DIGITAL NATION - The Los Angeles Times

Paying for Net Foils "Public Space" Idea

By Gary Chapman

There has been talk about preserving "public space" on the Internet since consumers began to discover the Web and e-mail six to seven years ago. But new developments in online business are creating a heightened sense of urgency because many Web-based companies are starting to explore "pay-per-view" or subscription-based fees to maximize the value of their intellectual property.

Plus, the deployment of more high-speed broadband networks is accompanied by trends in online content that would replace the diverse, expansive and largely free Web with fee-based services and programming that will look more like commercial TV.

So there is a campaign underway to keep some online information free and accessible, to ensure what Jeff Chester calls "a digital commons."

Next week he will launch an organization called the Center for Digital Democracy in Washington, D.C., that will fight for open access on telecommunications networks, especially digital cable and digital television broadcast.

A number of national leaders are increasingly concerned that public interest, educational, cultural and civic content on the Internet might be shoved aside, or overwhelmed, by the digital and interactive equivalent of "Survivor II" or the Home Shopping Network.

The challenge is not only how to keep networks open to diverse and free information but also how to fund interactive digital information that serves noncommercial purposes.

One of the most ambitious and novel ideas has come from two television and public policy veterans, Lawrence K. Grossman and Newton H. Minow. Grossman was the president of both NBC and the Public Broadcasting Service, and Minow is a former chairman of PBS, the Federal Communications Commission and the Rand Corp. On April 5, they announced a proposal for a new Digital Opportunity Investment Trust, a public agency modeled on the National Science Foundation and funded with $10 billion from the anticipated public auctions of telecommunications frequency spectrum to digital wireless companies. (More information is available at www.digitalpromise.org.) This fund would support the development of digital information and services for educational, cultural, artistic and civic activities, Grossman said. Online material is increasingly expensive to create and will get even more expensive as we move to broadband networks that can support video and high-quality audio as well as interactivity.

"The federal government has invested billions in wiring schools through its E-rate program," Grossman said. "We think it's time to turn our attention to content, which is equally important."

A similar rationale was behind a dramatic decision by officials at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who announced last month that the university will offer nearly all its Web-based courses for free. This decision threw other universities--many of which were looking to distance education as a new source of revenue--into an entirely different position.

Scientists concerned about the availability of scientific research, especially to researchers in poor countries such as Russia and India, recently announced a campaign to boycott any online scientific journals that charge a fee for accessing published research more than 6 months old. The campaign launched by the Public Library of Science (http://www.publiclibraryofscience.org) has started a heated debate in the scientific community over who should pay for research publications.

There's a question, however, about whether the Bush administration will hear these ideas and act. The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Michael K. Powell, has publicly admitted that he doesn't understand the concept of the "public interest" when it's applied to telecommunications. That's a bad sign. Bush's advisors seem likely to let the market dictate how the Internet will evolve, and too many people in the high-tech industry have tunnel vision focused on future fortunes in digital services. We'll need more public activism and understanding about the importance of a "digital commons." The quality of our cultural legacy is at stake.

Gary Chapman is director of the 21st Century Project at the University of Texas at Austin. He can be reached at gary.chapman@mail.utexas.edu.

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