Public Access to the Internet

Brian Kahin + James Keller (editors)

The MIT Press 1995
A book review by Danny Yee © 1995
Questions such as what level of Internet access should be available to whom, how it should be priced, what role the government should play in providing it, and so forth are debated at length in Usenet newsgroups and other online fora. Much of this material is of low quality, however, and many people who need to know about these issues do not participate in such discussions (unfortunately policy and laws regarding computer networks are regularly made by people who have never actually used them). Public Access to the Internet, a collection of papers on Internet access issues produced by the Harvard Information Infrastructure Project, therefore fulfills an important need.

The opening essays are broad introductions to the access issues raised by the Internet, addressing in particular the role of the United States National Information Infrastructure (NII) project and the need to balance commercial and public-interest viewpoints. Two essays, one focusing on the WELL and the other on Usenet, provide introductions to Net sociology and culture which explain why no purely individualist paradigm suffices to describe the Internet. Five papers look at access issues for particular groups: users in the education system, community networks, public libraries, American Indians, and the poor and unemployed. These are as interesting for the information they provide about existing use (as of 1994) as for their attempts to predict future needs and their recommendations for government action. Three papers look at the effects new users with different expectations and usage patterns are having on the network architecture, as well as at the different levels of access actually available. The final four papers look at some of the issues involved in implementing charging schemes; the importance of better network analysis and real quality of service distinctions is clear.

While some may disagree with their normative recommendations — they advocate various forms of government intervention to broaden the range of people with Internet access and support the introduction of some form of packet-based charging —, the various authors do know what they are talking about. There are a small number of minor mistakes scattered through the volume: Keller writes about gopher and World Wide Web protocols being "built on top of the existing file transfer protocol"; Branscomb rather distractingly omits the definite article in "the Internet" about half the time; and Sproull and Faraj insist on using "bulletin boards" to refer to Usenet newsgroups (though they make it clear they know better). A decision has clearly been made not to tackle censorship issues at all, I think wisely. (Though censorship is an important subject and, given its appallingly poor treatment in the mass media, one which could do with similar treatment, it is largely separable from access issues.)

All the works discuss the situation in the United States and the details of prices, government policies, cable TV operators, laws, and so forth are obviously different elsewhere. But the general issues remain the same (at least in Australia; possibly less so in Europe) and, given the dominance of the United States in networking, even the US-specific material will be of global interest. Public Access to the Internet should be read by politicians, public servants, and others involved in formulating policy about networks. Internet users keen on having sane policies formulated by their governments might like to buy a copy for their local representative. Individual papers will be useful to those with more specific needs — anyone wanting an introduction to the sociology of the Internet or the problems of pricing network usage, for example.

December 1995

External links:
- buy from or
- details at the MIT Press
Related reviews:
- Brian Kahin - Borders in Cyberspace: Information Policy and the Global Information Infrastructure
- Brian Kahin - Coordinating the Internet
- books about the Internet
- books about politics
- books published by The MIT Press
%T Public Access to the Internet
%E Kahin, Brian
%E Keller, James
%I The MIT Press
%D 1995
%O paperback, references, index
%G ISBN 026261118X
%P viii,390pp