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US: Telecommunications and Future of Democracy
(1997)

Preamble

We are pleased and honored to have been selected as participants in this pioneering citizens' panel, one of the first in the United States. We are excited about the promise of this experiment in democracy. While we felt overwhelmed at times by the complexity of the task, we were able to reach consensus in the following areas:

Policymaking Content and Standards Universal Service Education and Technology

Policymaking

We, the people of the Citizens' Panel on Telecommunications and the Future of Democracy, want to return to the vision of the founders of our country: government of the people, by the people, and for the people.

We feel that business interests, profit motives and market forces too often dictate public policy to the exclusion of the interests of the people (an example of which is the 1996 Telecommunications Act). The new technology creates an even greater risk of the abuse of power.

Policymakers need to anticipate the presently uncharted effects of the new technology, taking into account all aspects of a community (for example, the effect of Internet shopping on a local commercial/retail economy).

Since business benefits from consumer spending, it must be strongly encouraged to return a percentage of profits to the community. Examples of what these funds could be used for include skill development for all ages, grants to nonprofit organizations for equipment, freenets, etc.

We believe that policymaking positively impacts the future of democracy if a balance can be maintained between citizens' voices, corporate interests and government administration. There must be structures in place for citizen consensus panels that represent those people who will be affected by the decision to engage in meaningful debate on policy that remains above the partisan fray and allows deliberation and critical thinking. The Internet may hold more potential for this kind of participation than other forms of debate. But it also has more potential for polarizing people in like-minded chat rooms.

Government can assume the role of initiator of citizen involvement through grants and subsidies and through research on programs to increase the interaction of citizens and government and involve citizens in decision-making. Citizen participation in the process of democracy does not make money. Telecommunications policy needs to support Internet versions of C-SPAN and citizens' panels.

Contents and Standards

The most reliable, usable and informed Internet content and standards will come from three areas, working both together and separately:

governments (not by lawmaking, but, for example, by contributing research);

socially responsible businesses; and

knowledgeable and responsible citizens.

We are concerned about misinformation on the Internet. Misinformation leads to poor decision-making. Data and information integrity is a question of reputation and "record" built up over time. We encourage the development of "seals of approval" for accurate and trustworthy Web sites.

We are concerned with maintaining First Amendment rights--freedom of speech--with respect to the Internet. Our society has already shaped First Amendment rights and we believe these rights should apply equally to the Internet.

There is a flip side to these rights, however. The First Amendment also allows anonymously maintained Web sites. We recognize that, by using these sites, we accept the risk of not knowing who is informing us--just as when one reads an anonymously (or pseudonymous) published book.

We see moral integrity as an issue of personal responsibility. As a society, there may be certain materials or information that we consider unacceptable. As a result, we encourage the development of products that give us the personal choice to limit access by our children to certain Web sites.

To those towns and cities that would use taxpayer dollars to hire private companies to block children's access to Internet pornography and other offending materials on the computers of public libraries, schools, and community centers, we encourage them to form volunteer citizens' panels, representative of their communities, that would agree to decide on blockable sites on behalf of their fellow citizens.

We strongly believe in the individual's right to privacy. We believe there is a need for legislation to prevent access to an individual's private, personal data files and other computer data without prior approval by the individual.

We also believe that there is a need to require timely correction of any misinformation in their personal data files.

We understand the government's need to monitor certain types of data, but only after due legal process under the Fourth Amendment.

As information goes global and worldwide satellite coverage becomes possible, the United States has a responsibility to set an example of integrity in content. We are concerned about maintaining a free flow of information while not taking advantage of other countries through exploitative commercialism.

Universal Service

We hold this truth to be self-evident: that a citizenry connected by the Internet and other emerging interactive technologies will be more likely to ensure the future of democracy.

We believe that universal service, rather than universal access or "affordable" service, should be an important national goal. Universal access means that the infrastructure exists; universal service is the ability to take advantage of that access, including the ability to broadcast.

We agree that connecting K-12 classrooms, public libraries, and nonprofit health centers to the Internet is an excellent first step; however, we caution that it should not be the only step.

We believe that each state, community and perhaps each neighborhood should come to its own solution(s) about the placement and means of funding additional equipment; however, we suggest that each community:

periodically redefine its definition of universal service in light of new technology, and

take care to include unrepresented and underrepresented groups.
We encourage the creation of community Internet centers and freenets, and strongly recommend that equitable funding mechanisms be found to provide grants to local governments and nonprofit organizations.

We believe that ensuring universal service will positively impact the future of democracy by empowering individuals and strengthening ties among and between groups, and by increasing communication throughout all levels of society.

Universal service, however, means little without education.

Education and Technology

If the free flow of information is the foundation of democracy, then access to information is the cornerstone of democracy.

Merging computer technology with education will greatly enhance access to information.

In enhancing access to information, it is important to recognize that computers, like blackboards, are merely tools. We need nurturing of critical minds and encouragement of productive ways to use new information. This is best accomplished by teachers who are trained to use the new technology to achieve these goals.

All schools should utilize computers (including Internet use) beginning in kindergarten and continuing through high school.

The appropriate use of computers in the classroom should reinforce the curriculum rather than expand it. "Use of computers" should not be a component of the core curriculum.

For those schools engaged in developing Web sites, we want to underscore the need for multicultural and multi-ethnic curricula.

"Life-long learning" goals should be supported by making school computers available outside normal school hours to the general populus.

Conclusion

In conclusion, technology gives us tools; we must decide how to use them. Technology itself does not develop socially responsible citizens of a democracy, people and society do.