Ethics and the Information Superhighway: Deploying Community Wide Area Networks (A Policy Perspective)

by Michael Silverton

Computer networking infrastructure is an especially subtle and yet powerful component of our contemporary built environment that merits much closer scrutiny than it has received to date. We may reasonably refer to computer networking infrastructure as an internal component of the built environment, in part, due to the manifest "pressing " influence it exerts upon society and the intentional or unintentional ordering of its citizens both in work and leisure. From credit ratings to academic records, from on-line chat forums to more or less mundane work content, nearly every aspect of our lives is intimately intertwined with computers and increasingly, with networks. Networked computers raise a host of important ethical issues that stand-alone PC's do not raise, but space will not allow us to consider all of them in detail. Suffice it to say that, presently, there exist numerous conflicting plans and designs for deploying high speed networking services to American communities and that these plans embody more than just engineering and finance solutions to the challenges of network deployment. They can, in certain respects, raise serious ethical issues.

When referring to community, I am speaking here of geographically local communities, not cyber or virtual or ephemeral in any way -- real communities. Conflicts over the aforementioned plans for network deployment are becoming increasingly social and ethical as the implications for such networks become increasingly clear, based on models of community wide area networks at universities and in some well-wired residential communities. Synchronous with these discoveries is the recent passage of the Communications Act of 1996, partly a result of and partly an instigator of debate over both the material and operational aspects of community networks. Specifically, copper cable based companies are battling fiber optic based companies for "rights"; to the new networks and their users. Precisely how this battle becomes ethically critical, I will address shortly.

Today, Congress has seemingly assigned jurisdiction for resolution of this conflict to the blind justice of the market. But is the market the best mediator for this contest? What about community rights and interests? Will they be justly weighed in the court of market justice? Many will confidently and convincingly argue that this is the case while others are not so trusting. Those who harbor reservations about the equity of market justice might ask, "if one material technology is significantly and demonstrably superior to another for the purpose of computer networking, should consumers in communities across America be coerced, through public policy and advertising, into paying millions of dollars to confirm in the market what is already widely-held engineering and scientific knowledge?" If not, does this imply a citizen's protectable interest, a right, to the most efficient material and operational infrastructure possible by contemporary standards? If so, who bears the responsibility for paying for this "subsistence grade" infrastructure? It is a tenable allegation that a so-called "subsistence grade" network wiring may in fact exist as illustrated by the following: If community 'A' is wired with inferior materials in an operationally inferior manner and community 'B' is wired in a superior manner, what are some of the consequences we might reasonably anticipate? In a telecommuting society, those in community 'B' will be at a distinct advantage, able to work much faster, more interactively and more productively than those attempting to compete from a materially and operationally disadvantaged network environment. The foregoing conditions and questions prompt us to consider the potential moral and ethical significance of both material and operational aspects of the deployment of high speed community wide area networks; accordingly, this examination requires the definition of a few fundamental terms. By the terms material and operational I am referring to the actual physical equipment required to create a network and the manner in which the network is deployed and employed. The material components of a network include the wiring, cables and terminals that connect machines and thereby, people, to one another. From the operational standpoint, networks may be deployed in one of two basic ways; they may be centrally deployed, in a top-down or center-out configuration, or they may be more democratically deployed in smaller groups that are subsequently connected to other small groups, which in turn are connected to others until a wide or metropolitan area network is established (these are respectively referred to as WANs or MANs). Another operational consideration is network administration. Who will supervise community networks and ensure network security? The citizens themselves? A government agency? A corporate marketing representative? Both material and operational aspects are extremely important because the former is an unseen element of the built environment and the latter a significant, but sorely neglected aspect of the social environment. In tandem, these serve to define not merely the speed and efficacy of networks themselves, but the practicality of the network for everyday use by community members. One notable ethical concern with respect to these aspects -- particularly in an information society -- is their influence upon individuals seeking equitable employment. Equally problematic are the possibly unrealized potentials for unanticipated uses and unforeseen benefits, much like the history of the telephone. Moreover, the security of the network and the relative autonomy of community network users -- the humans who, allegedly, are intended to benefit as a result of network technology -- are ethically unsettled issues. If the above operational aspects of community networks are ethically problematic, the materials themselves used to build the network can be shown to embody their own ethical questions. The two materials most likely to be used for the propagation of community networks are copper cable and fiber optic cable. While satellite networking technologies are useful in some areas, the limited spectrum for their operation greatly favors the "broadband" copper and fiber technologies; thusly, satellite networks will not be considered here. The most likely material implementation is some evolution of the historic NSF fiber optic "backbone" with a limited number of controllable NAPs (Network Access Points). While this is a highly centralized model from the previously discussed operational perspective, the use of copper or fiber material is itself an important ethical consideration at least insofar as use of one or the other grants distributively unjust advantages to one community network or another. More specifically, what does this have to do with philosophical, ethical and human values? My intention is to demonstrate, beyond a reasonable doubt, that it is essential that community networks be geographically local in their deployment and administration and that communities must be wired with fiber optic cable, directly to their home computers. Whether these ends are met by direct public investment or publicly encouraged private investment (in the form of tax incentives, etc.) is a complex topic that cannot be responsibly addressed in this short space. What I address here are a host of rights and liberties that can only be secured under the proposed conditions and that are seriously threatened by any other network implementation. According to Professor Robert McGinn of Stanford University,

The bottom line ... is that the built environments that we make for ourselves or that are made for us and within which our lives are increasingly lived out can and often are either conducive to or antithetical to human well being in subtle but important ways. That is why the built environment is ethically relevant. (emphasis mine)The networking environment is arguably such an environment "within which our lives [will be] increasingly lived" and which may be deployed in a manner more or less conducive to human well being.

This gives rise to the fundamental questions of who will control the new environment and who will make and enforce the rules which govern it. In the European market, these questions are presently being explored, albeit, largely in economic terms. However, the question is not devoid of weighty moral and ethical implications. According to researcher Nicholas Lovegrove,

Control of [computer network] content has always been a critical competitive weapon, but the battle for the electronic gateway is new. This is the part of the service that helps users find their way around the [network] environment, and enables content providers to extract revenues for their services. It links a vast array of content providers at one end of the chain to a multitude of users at the other.

The "electronic gateway" that Lovegrove refers to is -- or in communities where it currently is not, ought to be -- the community WAN. This leads to an important question of property rights. Do either private business or government agencies have any rights to control of the gateway? An argument defending this right might assert that those who build the gateway have a bona fide protectable interest to control the gateway, invoking a private property right. However, to the extent that so-called private property -- in the form of network or gateway technology -- is intimately imbedded within and throughout public property, a complex ethical dilemma is woven. If it is assumed that, "individual [ownership] rights will be protected only when not in conflict with the rights of the state," one may reasonably conclude that the right to private control of an infrastructure imbedded in public terrain conflicts with the rights of communities, and by extension, the state. We further discover that, "[i]f regulations allow, the gateway owner can use the customer knowledge it obtains through billing and account management to tailor new services such as home shopping, home banking, and interactive advertising to specific market segments". While providing "better service" may be the gateway owner's intention, the imperfect information between network user and gateway owner clearly raises still another ethically problematic subject, that of informational privacy. Particularly in the context of a society where the trend is clearly toward more people working at home, informational privacy becomes an increasingly prevalent issue.

In short, this privacy is best protected by the inhabitants of those networked spaces. Now that we see why local administration of community networks is essential, of what ethical or moral consequence are the material choices of that network? Underlying the choice of materials is the concept of the basic human need of not only survival, but thrival. How so? If a network consists of an inferior material and if community network users are distracted or romanced by the advertising of various material infrastructure owners seeking to make a profit from a plethora of informational "products" of varying (and often questionable) value, the probability of the propagation of suboptimal network environments is greatly increased -- perhaps even encouraged. Such a scenario does not serve the interest of human thrival in any meaningful way and may, in fact, become a serious impediment to it; especially in the case that particular communities are "targeted" as mentioned beforehand, based upon "previously determined market interests." Is not the net effect an intentional thwarting of individual self-determination; a gross violation of informational rights? Fiber optic cable is the "broadest band" networking medium currently available and is the best candidate for ensuring informational distributive justice to the extent that the broadest range of informational opportunities are secured by all. A contrasting interpretation of the significance of operational (informational rights as integral to human thrival) and material (fiber optic to the desktop) aspects in an information economy is one of technical feasibility. While the foregoing argument may be viable as an exercise of technological will -- what we'd like to happen -- it is quite another issue to actually create such utopian visions. An all fiber optic national network is perhaps a worthy ambition, but it is decades from technical feasibility. Even if the proposition were currently feasible, upon closer inspection it is apparent that -- by insisting on locally administrated all-fiber networks -- the only rights in danger of being infringed upon are the rights of information service providers to deliver content that best suits the diverse individual tastes and preferences of consumers. The most effective way to empower any community, to prevent breaches of distributive justice in regards to network technologies and to protect informational privacy rights, is to determine each community's preferences and offer a wide range of services most likely to fit those preferences.

Let us also recognize that it has long been the commitment of professional computing organizations to recognize the importance of human well-being. The first of the General Moral Imperatives of the ACM is to, "[c]ontribute to society and human well-being". In full, the principle states,

This principle concerning the quality of life of all people affirms an obligation to protect fundamental human rights and to respect the diversity of all cultures. An essential aim of computing professionals is to minimize negative consequences of computing systems, including threats to health and safety. When designing or implementing systems, computing professionals must attempt to ensure that the products of their efforts will be used in socially responsible ways, will meet social needs, and will avoid harmful effects to health and welfare.

It is incumbent upon all computer professionals to assure that computer users thrive, be they users in a community WAN, in a corporate LAN or hobbyists in a more informal setting. The morals of the computing profession are well grounded in the prevention of harm to others. In the words of the ACM once again, "'Harm' means injury or negative consequences, such as undesirable loss of information ... [t]his principle prohibits use of computing technology in ways that result in harm to any of the following: users, the general public, employees, employers". Both the potential for, and dire consequences of computer abuses are well heeded by professionals in many organization, including the CPSR, NCERC, IEEE and most other network related professions have crafted very similar codes.

From both material and operational perspectives, there is little evidence that the rights of communities are threatened by networked computers in any configuration. Alternatively, it has been argued by some that the potential community WAN environment constitutes a kind of "convivial space" that provides additional opportunities for sociability amidst a community, perhaps even enhancing socialization. On the basis of this and similar social contentions, the absurd, non-sequitur requirement that all homes become wired with the fastest available fiber optic cabling is allegedly justified. It is utterly unmerited and and exercise of extreme paternalism to propose that the public subsidize or strongly encourage such a course of action. Running fiber optic to every home computer in America is like installing a fire hydrant in every kitchen sink -- it delivers no meaningful or significant benefit yet levies a significant public and private cost. Community networks do not need the kind of high volume, industrial-grade information flow provided by fiber. Certainly, no public or private harm can possibly result simply from the phenomenon of presenting the public with more choices, including cable and satellite based networking options. It has been argued that inferior material infrastructure may potentially leave some communities in a disadvantaged state, less able to compete for jobs in a telecommuting society.

The fact is, if we make communities wait until fiber is available to all homes, they most certainly will become disadvantaged, having been robbed of the opportunity to take advantage of a number of comparable technologies available today. Another ethical misapplication is the evocation of Rawl's Difference Principle as a rationale for claiming the least advantaged should receive the best possible networking technology first. The problem with this arrangement is that it sacrifices the rights of those communities that are most likely to possess the skills necessary to take full advantage of such networks -- it denies higher skilled communities of their right to thrival in exchange for a questionable compensatory justice. In short, the contention that network materials themselves have any relevant ethical bearing upon communities or individuals is not founded upon sufficiently sound doctrine to safely harbor it from vigorous critical analysis. To the same extent, the proposal that so-called "local communities" are the proper stewards of community WANs lacks any credible ethical or moral motive.

I have shown that current computer professional organizations already hold the highest ethical standards. What evidence is there that so-called local community administrators would be any more ethical in their duties? In fact, it can be argued that if a given "local community" is currently characterized by a lack of convivial spirit it is highly unlikely that it is capable of administrating a complex computer network system at all, let alone in an ethical manner that is protective of the informational rights of its constituents. While the ethical pertinence of the material and operational aspects of community computer networks has been well established early in this discussion, it is important to note that they are only pertinent within the unique context of contemporary information societies. Similarly, the moral right to informational privacy is a derivative right that is yet to be exhaustively developed. In this particular transitory age (for every age is transitory), one of the more nebulous concepts is that of community. The meaning of community is being challenged and re-challenged, stretched and reformed in ways that were not possible prior to the advent of widely networked computers. Whether computer networks can be properly (pronounced, "convincingly") defined as "convivial spaces" where a "true" community can survive and thrive remains to be seen. For me, it is reasonable to conclude that communities, like so many facets of existence, are strongly context dependent. For the purposes of the material aspects of computer networking, it makes little sense to define a community in other than geographic terms. Further, the geographic boundaries must be flexible in this regard. If a geographic area is densely populated, the community will cover a much smaller area than if it is sparsely populated.

Concerning the organizational aspects of community networks, I find it difficult to conclude whether the constituents of geographically defined communities share sufficient common interests to unite them in the cause of securing information rights. Based on available evidence, in some cases they may, in others they may not. The proper ethical and moral considerations due toward so-called "high-skill" and "low-skill" communities in a ubiquitously networked society is a problematic one that remains unsettled in my mind.

Certainly, a lack of adequate networking infrastructure can potentially stifle the opportunities of some communities and yet so-called high-skill communities also retain a right to thrival. In my mind, Rawl's Principle is the correct one to apply in this case.

The most disadvantaged communities should be given the opportunity to improve their lot using this new technology ahead of other communities because their needs significantly outweigh those of the higher-skilled communities strictly within the context of today's society. Speed does make a tremendous difference in both the efficiency of a network and manner in which it is used. This conclusion is reached largely by means of personal observation of modem using communities versus fast ethernet using communities. Many fruitful opportunities for knowledge exploration and network application are simply not available at the slower speeds. Therefore, in the specific context of an information society, I conclude that a significant harm is indeed perpetrated -- in the form of placing a considerable impediment to socioeconomic thrival -- against both communities and the individuals of which they are comprised, insofar as the speediest possible networking technologies are delayed or withheld from them. This harm is exacerbated to the degree that these same patients are denied the liberty of self-rule where governmental or commercial control of network "gateways" is unquestionably implemented as the only viable alternative without undergoing vigorous critical examination.

Michael Silverton is a college student interested in public uses of the Internet. He also maintains a Web page.