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Civilizing Cyberspace: Policy, Power, and the Information Superhighway

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Civilizing Cyberspace: Policy, Power, and the Information Superhighway


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  • Copyright 1996
  • Edition: 1st
  • Book
  • ISBN-10: 0-201-84760-4
  • ISBN-13: 978-0-201-84760-4

"Steve Miller has written a readable, thought-provoking guide to the information policy conundrums of the age. He is at his best when he pierces the rhetorical redoubt of deregulation and asks what results we are seeking -- bigger monopolies? broader competition? an information elite? -- from public action. E-mail to policy makers: Read This Book."

--Rep. Edward J. Markey, U.S. Congress

"Finally, here is a book that clarifies the issues and lets those of us who are not computer jocks -- female or male -- understand what's going on behind the headlines so that we may become part of the decision-making process."

--Letty Cottin Pogrebin, founding editor, Ms. Magazine

The Information Superhighway explained! This is the book that lets the rest of us finally understand what it is, what impact it will have, and what we can do to shape our own future. What is behind the headline-grabbing mega-mergers of media companies besides speculative grabbing after windfall profits? Will deregulation and competition lead to widespread service, lower costs, and consumer satisfaction or information redlining, higher prices, and teleconglomerate monopoly? Who will benefit and who will be hurt if the United States uses high technology for competitive advantage in the global market? Is the internet a hot bed of pornography and crime, or a tool for learning and democratic power?

Miller weaves together business trends, political economy, American history, technological savvy, and an awareness of our everyday needs, to focus on the issues that really matter and to make the choices clear. Readable, comprehensive, and insightful, Civilizing Cyberspace is for nontechnical people as well as computer professionals, concerned citizens as well as official policymakers.

Civilizing Cyberspace explains:
  • how universal service can be achieved while avoiding the creation of information "haves and have nots"
  • what is necessary to protect privacy and prevent the erosion of free speech and civil liberties
  • what we can do to protect our standard of living in a multinational economy
  • how telecommunications can be used to strengthen democracy and community rather than simply as a new method of media manipulation


Sample Content

Table of Contents


1. Where is Cyberspace: Visions of the Future.

Markets and the Modern World.



Possible Impacts.

Commercial Visions.

The Road Forward.

Question and Answer: Gary Chapman, 21st Century Project.

2. The Policy Starting Point: Markets, Government, and the Public Interest.

The Terms of Debate.

Models of the Future.

The Choice Being Made.

Facing the Issues.

The Market's Mixed Messages.

From Discussion to Action.

The Democratic Imperative.

Question and Answer: Vint Cerf, The Internet Society MCI.

3. What is a National Information Infrastructure: And Why are We Building it?

Microchip Imperialism.

Bottom-Up and Top-Down.

What is a Network?

Origins of the Internet.


The Flat Fee Policy.

Internet Limitations.

It¹s the People Who Make It Special.

Question and Answer: Ben Shneiderman, University of Maryland.

4. Framing the Public Policy Debate: Visions, Strategies, and Technology.

Technology is Human Made.

Democratizing the NII Decision-Making Process.

Why Build the NII?

Do We Need to Set National Goals at All?

Strategy and Political Camps.

From Hype to Implementation.

Institutionalizing the Future.

Question and Answer: Jonathan Weber, Los Angeles Times.

5. Protecting the Public Interest: A Menu of Policy Options.

A Menu of Government Strategies.

Past Models.

What Next for the NII?

Question and Answer: Marsha Woodbury, University of Illinois .

6. The Government's Agenda.

Pending Policies.

Military Leadership.

The Civilian Government.

Commercializing Cyberspace.

Federal Communications Commission.

Congressional Action.

From Competition to Free Speech.

Non-Federal Actions.

Citizen Input.

Question and Answer: Ivan G. Seidenberg, Nynex

7. The Players and Their Plans: The Industries and Firms.

The Lineup.

Patterns of Industry Competition.

The Telephone Industry.

The TV Industry.

Cellular, Wireless, and Satellite.

Electric Power Companies.

Hardware, Software, and Games.

Information and Service Provider.

Question and Answer: Karen Coyle, University of California

8. Universal Service: Giving Everyone a Chance.

What Is Universal Service?

The Requirements.

Strategic Options for Universal Service.

Overall Funding Is the Starting Point.


The Real Necessities.

Question and Answer: Doug Schuler, Seattle Community Network

9. Democracy and Free Speech: Online Organizing for Participation and Power.

Reversing the Withdrawal from Public Life.

The Precondition: Universal Access.

Networking for Democracy.

Reserving Noncommercial Space on the NII.

Public Right-of-Way Legislation.

Public Access to Public Information.

Open Discussion.

Free Speech and Censorship.

Common Carriers and Equitable Access.

From Participation to Power: Strategies for Electronic Democracy.

The Building Blocks of Electronic Democracy.

Helping Leaders Get the Message.

Citizenship in a Networked World.

Turning Visions into Reality.

Question and Answer: Marc Rotenberg, Electronic Privacy Information Center

10. Privacy, Civil Liberties, and Encryption: Controlling Our Data Identity.

Electronic Exposure.

The Constitutional Basis.

Accuracy, Integrity, Security, and Privacy.

Junk Mail and Other Annoyances.

Who Owns Your Data?

Your Money or Your Life: Computer Crimes.

Class Actions.

"When They Came for Me, There Was No One Left to Protest..."

The Encryption Debate.

The Spooks' Counterattack.

The Laws on Our Side.

No Hiding Place Down Here.

Question and Answer: Donald Murray, Boston Globe

11. Community, Diversity, and Citizenship: Online Ethics and the Need for Meaningful Connections.

Community and the Technology Marketplace.

The Internet Community.

Mass Media and the Search for Community.

The Building Blocks of Community.

Creating Community Through Local Networks.

The Building Process.

Virtual Communities.


Question and Answer: Jeff Johnson, Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility

12. Economic Development: Work, Crime, and Intellectual Property.

Uneven Development.

Tele-Crimes and Other Cracks.

Intellectual Property.

The International Perspective.

Question and Answer: Tim Wise, Grassroots International

13. Citizen Action: From Analysis to New Institutions.

The Tragedy of the Commons.

Measuring Success.

Local Action.

National Action.

Technology Planning and Democracy.

Index. 0201847604T04062001


Some people believe that we are totally autonomous individuals who are free to create a personal world, invent a personal future, and inhabit a personal reality. These people believe that we negotiate our separate ways into society starting as totally isolated and independent creatures seeking to trade our autonomy for some discrete list of benefits. Some people believe that our only responsibility to others arises from our personal interpretation of self-interest.

I'm not one of those people.

Although I strongly believe in the power of individual initiative and the importance of personal responsibility, I see all of us as social creatures. We can learn much about ourselves and our condition through isolated self-reflection, but we reach our human potential only through interaction with others.

Furthermore, the structure and culture of our social environment make some things easier and other things almost impossible. Hikers are theoretically capable of walking in any direction, but they are much less likely to head straight up a cliff than to follow level ground, just as country footpaths tend to take the easy way through a rolling landscape. Similarly, we are free agents in the world, but we make our conscious and unconscious choices in a historically determined context that tends to guide our collective motion. For all our individualism, in the aggregate we are like raindrops that fall individually, bounce around in their separate directions, but end up flowing together toward the sea.

Society is the landscape --the infrastructure --that enables and shapes our lives. But unlike a mountain, our social infrastructure is not an act of nature. It is collectively created --sometimes deliberately, sometimes haphazardly --but always by human beings who choose and act. The social infrastructure we create together can take different shapes, with different effects on the lives that occur within it. It can be constructed in ways that provide a broad and solid foundation for individual and group efforts or it can require individual heroics in order to climb to higher ground. It can encourage collaboration and mutual aid or it can leave people on their own, making a war of "all against all" the only strategy for survival. It can establish a high plateau of living standards for all, or it can channel people into an extensive hierarchy of life experiences, primarily on the basis of the accidents of their birth.I became interested in telecommunications and information technology because I believe it profoundly influences our economy, culture, politics, and relationships --our social infrastructure. The National Information Infrastructure (NII) that is now being built will have enormous impacts, both obvious and subtle. If properly designed and implemented, it can promote widespread prosperity, decentralize power, revitalize democracy, strengthen or even create communities, and make this a better world in which to live. If poorly designed and implemented, it can do just the opposite.

The public policies our government adopts will be one of the most important determinants of the design and impact of the NII. But too few of us understand either the issues to be decided or the context within which these decisions will be made.


I wrote this book for information technology professionals (many of whom are not involved in networking) as well as for nontechnical people whose interest has been piqued by all the talk about the Information Superhighway but who don't know very much about what the term actually means.

This is not a book about bits and bytes, neither is it a "how to" explanation about using the Internet. Rather, this book is about the alternative futures among which we need to choose, about the ways in which the NII can move us toward or away from our desired goals, and about the issues we must deal with if we want to be part of the decision-making process.

I hope this book helps people see through all the technobabble that makes so much of the NII debate unintelligible, as well as through the sound-bite slogans about the way our market economy works that so often are substituted for useful analysis. We need to understand what aspects of NII development are most likely to benefit from competitive market forces --and what the limits of that strategy are if we want to create an NII that serves a broad range of human needs. We need to know the strategic choices facing our nation so we can understand the real story behind the headlines. I don't expect everyone to agree with every point I make, but I do hope that people find the way I have structured and explained the issues to be useful. Although readers will benefit from the successive layers of information gained by reading each chapter in order, I've also designed the book to allow random access. Readers can jump around among topics that sound interesting. Some people may want to treat this as a reference book, using the table of contents and index to find desired references.


The development and initial implementation of expensive new technologies are usually paid for by groups that have adequate investment resources and can see the opportunity for sufficient gain to justify their taking of risks. The military, which always feels the need to prepare for a one-chance, win or lose crisis, constantly seeks a competitive edge and funded much of the research and development that led today's computer industry.

But just because a particular technology has its roots in one type of activity doesn't mean that we have to let its further development be shaped by the influence of its origin. We can civilize cyberspace. We can create public policies that shape it to serve our needs. But we must know what we want. By the time a reader has finished, I hope she or he will have thought about the following questions:

  • What is the meaning of universal service in the NII context and how best can it be achieved?
  • Can the NII be used to promote "electronic democracy" or is it just a tool for media manipulation?
  • How do we protect the privacy and civil liberties of individuals and groups in an increasingly transparent electronic environment?
  • How do we maximize equity in a market context and prevent the emergence of electronic "haves and have nots" or even of some type of "information apartheid"?
  • Will the NII help bring us together in new communities or further splinter us into fragmented niche markets?
  • How can we use the NII to promote a tide of economic development that actually "lifts all ships" rather than simply makes fortunes for a few?
  • As more of our relationships are mediated by the electronic media, what can we do to maximize our opportunity to make them meaningful and satisfying?

We once revered our elders because the wisdom they accumulated over the generations was our most valuable resource in a time when most lives were short, change came slowly, and preserving knowledge was difficult. But it has been suggested that of the estimated 800 lifetimes that comprise human history, more change has occurred in the past two than in the previous 798. Now we worship youth because nothing seems to remain steady anymore, and we celebrate the capacity to quickly and innovatively handle unpredictable events. However, speed and flexibility are not enough. We still need to know where we want to go. We still need to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. We still need to take the time to reflect, converse, and come to a collective conclusion in a democratic manner.


There has been so much hype about the NII that it is sometimes difficult to understand exactly what is at stake. The policy debate on this issue must start with a discussion about the society we wish to create and the values we want it to incorporate. Chapter one starts the process by exploring alternative visions of the kinds of future that telecommunications can help us create, from utopian to dystopian, with an emphasis on the less dramatic but more likely incremental differences that will evolve.

Chapter two begins to describe the current policy debate, noting the implications of the currently dominant arguments favoring deregulation and free markets. Chapter three describes some of the reasons why U.S. leaders are for the creation of a National Information Infrastructure and gives a quick history of the Internet.

Newcomers to the NII debate often feel as if they are watching a mystery movie, as if every statement refers to a larger plot that has not yet been revealed. Chapter four tries to provide a context for some of the national debates by describing the major "political camps," from libertarian to socialist in the telecommunications context. Of course, people rarely fit into neatly delineated categories, but understanding these general philosophical approaches facilitates an understanding of the real motivations behind public statements.

These general policy frameworks have specific meaning for the government, which is the most important focus for the creation of policy. Chapter five presents a menu of public sector policy options for the development of infrastructure and describes how the public interest was protected during previous projects ranging from railroads to cable TV.

History provides general lessons and understanding, but the insights gained thereby must now be applied to current realities. Chapter six analyzes many of the leading and rapidly evolving policy proposals now progressing through all three branches of the government. This topic is, of course, much broader than this book can encompass. The confirmation of Stephen Breyer to the Supreme Court, for example, is predicted to cause further judicial undermining of public regulatory powers. The emergence of Republican control over many state legislatures will change the tone of those bodies.

As important as the government's role can be, the current administration has clearly stated that it intends to build the NII in full partnership with the private sector. In fact, it often sounds as if the government intends to be no more than the junior partner. Chapter seven, therefore, examines the other major players in the NII process --the many branches of the telecommunications industry. In addition to providing an overview of their business strategies, the chapter also discusses their varying technological strategies.

The precondition for achieving many of the NII's social benefits is the extremely widespread access and usage of its services. It took over seventy years to bring telephone service to even half of this country's homes. What does universal service mean for the NII? How do we achieve it and pay for it? What is a reasonable timetable? Chapter eight discusses different visions of universal service and examines a variety of potential funding mechanisms.

The core of this country's political system comes from our commitment to democracy, but Americans seem increasingly disengaged from the democratic process and disappointed by the accomplishments of their government. How do we address this growing crisis before it opens the door to antidemocratic demagogues? Chapter nine discusses ways that telecommunications might provide part of the solution, as well as ways that it might turn out to be part of the problem. In the same vein, Chapter ten examines the impact the NII can have on two foundations of democracy: privacy and civil liberties. And Chapter eleven describes how electronic networks can strengthen or weaken our communities and protect or undermine our cultural diversity.

Although the most powerful motivation for the creation of the NII is its potential to stimulate economic growth, there has been relatively little analysis of what kind of growth might occur, in what areas of the country, for which segments of our population. Chapter twelve is about the ways the NII can stimulate or distort our economy, increase worker productivity or simply lead to unemployment.

Finally, Chapter thirteen deals explicitly with the book's theme that the impact of the NII upon our society will depend upon the public policies we use to guide its development. Those policies, in turn, will be decided through a process of citizen involvement. Acquiring knowledge of the facts and issues is the vital first step. Ultimately, however, the point is to move from understanding to effective participation. Eventually, we shall need to create new institutions that will help keep the NII --and all technology development --on track. I hope that reading this book inspires and provokes you into action at whatever level and in whatever manner you feel is most appropriate.

Ultimately, the NII, our lives, and our society will be what we make of it.


This book would not have been possible if not for the work of the members, staff, and board of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (CPSR). It was through them that I first learned about many of these issues. Their combined effort helped raise to public notice many of the issues addressed here. Specifically, I want to thank Gary Chapman, Jim Davis, Eric Roberts, Jeff Johnson, Hans Klein, Todd Newman, Marc Rotenberg, Aki Namioka, Doug Schuler, and Coralee Whitcomb. Thanks to all of them plus the too-numerous-to-name others who have made CPSR the important public interest voice --and personally positive experience --that it is.Some of the best ideas in this book were picked up at several conferences organized by the John F. Kennedy School of Government's program on Strategic Computing and Telecommunications in the Public Sector --my thanks to Jerry Mechling and Tom Fletcher who keep inviting me back to Harvard.

My life-long interest in the combination of history, public affairs, and science is a gift from my father, Bernard S. Miller, whom I also acknowledge.

A number of people reviewed early drafts of various chapters and gave me feedback and encouragement to make needed revisions. Thanks to Phil Agre, Chris Brown, Gary Chapman, John Cumbler, Hans Klein, Arthur MacEwen, Andy Oram, Doug Schuler, and Coralee Whitcomb. It helps if your mother is an English teacher: thank you to Betty Miller for her copyediting and comments.

My brother Donald once explained to me the difference between dreams and fantasies: the first are distant goals which we patiently pursue, while the latter are idle desires about which we daydream. In that context, the most important acknowledgment and thanks go to my partner and wife, Sally Benbasset, who endured the long months of my unavailability while I pursued my dream of creating this book.

Finally, I want to thank all the Question and Answer contributors for giving me permission to use their material, some of which are excerpted from copyrighted articles that previously appeared elsewhere. In particular, Jonathan Weber's piece came from his Innovation column entitled "Sex and the Cyber-hysterical" (copyright 1995, Los Angeles Times) and it was reprinted by permission. Donald Murray's "Over 60" column in the Boston Globe is one of my favorite parts of the newspaper. I thank him for permission to use his "They've got your number, and a lot more" piece that appeared on 10/4/94.

Obviously, although I am indebted to all these people for their help, I remain responsible for what I did with their input. The book's errors and weaknesses are my own.

Steven E. Miller
November 1995



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