.4 million in cash and in-kind contributions to match federal grants, has brought Internet access to more than half of all schools in the county. Dozens of nonprofit providers of community services deliver information to their clients via the site, and plans are being made to use the network as a catalyst for a multicounty regional organization that can more effectively express the needs of southern North Carolina.

Spinning the Web

In the beginning, the vision of the network's creators was a bit simpler. "Our idea was to find a way that people could share knowledge with the community...at little or no cost to users," said Steve Snow, Charlotte's Web's director and the man credited with bringing the vision to reality. At the time, in early 1993, there were few Internet service providers (ISPs), and access to the Internet was still confined largely to academic and some business users. "We first thought of being an ISP," Snow recalled. "We were envisioning shell accounts, e-mail and Gopher. We sure didn't expect that we could become a mainline educational medium for services to the kitchen table."

Inspired by an early community network he saw-the Peoria, Ill., freenet-Snow, a journalist by trade, began writing about the possibilities of the Internet and eventually hooked up with a few like-minded local individuals. The group teamed up early in 1994 with Pat Ryckman, then technologies manager at the Charlotte/Mecklenburg County Library. Ryckman convinced library director Cannon to contribute a PC, a few modems and five phone lines to the effort.

Invigorated, the group applied for-and late in 1994 won-a $25,000 grant from the National Library of Medicine and $450,000 from the Commerce Department; both grants ran for two years. The grants were contingent upon local matching, which was provided by the County Board of Education (contributing $1.4 million) and the library (contributing $100,000). Because the group had not yet organized as a nonprofit, the library was named as the entity that would accept the funding, act as the fiscal agent and pay salaried Charlotte's Web employees. Suddenly, Charlotte's Web was off and running.

The first year of operation concentrated primarily on the Charlotte/Mecklenburg libraries and schools. The second year saw the network expand to include community groups, neighborhood organizations and the housing authority as well as parks and recreational centers.

Dangling Lifelines

Then, in October 1996, the grants expired. Snow found himself in need of quick funding at the same time Cannon was starting to believe that the network, which was actively pursuing its original goal of multicounty access, was moving beyond the library's scope. Meanwhile, the network caught the attention of county manager Jerry Fox, who was impressed by the work that the Charlotte's Web volunteers had done with the county election commission.

Sidestepping Cannon, Snow proposed to Fox that some other part of the county should fund the network. Cannon submitted an alternative proposal that would scale back but continue the library's involvement. Then Fox countered with a third plan: He pledged $300,000 worth of funding, which roughly covered salaries and operating costs for a year, but he wanted to move the entire network into the county's MIS budget.

However well-intentioned, the proposal backfired. Word of the plan went out over the network, construed by Charlotte's Web employees and volunteers as a potential county takeover. Overnight, Fox was flooded with hostile e-mail. Amid the ensuing negative publicity, the county-and, by extension, the library-agreed to continue funding temporarily but stepped aside to let Snow look in earnest for alternative ways to fund the network.

Weaving the Lessons Learned

In the aftermath, the single aspect upon which all sides agree is that a lack of orderly communications brought on the Charlotte's Web problems. Growth of the network should have been better controlled, relationships could have been articulated and agreed to on paper, and expectations and responsibilities of all players should have been stated up front.

"Charlotte's Web just kind of grew. We were all guilty of saying, 'It looks good; let's do it,' without really knowing what 'it' was," Fox said. "I would advise others to do some due diligence first. Understand what you're dealing with in the first place." For local organizations considering or just now getting involved with a community network, Snow, Cannon and Fox advise keeping a particularly keen eye on issues related to management, money, assets, and goals and objectives.

Money played a much larger and more divisive role in Charlotte's Web than anyone would have wished, and players suggest that partners be willing to discuss finances frankly. Federal grants are a life-giver to any community network, but a large influx of money can overwhelm a small project just getting off the ground. "We have no regrets on the push of the federal dollars; it was all positive," Cannon said. "But there was no understanding of what was going to happen with that money. We jumped in, they jumped in, and we just started. I would suggest writing up a sequence of what you think is going to happen."

"I was a journalist. I didn't know anything about the grant world," Snow said. "People said everything would be fine, but that was a mistake." In retrospect, Snow wishes the network had been in possession of an organizational framework already in place to manage the grants when they arrived. "We needed a memorandum of understanding spelling out the roles and setting it up as a consortium or partnership. There was confusion about using the library as a fiscal agent and the formal recipient of the grant."

Worse, federal money has a disconcerting way of drying up-the event that, in the Charlotte's Web case, led to the split-up. With more foresight, Charlotte's Web's board might have been able to develop a business plan that continued local government funding in combination with the corporate sponsorships and fee-for-service arrangement now being relied on to fund the network.

When local government money is involved, it's best to make sure that money is so labeled right from the beginning, players advise. Charlotte's Web volunteers and workers always envisioned a network unfettered by government involvement, yet they entered into an extremely close alliance with the county-funded library.

"The network wasn't intended to be the library's or the county's; they believed that from Day One," Cannon said. "But they took our space, servers, salaries, benefits, office supplies, [use of the] print shop and telephone lines." When the divorce came and the two groups had to divvy up assets, things turned ugly. Who owned the logo? Who owned the name "Charlotte's Web"? (Legally, in both cases, the county did.) And who owned the content of the 6,000 or so pages that were created while people were library employees?

"They were very irritated with the idea that we might own the intellectual content of work created under our employment," Cannon said, "though government or corporate workers would take that for granted." In the end, the county let Charlotte's Web have what it needed; the county is licensing the logo to the nonprofit group, for example, and all hardware has been leased to the network for $1. Fox and Cannon suggest other communities spell out in advance all asset-related questions in a sort of prenuptial agreement to avoid trouble later.

But if a property battle is enough to curl the toes of the average government manager, how about charges of censorship? No one involved with Charlotte's Web had any intention of trying to control the content of the Web site, yet the issue played an integral part in the dissolution of the partnership.

For Charlotte's Web workers, the mere potential for the local government to comment on content was enough to sound a call to arms. Within hours after Snow went public with the news that Fox wanted to shift funding away from the library budget, word went out on the network that the county had proposed taking over the network. That was enough to flood Fox's e-mail box with hundreds of angry-grams. The swiftness of the electronic volley caught the county off guard. "If you tangle with folks electronically, it's very rapid and very strong," Cannon warned. "PR-wise, they did a fantastic job. Within minutes, people started to e-mail complaints. Meanwhile, we were here typing up a press release."

Snow defends his actions. He believes Fox is a technology-supportive county manager who understood that the network flourished because it was viewed as above and separate from government. But Snow felt the possibility that the county commission might involve itself in network matters was cause for concern. "If they were going to spend that kind of money, they would want to control it," he said. "It's like putting a bottle of Jim Beam in front of an alcoholic. It would just be too much temptation."

And even as Fox and Cannon insist there was never any intent to control content, they do acknowledge that public funds have public repercussions, regardless of the purity of purpose. "I think content would have come up at some time," Cannon said. "Someone could run a campaign against a politician on the net, and something like that would blow up [the issue] fast."

Fox still believes it would have been possible to establish a content policy that would satisfy network proponents as well as politicians, but public funds are accountable to public laws, he says. "They would have been held accountable under the same policies and guidelines that apply to all other agencies," he said. "The county is a political structure with elected persons making policy decisions. And yes, these could or could not affect the network."

The Government Role

In the wake of the fallout between Mecklenburg County and Charlotte's Web, the larger question remains: What role, if any, should local government play in a community network? No one involved thinks the answer should be "none," but they disagree on just how much involvement is appropriate.

On the one hand are those like Cannon, who advocate active but defined involvement. To avoid getting entangled in larger controversies, Cannon advises avoiding undefined, general-purpose involvement and large block funding.

"You can go beyond your own boundaries, but find out where your goals overlap with the community network's goals and start from there," he said. "And in any case, a million dollars is too much in funding."On the other hand, there are those who take Snow's position. "If you're the government, should you make it possible for people to build roads but not actually build them yourself? That's silly," Snow said. "If the goal is to provide for participatory government, [a community network] provides access to information, some of which is government information, some of which is about jobs. These have the same kind of value as underwriting the bus system. You do it for economic development."

On the national front, community network advocates believe such partnerships can, and do, work. "Local government is funded to ensure the welfare of the polity, its economic and social benefits," said Dave Farley, the grants and development officer for Pittsburgh's Office of the Mayor, which is the major funder of the city's Hill House network. "Community networks can fulfill those goals."

And pressure follows funding, no matter whose holding the purse strings. "There are those in the community networking business who have a fundamental philosophical objection to government involvement. But they don't really have an objection to public funding-just to government," Farley said. "Based on long personal experience, I would submit that the pressure you get from private funders is greater than from any public funder."

Of course, there are success stories. In Texas, the city of Austin plays a role in its freenet that is broadly supportive and clearly defined. The city already has a large presence on the Web called Austin City Connection for delivering government services to citizens. A separate community network, the Austin Free-Net, provides information about thousands of nonprofit organizations.

As part of its responsibility to provide equal information to all citizens, the city pays operational costs, connectivity charges and the salaries of Sue Beckwith, the executive director of the Austin Free-Net, and one other employee. Beckwith is a city employee, reporting directly to the director of financial services.

Even with such support, the Free-Net remains separate from Austin's government presence online and operates as an independent nonprofit group. "It's a strategic partnership," Beckwith said. "For [the city], the Free-Net is a way to provide access and training for end users. It fulfills our commitment to serve all citizens with equal levels of quality."

Back in Charlotte, a strategic partnership did not pan out for a range of reasons. But Snow is happy with the business and operational plan for Charlotte's Web. The new plan calls for the network to move to a model in which about 60 percent of the operating costs will be covered by income earned through a variety of services, such as consulting and Web training. Some 25 percent will come from grants for specific project applications, 10 percent from direct citizen support and the remaining 5 percent from corporations. "This has been a very difficult process for us to go through. But the county is comfortable, and the community is better off," he said.

-- Tracy Mayor is a Beverly, Mass-based free-lance writer specializing in information technology. She can be reached at [email protected]


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