Free-Nets, a rather nifty sounding name. It evokes thoughts of the 60's, the West Coast, the Summer of Love, the eclectic San Francisco scene. Well Free-Nets aren't quite that nor are they "free" unless you consider all taxpayer funded schemes as freebies. Remember Al Gore and all his rhetoric about the much vaunted "information superhighway" and how the administration wanted to bring it into every home in the nation. Such populist rhetoric would have done even Huey Long proud! I think few will dispute the idea of bringing the cyber world to the masses at affordable rates. But should the government be an internet service provider?? Considering all the other things the government does poorly, it is a rather salient question.
Enter the Free-Net, these had their beginnings in the mid 80's in the Cleveland area. The concept started at Case Western Reserve University where a BBS was started to provide medical information the community. Its success there led to the formation of a more general purpose "community" BBS. NPTN was started a few years later with grant money from the NTIA (National Telecommunications Information Agency) and private sector funds from companies like Ameritech and Apple Computer. NPTN's mission was to encourage the formation of "community" networks in cooperation with public libraries, school boards, and colleges. Part of their rationale was the spectre of "cyberdumping." In other words, community networks could protect school age children from being "dumped" on the internet where they might be possibly exposed to the evils of the cyberworld. Obviously, NPTN hoped that school boards would embrace this concept for the "filtering" that NPTN affiliates offered.
It never occured to these people that most public libraries can barely keep books on the shelves. At least ones that are relatively current. This was not entirely lost on the NPTN moguls, they decided to fund personel as well. Free-Nets would have money to hire full-time system administrators as well as having ample money to purchase the latest and greatest state-of-the-art hardware. This was appealing to the politicians because it meant more patronage plums that they could hand out. It mattered little if potential system administrators thought the term "UNIX" refered to an individual who was surgically "altered" at an early age to prevent the voice from deepening with the onset of puberty. No problem because the NPTN has technical cadres who can come and set everything up for you.
So with evangelistic zeal, the NPTN pundits spread across the country in the best Hazel O'Leary tradition spreading the gospel of the Free-Nets and encouraging libraries to get these grants and bring computing to the downtrodden masses. Free-Nets will bring the masses into the "information age," they hailed. We will create "electronic communities" where people will be enlightened by the free exchange of ideas and unbridled dialogue. The Free-Nets will make us all "electronic citizens," thoroughly enlightened and able to make the "informed decisions" so necessary in the dawn of the next millenium. We are to thank the federal government for having the infinite wisdom to bring us into the "electronic age."
At this point, you might wonder what a Free-Net does?? They do provide on-line card catalogues so you can see what books your local library has. On the surface it looks like a pretty good idea, but apart from that and offering email services to their clients, they offered little else other than occassional snippets from community organizations. NPTN promoted the use of "FreePort" server software which was written at Case Western Reserve and not so free at $850 per license. Freeport was basically a terminal server package written to run on UNIX platforms that allowed computers with VT100 emulation to connect up with modems to a sort of a BBS style interface and allowed clients to use various UNIX server packages like Lynx and PINE. Getting colleges involved was important being that they already had an internet connection and these UNIX/FreePort servers could use these for bridging to the network. This kind of antiquated interface alone would indeed provide plenty of "filtering" which NPTN felt was desirable. Certainly no X-rated graphics would come through in a text-only VT100 style environment. NPTN tried to justify their "FreePort" approach to things by assuming that people were happy living in a text-only world and lacked the hardware that could display graphics.
I wouldn't mind it so much if Free-Nets were funded by the private sector, but they're not!! They receive millions to set up systems powered by expensive Sun or Silicon Graphics workstations that the rest of us can only dream of, only to give users a crude text-only BBS style screen that doesn't do much and forces users to hammer on the space bar and return key to react. In today's mouse-driven world, it is about as relevant as using a crank to start your car.
Censorship has never been popular in this country, better to be exposed to things we might find offensive than to let government decide such things for us. If we don't like something, the "off" switch has been the way to go! The internet is a medium and there is content that many of us may not like, but we have the "off" switch. We can better decide such issues ourselves than let a government bureaucracy make those decisions for us! Free-Nets set a bad precedent when they decide what is to be "approved." In the Free-Net way of thinking, people are too stupid and/or ignorant to make full use of all the resources the cyberworld has to offer. Perhaps they feel coy about stepping on the toes of commercial providers of internet access or worries about "acceptable use" policies of their taxpayer funded backbone provider. I think the actual truth is lays elsewhere, namely that these petit-bourgeois snobs who concocted this whole scheme were only looking out for themselves and trying to create a publically-funded nest they could burrow themselves into.
The funding for NPTN and Free-Nets probably wouldn't buy a set of hubcaps to go on a B-2 bomber or fund the White House travel office for a year, but I take strong exception to this taxpayer funded snobbery. The same money would probably would be better spent helping libraries do what they do best, namely to provide books! If the government really wants to see that internet access is available at low cost to the masses, they don't need to flush millions down the toilet with Free-Nets. They simply need to enact some meaningful legislation that will insure a fair and open market in telecom services. If the marketplace is allowed to work, inexpensive and universal access will available to everyone and perhaps the government can use the money to provide real benefit to the public. The real problem is one of culture, these half-baked schemes are so much part and parcel of government culture, it might take years before it will change. So much for "re-inventing" government!
The Good, The Bad, The Internet, and Tom Grundner