Privacy, Access and Equity, Democracy, and Networked Interactive
Networked interactive media have already wrought irreversible changes in the way we live, work, and educate ourselves in America. This transformative set of technologies, like others before it, is the focus of broad hopes and boundless anxiety. For some, it is a singular force for goodempowering the individual, unlocking human potential, and ushering in a new era for wealth creation in a networked economy. For others, it raises dark suspicionsas a tool for control or an enabler of fringe elements in our society.
At the very least, the new interactive media raise serious issues relating to individual privacy, access and equity for the underprivileged, and, ultimately, the impact of these media on the evolution of democracy.
The creation of a new interactive media infrastructure represents yet another ''westward migration" for pioneering Americans. Like all frontier environments, the boundaries and structures of the interactive information and communications frontier are still very fluid. As such, efforts to "civilize" it through the force of regulation should be tempered with caution. Past lessons of success and failure argue that we embrace the inevitability of change with our eyes wide open.
The development of too many regulations at this nascent stage of development would dramatically slow innovation and deployment of this new public infrastructure in the United States.
The challenge ahead is threefold: (1) to deliver the promise of these emerging communications and information products and services to the consumer with an element of individual control over the collection, distribution, and use of personal information; (2) to achieve reasonably broad public access to new media and information content, particularly with regard to education and training opportunities; and (3) to develop this infrastructure to its fullest as a force for individual development and expression and the public welfare.
We recommended a coalition of consumer, business, and government interests to engage in a constructive dialogue and work toward the development of guiding principles for privacy, access and equity, and democracy. As a disciplined, self-regulating body we will see an interactive information and communications infrastructure evolve as a major force for economic development and individual opportunity within this generation.
General ContextThe Electronic Frontier
Harold Innis, an early critical voice in the electronic media age and teacher of Marshall McLuhan, pointed out that new media have precipitated political change throughout history, shifting power toward the citizenry. "Monopolies or oligopolies of knowledge have been built up … [to support] forces chiefly on the defensive but improved technology has strengthened the position of forces on the offensive and compelled realignments favoring the Vernacular."
NOTE: The ideas expressed in this paper are those of the authors and not necessarily those of their employers.
Libraries based on clay documents enabled priests to monopolize knowledge in ancient Babylon. Papyrus scrolls supported the limited democracy of Greek city-states, and the rule of law in ancient Rome. Paper and the printing press, used to reproduce texts in the language of the common people, precipitated the Reformation, the end of feudalism, and the emergence of parliamentary democracy, capitalism, and the Industrial Revolution.
Technology continues to transform our lives and forward the aspirations of people around the world. Who can forget, for example, the student dissidents in Beijing who used computers and facsimile communications to make their case before the world and launch communist China's first democratic uprising?
Individual technologies like the fax machine can make a difference in our lives and even influence events. The convergence of interactive multimedia and the information highway marks a truly disorienting, potentially liberating step ahead for humankind. This phenomenon, like that of the affordable mass-produced automobile and the interstate highway system, can change the economy, the physical landscape, and the very nature of community in America.
TV, video, computers, networked communications, and a host of new digital, microprocessor-based applications are all, it turns out, pieces of a puzzle that is only now coming into view.
This dynamism of convergence is extraordinary. As people explore its possibilities into the future, the interactive frontier will unfold in ways that its pioneers today can't possibly imagine. In fact, any presumption today about how convergence will ultimately change the lives of our children and grandchildren is not likely to be a sound basis for public policy. Though Vice President Albert Gore (as a U.S. Senator) predicted an explosion of activity and innovation on the "Information Superhighway" 6 years ago, few others gave much credence to the Internet or the then emerging phenomenon of the World Wide Web.
The data are finally catching up with Gore's optimism. A Newsweek poll published in February 1995 found that 13 percent of adult Americans said they had gone online, 4 percent had perused the Web, and 2 percent had logged on for an hour or more each day. As interest among consumer and business computer users climbs, online activity accelerates exponentially. Growth of commercial online services (e.g., Prodigy, America Online, and CompuServe) remains in the double digits. Products promising easy World Wide Web navigation, such as Mosaic and Netscape Navigator, are proliferating, and modem ownership doubled in the second half of 1994.
Interactive television, video teleconferencing, work group computing, and other important interactive media are also gaining footholds as the so-called "killer" applications that will catapult them into the mainstream begin to emerge. Together, these applications will justify a national information infrastructure (NII) analogous to basic telephone or cable television service.
Today's Context: Which Way to the Future?
Today's convergence of interactive electronic media is unique in more ways than one. In addition to the novelty of the new interactive media and their intriguing capabilities, we have witnessed unprecedented public input and participation in their development. In large part these new media are closely linked to the ascent of the personal computer. Unlike other communications infrastructures, most recently cable TV, the new media owe as much to the individual PC developer, engineer, and enthusiast as they do to any corporate, institutional, or government initiative.
This, in part, explains the popularity of new interactive media among educated, middle- and upper-income American families. These are people who use computers and online services at work and at home for both serious tasks and leisure. There is an enthusiasm for interactive media among this group akin to the frontier spirit that propelled individuals and families westward in search of opportunity and adventure.
The new interactive frontier, however, is a "virtual" one, defined by the fact that it is always changing and not limited by traditional constructs of geographic proximity, time, or self-actualization. It is at once infinite in scope and capable of redefining one's sense of community. It provides a forum in which individuals, organizations, and social groups are empowered to create, collect, exchange, and distribute information in previously unimaginable ways.
This virtual frontier is predictably confounding many existing standards and ideas about legal jurisdiction. It is also dredging up new versions of old questions about what constitutes social equality. And
democracy itself is being reexamined. Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Newt Gingrich is perhaps the most vocal proponent of an interactive democracy, featuring virtual town halls with direct online, even video teleconferenced connections to local representatives. The key issue is, will such access improve our system, or will it deliver a new tyranny of the majority?
Privacy, access and equity, and the function of democracy are all issues on the table for discussion and debate. As we approach a more pervasive virtual frontier we are well advised to raise the level of public discourse on these issues. Soon, this frontier population, perhaps more diverse and complex than our own, will demand new standards for justice, law, and order that make sense in a world without boundaries.
The U.S. Constitution provides no explicit help in determining what privacy means. On the other hand, everyone seems to have a strong notion of what it should mean. For the purpose of this discussion, privacy includes an individual's desire to be left alone, the ability to restrict the disclosure of personal information, and the ability to restrict the way such information is used.
On the virtual frontier, privacy issues abound. Individual privacy claims are running headlong into the administrative requirements of government agencies, the competitive concerns of business, and, increasingly, the best efforts of law enforcement. A carefully considered balance will be required to ensure that reasonable standards of privacy survive the information age.
The Right to be Left Alone
The right to be left alone would seem straightforward enough in cyberspace, but individuals increasingly find themselves vulnerable to assault. Some of these uninvited assaults are as innocuous as unsolicited advertising messages distributed throughout the net. Others are more serious. In 1992, the FBI arrested a Sherman Oaks, Calif., man for terrorizing women on the Internet. A man in Cupertino and another in Boston were arrested for pursuing young boys over the Net.
Though it may be in decline at the office, sexual harassment is alive and well online. The experience might have an unreal quality for the harasser hidden behind an anonymous online identity, but the threat or uncomfortable approach comes across as anything but virtual for the victim.
Another disturbing development online is the breakdown of the noble "hacker" ethic idealized in Steven Levy's 1984 book Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution. A culture coveting access to secure environments for the sake of it is giving way to a more destructive ethos. The new rogue hacker unleashes viruses causing millions of dollars in software and file damage, steals phone and credit card numbers, and uses network access to terrorize individuals.
The Ability to Restrict Disclosure and Use of Personal Information
Perhaps the most chilling privacy issue is the degree to which we can manage or contain the digital trail we leave behind. Large databases that piece together life histories and personal preferences have been a fact of life for more than 20 years. The sophistication with which that information is applied to marketing programs, human resource department analysis, surveys, and investigations is more recent.
As David Chaum, a leading cryptography expert, writes,
Every time you make a telephone call, purchase goods using a credit card,subscribe to a magazine orpay your taxes, that information goes into a database somewhere. Furthermore,all of these records canbe linked so that they constitute, in effect, a single dossier of yourlifenot only your medical andfinancial history but also what you buy, where you travel, and whom youcommunicate with.
The new interactive media will provide many more opportunities for the collection of personal history and preference information, from the TV shows we watch to the groceries we buy. Without knowledge of these records, the ability to verify information contained within them, or control over their disposition and use, consumers are at a distinct disadvantage.
These sophisticated systems, however, also offer many benefits. Information can improve the service that consumers receive in retail environments. It may mean less time is spent filling out forms with redundant information. And it helps marketers trim databases to include only those who are predisposed to their message in their direct mailings.
The danger, of course, is that information shared among companies, nonprofit organizations, banks, credit organizations, and government agencies is inaccurate or used for a purpose that defies a reasonable standard of privacy. In addition, different consumers will have varying standards as this issue becomes increasingly apparent.
The NII's Privacy Working Group has taken on the task of developing guidelines for privacy in the information age. These guidelines, though still in development, are an attempt to update the Code of Fair Information Practices established by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development.
The essence of these principles is quite simple:
As a minimum, information about a transaction should be strictly between the end customer and the information user (product/service provider). The network service provider, for example, should not be privy to the content of a transaction.
An important element in the new NII guidelines is the emphasis on information user responsibility. It stresses the need for information users to "educate themselves, their employees, and the public about how personal information is obtained, sent, stored and protected, and how these activities affect others." However, to the extent that the NII places the onus of responsibility on individual consumers, it may be assuming too much. This is an increasingly sensitive area in light of recent highly publicized abuses of personal databased information by federal and state government employees:
Abuses of personal information have also surfaced in the private sector with rogue employees misusing access to private records including personal and financial information, occasionally leading to further criminal acts. In such instances, responsibility for the security of personal information should be clear. Decentralized, interactive, digital communications vastly complicate the issues of privacy and security.
Privacy and the Law
Privacy issues have always loomed large for local carriers in the telecommunications industry. Regional carriers are held to the highest standards for privacy and security of any industry. As the national network infrastructure shifts from analog to digital with an increasing ratio of data to voice traffic, these standards must be reviewed and amended to consider a host of new players and technologies.
The Internet, for example, presents a whole new ball game when it comes to privacy and security. A critical element of the new network infrastructure is that it be a level playing field where both transport and content providers are equally accountable and operate under a common set of rules.
If a comprehensive, equitable framework for privacy and security is not established, a frontier vigilante ethic will take hold among consumers of the new interactive media. We are already seeing this tawdry trend emerge on the Internet.
A defensive reaction to invasive information collection and the perceived threat to privacy posed by government-specified "Clipper chip" technology is the widespread use of privacy tools in the online community. Sophisticated encryption techniques, accessible through shareware on the Internet, allow users to protect conversations, electronic messages, even databases from unauthorized view. This move toward self-protection should put service providers and information users on notice. The continued use and proliferation of privacy tools will have a destabilizing effect.
What happens, for instance, when law enforcement officials face kidnappers, child molesters, and terrorists who use encryption shareware to protect their communications?
Shortly after the tragic bombing of the Oklahoma federal building, law enforcement officials learned of incriminating bulletin board and e-mail messages that had been posted on an online service by a suspect and others with possible knowledge of his plans before the act occurred. Such evidence is invaluable and should be accessible to law enforcement.
Networked interactive media present broad legal, ethical, and technical challenges. For example, there is no physical wiretap capability online. Service providers are required either to grab information real-time from bulletin board conversations or drill down through massive data repositories, which include primarily protected conversations. Cooperative efforts and careful compromise are needed to safeguard privacy and security in these emerging areas in the face of serious public safety demands.
The right of privacy and free speech will always be weighed against the public demand for law and order and for community standards of decency. Although many of the specific technology and jurisdictional issues are different or somehow transformed in today's virtual environment, the act of balancing competing concerns remains the same.
The management at Prodigy Services, for example, has made a number of controversial decisions regarding extreme behavior onlinefrom a suicide threat to a racist hate group forum in which other subscribers were verbally attacked. The decision to pull the plug on free discussion and provide authorities with personal information that saves lives is not always easy. Many such cases will likely end up in court.
In another case, threats issued by one individual subscriber to another on Prodigy led to an investigation in which three federal agencies, three states, and seven municipalities made similar jurisdictional requests for information. This is another issue demanding guidelines as the networked interactive infrastructure expands. If all legal jurisdictions are to be honored, how are transport and content providers to comply with contradictory requests, or even foreign legal inquiries? What if, for example, a transport provider receives a legal requests for private information from a rogue police state within the virtual boundaries of the network? This raises the potential for causing not only a violation of privacy or human rights but also of sovereignty and national security.
In the absence of exacting legal precedents, service providers have established tough but pragmatic standards for privacy. Such individual voluntary efforts are needed as broader privacy guidelines are tested and cooperation among consumer, business, and government representatives brings a workable consensus.
Access and Equity
As the networked interactive media revolution ramps up in this country of 250 million people, some of us are inevitably better positioned to leverage it for our own development and prosperity than are others. It is the obligation of business, educational institutions, and government to plan for the broadest possible inclusion of people, bringing diversity of perspective and ideas to the virtual frontier.
The widening fissure between the haves and the have-nots in the United States and around the world is one of the most serious challenges to modern society. Though the issue of poverty defies direct assault, efforts to include, educate, and learn from the economically underprivileged among us will chip away at the core problems and improve the quality of discourse in America.
Interactive product and service providers investing in or supporting the development of a networked interactive media infrastructure must find ways to leverage their limited efforts so that the broadest possible inclusion can be achieved. The two major obstacles are access and the capacity to use.
Access to Networked Interactive Media
The issue of access is perhaps more varied and complex than privacy within the context of networked interactive media. It is certainly more demanding of the available resources and requires that tough choices be made on an ongoing basis toward some ideal of universality. In general, women, children, old people, poor people, those who are legally blind and those who are illiterate, and nearly the entire continent of Africa are disproportionately absent from the virtual frontier.
In the United States we have to determine who among the underrepresented are least likely to get there without direct action on their behalf.
In computer ownershipa characteristic considered most likely to precede active interest in networked interactive servicesincome, education, and race are the statistically significant factors.
According to a 1995 U.S. Census Bureau report, households headed by people with a college degree are nearly eleven times more likely to own a computer than households headed by those who did not complete high school. White households with incomes above $75,000 are three times more likely to own a computer than white households with incomes of $25,000 to $30,000. Among blacks, higher earners were four times more likely to own a computer, while the likelihood was five times among Hispanics.
These discrepancies are not likely to improve as the digital revolution progresses. The costs of going online at home are not at all insignificant. At least several thousand dollars must be spent on computer and communications equipment before a consumer can hook up to one of the popular online services. These services charge an average $10 per month plus up to $150 or more for 30 hours of connect time and content delivery.
Giving people tax credits to buy PCs, as Newt Gingrich has suggested, may be impractical, but something must be done to provide disadvantaged people with the tools needed to succeed in a knowledge economy.
In the future, direct access to networked interactive services will be an integral feature of commonplace consumer electronic equipment. In the interim, schools, libraries, and other public facilities will likely serve as the point of entry to the virtual frontier for many Americans. Interactive product and service providers are well advised to work with these institutions to determine what facilities and related services will produce the best results for those without access.
The Capacity to Use Networked Interactive Media
A significant finding in recent years has been the correlation between poor and illiterate segments of our population and the lack of both interest in and access to the new online media. This correlation is dangerous in that this group is one of the most likely to benefit from the eventual mainstreaming of interactive media.
Networked interactive media will serve to fill in gaps left by economic disparity. They could help, for example, address the current lack of affordable training in literacy, work, and communications skills that prevents people from getting and keeping employment. And as networked interactive media become less text intensive and more verbal, visual, and highly intuitive, they will be more easily accessible to those who are less educated or able. The opportunity is upon us to deliver everything from comfort food for couch potatoes to information services for learning and empowerment, particularly with the development of Web-based and interactive television (ITV) services.
Access to these services for people with a limited capacity to pay for or utilize them will hinge on ease of use and basic economics. Unfortunately, delivering such slick applications directly into millions of homes in underprivileged communities during the early stages of commercialization is not realistic. The cost could not reasonably be passed on to the remainder of the customer base or the taxpayer, and the investment community would have no incentive to participate without expectation of returns.
As early test markets prove successful, the cost of rolling out network infrastructure drops, and interest in interactive media increases among low-income people, a solid economic motivation to wire these communities will emerge.
In the short term, cost-sensitive alternative solutions can be considered as a means to boost the online population. Again, the schools and other public facilities will be a critical point of access.
ITV trials and high-bandwidth trials are in the early stages of planning and implementation, so it is premature to draw any conclusions regarding deployment of these technologies.
Concerns have been raised about equitable deployment and, in some cases, charges of "economic red-lining" have been raised. Many content and transport providers appear to be seriously addressing the "red-lining" issue. Bell Atlantic, for example, in its initial deployment plans, specifically addresses this concern. Its currently targeted "hot sites'' slated for field trials have a population composed of 36 percent of the cited minority categories in comparison with a 24 percent minority population in the total region. Most LECs and RBOCs also have state educational initiatives in place to address access and equity issues.
In addition, service providers, government agencies, and other organizations might consider limited interactive service into homes or public areas that can be delivered at lower, less costly bandwidths than ITV. Many valuable, albeit streamlined, interactive products could be offered at 14.4 or 28.8 kbps or via ISDN.
New York City's United Community Organization, for example, has installed 200 PCs with ISDN connections to the Internet. The new facilities, paid for with $1.4 million in federal grants and private donations, are used by UCO staff and neighborhood residents.
Realizing Access and Equity
Information technology is becoming part of the popular vernacular. The networked interactive information media will further this evolution. They will bring good (learning, communication, self-help, and entrepreneurialism) and evil (crime, propaganda, and stultifying mass culture). But ultimately, they must deliver substantial inclusion if they are to transcend the vernacular and serve the larger goals of individual and economic development in a free democratic society.
Larry Irving, assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Commerce and director of the National Telecommunications Information Administration, says, "It is going to require a concentrated effort not to be left behind.… We have to get the technologies deployed in minority communities, make sure our children are technologically literate, and seize the entrepreneurial opportunities."
Vice President Gore said, "This is not a matter of guaranteeing the right to play video games; this is a matter of guaranteeing access to essential services. We cannot tolerate, nor in the long run can this country afford, a society in which some children become fully educated and others do not."
The networked interactive media infrastructure, described by Vice President Gore as the "Information Superhighway," can evolve into an infrastructure as fundamental as the interstate telephone or electrical power systems, enabling individuals of limited means and capacities to meet their own needs. And like these momentous projects, universality will take time and careful allocation of limited investment resources.
Networked interactive media have many potential implications for democracy. The extent to which formal and informal aspects of the democratic process in the United States will be transformed is impossible to gauge.
If the Internet's early impact is any indication, it will not be insignificant. The following are a few examples:
In the Third World, information and communications technologies have already transformed the process of political dissent and even revolution. In Mexico, rebels have waged a public relations war via laptop computer, modem, and fax from the remote state of Chiapas. Their assaults via the news media have captured public sympathy and reversed repeated government offensives. Information is replacing the standard weapons of war.
According to Howard Rheingold, online services are making less dramatic, but no less remarkable, transformations possible in American society. These services, he claims, enable the creation of badly needed "virtual communities" based on shared interests, which hearken back to the world before radio and television, both of which diminished social discourse as a pursuit distinct from work and obligation.
At their best, the networked interactive media will give cohesion and community to underrepresented realms of opinion. At their worst, they will enable terrorists and hate groups to reach wider audiences under cover of anonymity. In all likelihood, they will add yet more dimension and subtlety to the social and political landscapes.
Information and Community Are Power
Unlike other media that have been co-opted and at times successfully manipulated by political leaders, the Internet is too diffuse and decentralized. It is better suited to affinity-based constituency building than to mass communication.
The Internet and other online services enable the formation of virtual communities built on shared interests. In a fast-paced information age during in it is increasingly difficult for people to assemble and share ideas face to face, the ground for virtual communities is fertile. With thousands of forums and news groups proliferating, cyberspace is host to many of these virtual communities. Some of these have come to function as special interest groups. Whether they facilitate constructive dialogue, involve a greater number of people in the democratic process, or just further derail the deliberative aspect of representative government is a matter of personal perspective.
The intimate "back fence" feel of the virtual community is perhaps its greatest attribute as a forum for political communication. Republican presidential candidate Lamar Alexander, for example, followed his first television appearance as candidate with an extended public question-and-answer session online. He became the first candidate to do so.
Both campaigns and special interests turn to the Internet for information. In addition to news and countless databases, the Internet provides an efficient way to collect competitive intelligence. Speeches, position papers, voting records, and a host of other information can be collected through myriad Web sites. Any forum
open to supporters is also open to the opposition. It is even possible to listen in on discussion groups hosted by opposing candidates or interest groupsa new twist on focus group research.
Teledemocracy and Control
In the 1992 election campaign, Ross Perot proposed the use of technology to support electronic town meetings at the national level, with instant plebiscites on a multitude of issues. This concept of the virtual town hall of "teledemocracy" did not die with Perot's presidential hopes. Similar ideas of varying degree have recently been endorsed by opinion leaders, most notably representative Gingrich. But the impact of a virtual polity may go too far, according to many critics who fear that such immediacy will overwhelm the point and purpose of representative government.
For some, the control of the networked interactive media infrastructure is an important issue for democracy. Where there is control of distribution, there is control of content and therefore opinion that is represented. The openness of the Internet has quashed early fears about freedom of speech and access in the new media. But as major content and transport providers begin to position themselves as major players in networked interactive media, concern swells.
However, the interactivity of the new media, the proliferation of competitive service providers, and consumer demand for diversity of content will limit the influence or manipulative power of any one service provider. Competition for consumer attention, in fact, should intensity efforts to identify and cater to specific audiences. In such an environment, content can more easily reflect the views of participating consumers than in the past.
On regulation and enforcement, we recommend the following: Pure voluntary self-regulation by information collectors and users is a good start, but it can and should be supplemented by government standards to ensure that "bad actors" are dealt with appropriately and that privacy, access, and democratic standards are defined and protected. Consumers face a confusing patchwork of self-administered approaches that vary by state, industry, and company or service provider. Many examples of abuse have already surfaced. Legislation should set minimum standards along the lines suggested here. A joint industry-consumer panel should enforce the standards, educate and consult, and provide dispute resolution services. Disputes that cannot be resolved through this voluntary mechanism should be referred to the courts.