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The Electronic Journal of Communication / La Revue Electronique de Communication

Volume 8 Number 2 1998

Moving to Jelly Beans:  Public Interest Theory for the Internet

Marcus Breen
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

This article argues that the Internet and the emerging networked economy requires careful consideration and critique.  The author proposes that public interest theory is a suitable way for analyzing some of the messianic claims accompanying new technology, before suggesting that configuring policy into such considerations is a suitable way forward.  By linking policy to public interest theory, it is possible to identify where humanism can be invoked as a suitable objective in computer mediated communications. Examination of the evolution of Internet activity indicates a struggle between the public interest, with its humanist assumptions, and commercializing interests, which are private.  The author suggests two alternative models of implementing the Internet have emerged - one where vertical relations based on powerful elites have dominance, depending on their position in the system of relations:  the other a horizontal system where public interest and elites work together across recognized, humanistic set of objectives. The author suggests that this latter approach may invoke many of the objectives argued in the critical approach to public interest theory.


Jumping to conclusions is one of the habits of Internet and Information Technology (IT) mandarins.  Great, even profound claims are postured in public forums much like new maxims might once have been issued by Divine Fiat.  Certain phenomena seem bound to happen, as the magic of utterance musters otherwise intangible things into existence.  Such is the sense generated by Kevin Kelly in a breathtakingly optimistic view of the future of networked communications (September 1997). Introducing his term the "Network Economy," Kelly suggested that everything is capable of being connected in the new economy, as "jelly beans" - facilitated by cheap silicon computer chips - ignite the many to many model of connectivity.  In this culture of the jelly bean, every conceivable object becomes linked, like a multicolored endless jar of sweets.  "We are now engaged in a grand scheme to augment, amplify, enhance, and extend the relationships and communications between all beings and all objects.  That is why the Network Economy is a big deal" (Kelly 1997:  140).  And well it might be, were it not for the messianism in Kelly's pronouncement, about which history should have taught us to be cautious.

Kelly's religious zeal leads him to assert that "connecting everything to everything" is the objective of networked communications, in a logical leap of faith (Kelly 1997:  140).  It is the sort of indulgent optimism that induces exasperation among those folk for whom such pronouncements suggest that the prophets have lost touch with reality, or at least told only half of the story.  The other half of the story is how and where most people on the planet will engage with Kelly's pronouncements for the information nirvana.  More importantly for my purposes, it is difficult to find critical theory about the object of this Information Technology adoration, where such theory does not resort to techno-despair and come to be seen as a precipitous spoiling action.  Adopting the techno-skeptic's persona, jelly bean culture can be seen as part of an imagined "neutral" technologistic dreamscape that fails to address human concerns through its own promotional haze (Reinecke 1982:  23).  It is theory grounded in the common sense appeals of public policy that the following examination of jelly bean enthusiasm seeks to investigate.

My starting point then is that jelly bean culture is not much help in building appropriate theories of the Internet - although it is absolutely crucial to know about jelly beans and the messianic sensibilities associated with them.  But how does theory building take place in the face of the monumental aspirations heralded and generated by Kelly and the those promoting the Internet's ultimate realization in networked technologies?  One answer is to turn to pre-existing approaches to communication theory.  I suggest this strategy for two reasons:  1) to make the historical link between human agency, communications and Information Technology explicit; 2) to offset the claims for newness in jelly bean culture which is mediated by a well constructed, even forgetful knowledge gap - a sort of communication amnesia that technologises human experience out of the picture.  It is as if human beings somehow evaporate.  This is of course an extreme version of the situation, yet jelly bean culture gives priority to financial growth, in which privatising approaches to the Internet ("Networked Economy") are premised on economic issues almost to the exclusion of the public.  On the other hand, the humanism inherent in Gill's premise that "diversity drives evolution and evolution generates diversity," underscores a humanist remaking of the Information Society in the face of technologies of disembodiment (1996:  4).  This puts humanism at the top of a discussion about public interest theory in terms of the Internet and some approaches to policy.  In proposing this solution to the problem of the Internet, I am suggesting remaking the articulation between humanism and policy in a description of the evolution of the Internet.  I suggest that many cross references can be drawn from Cultural Studies, which is, as yet, an untapped resource for criticising Internet policy.  In these ways this essay is a contribution to discussions undertaken elsewhere, most particularly by Kahin and Wilson (1997), as well as Wise (1997).

Remaking (Some) Theory

In suggesting this return to the humanist priority, it is possible to recover some traditions within communications theory and to test their applicability to contemporary Internet (and jelly bean) culture.  More specifically, in theorising the Internet, the dilemma outlined by Denis McQuail in his description of the press and public interest provides a starting point in a historical discovery tour of theory appropriate to meet the challenge of networked communications.  "The attempt to formulate consistent 'theories' of the press is bound to break down, for reasons other than the underlying differences of interest and political ideology present in society" (1996:  67).  I want to suggest that the interests and political ideology of Internet developers, users and promoters have an even greater diversity than those defined by the traditional media, especially the press.  Contemporary debates about the Internet - the global, seamless network of networks - make the application of media and communications theories fraught.

Similarly, yet perhaps more urgent, is the question of how to establish a theory or theories of the Internet that gives priority to some of the concepts generated over many decades of liberal and social democratic policy action.  All of which begs the question of where to begin.  My argument is that the fantastic claims by Kelly and the marketers of IT, need to be addressed in terms of this mix of theory and its articulation to public policy, as the site where history and the novel fashions of the Internet collide.  I want to term this incorporationist political economy:  it works across a variety of questions and issues with a clear strategy, seeking as Downing suggested, to build "a connected, conceptually based demonstration of an argument" (1996:  29).  It then moves to invoke principles and objectives in policy that need to be as mobile as the theory and policy mix.

McQuail's work provides this link, drawing on the tradition of public interest and communications theory.  In particular, McQuail provides a "pragmatic description" (sic) of the manner in which communication acts as a public activity, not merely reproducing business or service industry ideology and actions, but carrying out "some essential tasks for the wider benefit of society, especially in cultural and political life" (1996:  67, 68).  Dubbed the "normative framework" McQuail suggests ways of constructing "relevant framework criteria" that reflect the broad interests of democratic values in society (1996:  68-69). Put "as freedom; justice/equality; order/solidarity" , these rudimentary descriptors of social life and identity can be constructed in a range of circumstances and in keeping with "ad hoc and fragmentary" theory (1996:  69).  Perhaps the absence of closure circumvents precision about constructing models of society's constituents in the Information Age. This has been one of the unhelpful vestiges of postmodern fragmentation theory about the death of meta-narrative (Morris 1988:  235).  Conversely, modernism's privileged status within political, social and political theory and action produces anxieties of such moment that definitions can be restricted and thus evaded in the new communications era (Frow 1995:  22).  An approach that recognises the functionality of history and knowledge will recognise such conflicts within different theoretical traditions.  In this context, McQuail observes "that the three basic (framework) values do often come into conflict with each other":

The space occupied by the discourse of public communication is continually contested by opposing claims and interests (1996:  71).
It is in these terms that public interest and the Internet can be discussed in relation to the IT messianism a la jelly beans.

Yet there is a new sense in which public discourse has been changed, almost to the point where it could be revoked. That is, the competing interests that define McQuail's liberalism are borne of a contest defined by Enlightenment belief in the rational governance of shared social, political and economic interests which cannot be sustained. This argument has been strongly made by Leon Mayhew (cross-referencing Jurgen Habermas -- public spheres -- and Talcot Parsons -- systems theory -- who has argued that since the late 1980s the New Public has dominated the "rationalization of persuasion" in the public sphere (1997: 189)).  Amongst other things, the New Public is a construction of the intensified electronically mediated world where the public's "bounded rationality" is politically exploited by limited interests (1997:  14). Government failure to reflect shared societal interests, where a narrow stream of controlled and contrived consequences dominate discussion, does not reflect the public discourse so optimistically invoked in McQuail's public interest theory.  The argument is convincing.  The New Public presents a deep challenge to the democratic public as it was once broadly conceived within the terms of Enlightenment rationality.  As I will show later, it also suggests that elites have formed around the Internet as an extension of this New Public.  These elites can be defined either by the US policy experience of the New Public, which delineates public interest, or by the Victorian policy experience which has not yet seen the public interest defined by the New Public's exclusionary interests.

Policy Responsibilities

New technology and communication involves a dramatic leap from the known world of communications theory to another, less familiar space.  New digital technology involves dramatically new ideas while maintaining the recognised accretions of communications history and knowledge.  Such accretions have been termed "functional systems" of communication where learning evolves in probabilistic moves (Severin and Tankard 1992:  43).  In recognising these shifts, the relevance of existing knowledge can be tested and applied to the operation of contemporary networked media and communications.  By this I mean that the knowledge associated with pre-IT theory and practice can be invoked to inform IT and its imagined possibilities.  This issue needs to be carefully negotiated with regard to changing technological, social, economic and cultural circumstances.  Computer scientists and econometricians for example, are resorting to methods of analysis known as "complexity models," which "recognise that living systems are dynamic, and that they are characterised by non-linearity and an inherent instability" (Mansell 1996: 20).  Similarly, jelly bean culture recognises the fluidity of this biological metaphor, which Kevin Kelly suggested is defined by "exponential growth," "compounding in a non-linear way" (1997:  143).  The asymmetry of the new communications model in the networked environment reproduces complex societies, where "continuity and open-endedness" are part of the cultural processes unfolding in society (Jennings and Waller 1995:  411).

The biological metaphor helps to ground the jelly bean network concept.  And yet sociotechnical systems are, as Leo Marx noted, "complex , messy, ad hoc," defined by "the lack of boundary lines between their constituent elements.  Of central importance here is the blurring of the boundary between the material-artifactual component (the mechanical equipment or hardware) and the rest:  the cognitive, technical or scientific components; the hierarchically organised work force; the financial apparatus; and the method of obtaining new materials" (1997:  973).  All these constituents add to the complexity, alongside national policy issues which generally hinge on "telecommunications liberalization" in the new global economy (Kahin and Wilson 1997:  x).

Such complexity reflects the disparate aspirations and interests of contemporary western societies and explains why the Internet has been widely advocated by localised political activists as well as traditional and centralised international news organisations:  it offers access to communications media, such as teledemocracy, that have otherwise been closed or constrained by cost, ownership or mass market priorities, while simultaneously providing precision for the delivery of generic or specialized information (Becker and Georges 1997).  The "parallelism of homogeneous and heterogeneous components" coexisting in global-local counterpoint is not so much a dilemma as a challenge (Volkmer 1997:  52).

To add to the complexity model, a contemporary struggle with the intangible domain of information has created uncertainty about the knowledge human beings acquire from the Internet.  In this context, a theory building process that recognises the prominence of a framework that begins where McQuail suggested, is indeed a means of grounding the discussion.  To move beyond that point is to acknowledge government policy as a way of explaining communications complexity in terms of public interest.  In other words, I am advocating and prioritising government policy as an approach to developing the Internet.  This can serve as an organising framework to analyse and assess the public interest in the complex environment of rapid communication evolution.  To put it another way, policy works to set "communal consensus about goals" (Miller 1996:  732).  However, it is unlikely that communal goals can be established, so "public interest" in its inclusive sense is intended to cover all possibilities.  (This approach also saves guess work, and case-by-case regulation).

If this appears as a rhetorical sleight of hand, it is not intended that way.  Rather, it is a resort to common sense which recognises that communication in the Internet context necessarily involves theorising the relationships in that public space.  This is to further advocate the Internet as a public communication tool.  The complexity of Internet communications is a manifestation of media accretions (audiences) combined with the diffusion of interests that compete for resources.  But to recognise the concept of "the public" in an alliance with "space" is to recognise an ideological struggle over that term (public space) as well as a debate over democracy.  Inevitably, it would seem that societal objectives for communications in the networked environment are articulated to values that can be expressed by public interest theory.

Such an assertion requires clarifying the articulation between the public and networked (yet private) communications.  At one end of the multidimensional spectrum is policy accretion (the twin of communications accretion), where generalised policy principles derived from liberal philosophy and classical economy (including mercantilism) are recognised as being in the collective interest (Berlin 1969).  This is a responsibility of government.  However, in the current era, nations, states and citizenship are ambiguous terms that do not always match policy framework generalizations (Castles 1997).  Yet, government and policy are part of a continuing history of the Interlinked Economy in the Borderless World, as Ohmae noted (1990).  Stepping away from recognised policy concepts of social and economic problem solving, Ohmae suggests that government's role in this world is in fact more active, namely, to "ensure that its people have a good life by ensuring stable access to the best and cheapest goods and services from anywhere in the world" (1990:  12).  The new national/global policy regime provides a further perspective on the push-pull policy perspective, where the normative framework outlined above by McQuail, gives way to a role for government defined by the intangible of material happiness, or "the good life."

At another place on the spectrum is the communications policy rights framework, a version of which has been proposed in the US (Firestone and Schement 1995).  Both US and European governments and courts have issued opinions suggesting different readings of the basic idea of access to information.  Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms is the basis for such rulings, that the mass media should "impart information and ideas on matters of public interest" (Hamelink 1994:  134). In the US, the Supreme Court noted in 1969 in the Red Lion Broadcasting versus the FCC that "the right of the viewers and listeners, not the right of broadcasters is paramount" (Hamelink 1994:  134).  Key institutions such as regulating courts, operate on comfortable assumptions about rights of citizens to mass media products.  These assumptions, while relevant to mass media, require renegotiation in the networked environment.  To undertake this task is to do one of two things:  drop any semblance of "public" space or public interest; force the issue of public interest into the changing equation out of a commitment to an imagined and idealized public citizenry.

One way of opting for the preferred democratic reflex implicit in the second point is to itemize the central role of IT and the Internet in public life.  For example, with the design of the intelligent network "it has become clear that advanced information-processing services are increasingly important mediators of social, political and economic relationships," notes Mansell (1993:  ix).  She continues:

Telecommunications policies, at least in theory, have been devised to ensure that the public network enables smaller and larger firms and residential consumers to make telephone calls and use more advanced services as they become available (1993:  x).
Set against this idealized model of public policy is a range of competing interests which are the constant backdrop against which policy discussions occur.

Indeed, in 1997 the changes in the networked environment are profound, especially in the Internet.  As I mentioned above, the passive decoupling of public interest from IT, or the activist promotion of the public interest models is a dramatic contrast.  So indeed is the way in which competing values gain and lose hegemony.  In the US the change in Internet culture in 1997 was described as follows:

the manic celebration of computing has waned, and it's now impossible to distinguish the revolution speak from good, old-fashioned corporate cheer leading.  And the redemption once promised by purveyors of silicon and fiber optics looks a lot less interesting than a $200 rebate and a reliable ISP (Syman:  November 13, 1997).
It is from this perspective of competing concerns about the public that I want to consider how Public Interest Theory reflects on dramatically different approaches to Internet policy.  Before doing so I want to suggest that in identifying and maintaining both the rhetorical and theoretical framework of public interest, that a workable definition of public interest is required.  A benchmark concept can be helpful, where the public is an imagined incorporation of society's interests.  The functionalism of the systematic nature of communications theory and practice, together with the pragmatism of the generic policy framework, can be maintained by reference to this benchmark concept of the public, whose primary attribute is its inclusive nature.  By inclusive I mean a shift from the concept of universal service, which was appropriate for a public telephone network, but which appears to be no longer suitable for a highly devolved, interwoven web of communications systems.  In fact, it is a term that holds "no precise meaning" in the British or US situation, while to the French it means "public service" (Rapp 1996:  391).  The Internet can be viewed as merely one of the carbuncles attached to the rusting hull of the public communications system, all of which operate in tandem, in competition and in support of each other - and increasingly so - in what Auletta recently described as a keiretsu, or web of cross-referenced interests (1997).  Alternatively, "cultural mobility" has been suggested as a term to describe corporate-technology convergence for digital cultural content (Breen 1995).  As I will indicate in the next section, the diversity of views about the composition of the public in its relation to the Internet, requires creative and inclusive good will to enable this benchmark to be achieved.
Policy Complexity

In searching for a way to theorize the contemporary IT policy environment, it is useful to refer to the timely comments by French researcher Bruno Latour.  Latour's recent study of the French rapid transit project, Aramis, provides an example of the role of government and human agency in identifying technology as a public interest concern (1997). Latour's study involves a discursive swing through the disciplines of sociology, history and creative literature, as a response to unraveling the story of what became of a French Government rapid transit and technology initiative. Latour suggests that IT responds to the dynamism that interdisciplinarity provides, rather than the strictures of separate disciplines.  Moreover, the ultimate demise of the 17 year project provides insights into the challenge of understanding how technologies and ideas operate as sites for competing public interest issues.  In particular, Latour makes several observations about the complexity of technology projects incorporate a range of competing issues. For example:

What counts, in a technological project, is deciding what has to be negotiated, and deciding on an official doctrine that will make it possible to proceed with any negotiations at all (1997: 112)
People who study technological projects take too little interest in the official doctrines dealing with the actual management of the projects.  This metalanguage appears parasitical.  Yet it plays the same essential role that strategic doctrines play in the conduct of wars.  In the course of a battle or a project, ideas about the way to handle battles or innovations play a performative role. ...  Writing a project's history also means writing the history of the ambient theories about project management.  (1997:  113).
My earlier suggestion that the policy framework that is adopted and applied relies on rhetoric (and the force brought to it), is analogous to Latour's notion of performance, which serves to make the theory public within a specific space.  These are some of the subterranean (or "ambient") concerns that detailed IT policy research inevitably unearths in an attempt to define the forces at work.

Acknowledging the complexity of Internet policy recognises the range of issues associated with public interest theory.  It enables the competing demands unfolding in society to unfold in a public sense, without much of the closure that more limiting views incorporate.

Public interest has numerous iterations.  Suffice to say, the case in favor of public interest relies on rhetorical devices, closely aligned with political strategies put into action by government and associated interests.  Depending on the politics, the public interest may be construed - at one extreme - as the one preferred by the neo-classical school, where market ideology and its accompanying system of production, supply and demand management, provides the public with what resources it consumes at competitive prices.  At another point in this multifarious spectrum is the social democratic activist and regulationist policy approach, premised on the realization of market failure and associated absence of public interest from the market.  In both constructions, government has a role:  to facilitate pre-existing strengths in IT to extend the market economy, or to initiate new programs aimed at building comparative strengths in specific sectors to intersect with the market.

Limits to Public Policy Theory

Advocates of public policy promote a policy role for government, defined as follows by Michael Porter:

Government's aim should be to create an environment in which firms can upgrade competitive advantages in established industries by introducing more sophisticated technology and methods and penetrating more advanced segments. Government policy should also support the ability of the nation's firms to enter new industries where higher productivity can be achieved than in a position ceded in less productive industries and segments.  (Porter, 1990:  618).
This reading prioritizes comparative advantage as a necessary part of the policy mix.  It also highlights the flaw in comparative advantage rhetoric, which relies on acknowledged national or industry sector strengths being given special treatment.  One outcome of this productivity obsession may be the degradation of public interest, together with associated social and cultural interests which are officially devalued as productivity is fetishised.  In the productivity model measurement dominates other considerations.  The public interest fades in the neoclassical literature, such as that provided by Porter, as productivity and its econometric cousins (e.g. utility theory) become the key criteria of "public interest."

Creeping econometrics featuring spectacular calculations associated with national economies, sectoral productivity and competitiveness, is part of what institutional economists, beginning with Thorstein Veblen, recognise as the evolutionary pinnacle of industry (1958). What I define as econometrism places statistical value on market performance, in particular measurement of productivity and labor market performance, as proposed by Porter.  Ultimately, a type of evolutionary determinism overtakes the econometrics, leading to conclusions that reinforce a limited perspective on strengths and performance, not the entire economic, social and cultural mix of society.  "Extreme evolutionary functionalism," is seen as the endpoint of this chain of the struggle for supremacy, in which the strong market players are seen to naturally select, survive and flourish (Block 1996:  47). More importantly for this discussion is not the expected achievements of the market economy, rather the effects of a mixed regime in which complex interactions at least co-exist.

Of more importance is the structure of the relationships within the political economy in and around the Internet.  This structure is one in which specific skill and knowledge sets provide those who possess them access to and control over the economic and social activities within the Internet. This is the cyber elite.  However, to continue the biological analogy, it is an elite where complexity is evident in the relationship between private interests, public users of the infrastructure and policy.  The intersection is the arbitrary point at which the constantly shifting public-technical communications system is transferred to the private domain and in some cases back again.  The Internet's history of moving from a 1970s publicly funded initiative of the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), to MILNET in the Department of Defense, to National Science Foundation (NSFNET) and Physics-based university research community to commercialisation of email is the primary example of this one way traffic from public to private commercialisation (Kahn 1995).

 In this sense, econometrism can be seen as the movement from public interest functionality to private application. It can be seen as an extension of the evolution of "function creep," where technology applications perform functions other than those originally intended (CCTV, Privacy International, 1997).  The related policy lag allows the gap to be mediated by the market. But lest the market be characterised as the single pole around which this activity takes place, it is also possible to see other points in which this change occurs. This is especially the case in relation to debates about privacy and the uses of networked communications for surveillance and work monitoring. Undoubtedly technology facilitates the econometrism of this use of technology, providing a rich pool of statistics with which to analyse productivity. However, privacy and surveillance are elements of the more dominant (or determined) reading of econometrism, rather than separate issues. These levels of activity in IT are as Hall suggested, "mutually determining," rather than separate spheres of unrelated activity (1996: 44).

Yet another limit to public interest theory is to make use of the "process of conceptual division" established within the (US) law between public and private (Boyle 1996: 26).  The admittedly "functionalist" approach to the law adopted by Boyle, cleanly defines and bifurcates the realms, avoiding the complexity of relations, even while adopting a "critical analysis of legal forms" (1996:  13).  "Our vision of society must be a vision of two separate spheres, with two different governing principles, two theories of justice and even two personae to go with them," says Boyle (1996: 26).  Precisely because of this proscriptive resort to separate spheres, the law and legalistic approaches do not establish appropriate strategies by which the policy and the public are articulated with each other.  Equally, a functionalist legal approach also misses the multiplicities whereby public and private have differentiated, yet related meanings in a variety of social and cultural contexts.

Two Policy Models

As a result of the slippage from one field to another, the models with which to describe this mixed policy environment are generic, yet can be differentiated.  Derain conceptualized this distinction by suggesting that the functional development of communications systems involved policy settings which were the result of either:

  1. exposed culture of competitive commercial activity, where government supports basic science and higher education to create technological innovation;
  2. sheltered culture where vast domestic markets, combined with government protection and military and space procurement of high technology creates the innovation (1990: x-xi).
Both readings can be applied to Internet policy settings and turn on the assumption that the regimes in which IT operates are mediated by government policy frameworks.  Derain's model makes clear the dimensioning of government activity, where a stated policy in one domain may be to have no policy (in itself a policy), which is impinged upon by government action in another domain, such as industry subsidies, Research and Development grants or procurement.  (There seems to be little actual space in which the rhetoric of no policy can exist:  the apparent exception of the highly politicized environment promoted by the anti-government and small government libertarians and many politicians, is in effect a non sequitur, because it rests on the argument that the government's policy is no policy.  The result is a transformation in the nature of the policy making process, while a commensurate change in the relationship between government, policy and politics is transferred to new locations (Inglehart 1997).  As part of the policy shift in the complex environment, the no policy position shifts public interest either out of the equation, or relocates it to another sectoral site, say social policy, welfare policy, industry policy, infrastructure policy, or another geographical location, such as state of local government.)

Within both cultures identified by Derain, the policy limits are dominated by a set of key institutional and corporate interests which operate as cyber-elites.  To reiterate my earlier discussion, the cyber-elites can be identified as idealized agencies, linked within the evolved "technical system" (Derain 1990:  149).  These linkages operate primarily across the central functions of control of production and distribution.  By identifying the cyber-elite as the key mobilizers of the system it is possible to describe two Internet policy models that reflect the contemporary context.  Both models exist in relation to public interest theory and as two models, yet at different points of the spectrum, rather than as defining binaries on a policy continuum.

The models are the Industry Model and the Government Policy Model.  The metaphor used to describe the Industry Model is that it is defined by Vertical relationships from above, while the Government model proposes a Horizontal approach.  The models rely on identifying the critical tools implied in the term "elite," which as McQuail suggests, is a key ingredient of the critical approach to communication (1992:  8).  The limits of the models are discrete, although there is blending.  In identifying the models the constituent elites can be itemized as follows:  Science, Technology, Business, Creative, Government, Academic.  The two models incorporate aspects of each of these elites but in changing configurations in keeping with the dynamism of the complex approach to the Internet.  To illustrate the two models the US policy situation and an Australian example will show how public interest has shifted, or remains static.

The illustrations are constrained by space, yet they serve to indicate how public interest objectives can quickly change in the complex policy environment.  In the US, the National Information Infrastructure proceeded in the early 1990s with six assumed capabilities, which were proposed in the Framework for NII Services (1994):

  • Connectivity
  • Network Features
  • Openness and Flexibility
  • Interoperability
  • Accessibility
  • Privacy, Security and Assured Service
The primary purpose for the NII was to "define its capabilities" for a huge variety of services, and opportunities for applications (Framework for NII Services 1994).  Significant to my discussion, the 1994 document noted that:
the legacy of existing services developed in different industry segments according to different technical standards, laws, and service-level agreements also constrains the framework (1994:?).
The limits on the public objectives announced as part of the NII were well enunciated here, while suggesting that the hoped for national network may face serious obstacles from an array of private networks with no public interest obligations.  Still the framework for NII services included ideas and objectives closely linked to a public interest framework.

In (August)1994, another set of guidelines were proposed by the Cross Industry Working Team, in An Architectural Framework for the National Information Infrastructure.  The emphasis in this document indicates the extent to which this set of Government policy approaches can conflict with others, as well as incorporating serious internal contradictions of its own.  In the Architecture document the NII Principles and Goals are in line with Industry interests, especially the ideologically laden first and final ones.  They are as follows:

  • Serve all Americans
  • Promote the Principles of Free Enterprise
  • Protect the Rights of Users and Stakeholders
  • Promote Interoperability and Open Standards
  • Provide High Quality, High Capability Services
  • Provide an Information Marketplace
The difference between the two sets of policy objectives within the NII and Industry Model is primarily about making explicit the market orientations of the Industry model, without an equivalent public interest defense.  It also provides evidence of how different elites establish priorities, depending on their attachment to notions of public interest or to a national focus on business.

Three years later in 1997, the business elites had established the primacy of a networked economic system (or Kelly's Networked Economy).  This applied to the Internet especially, which had become the ubiquitous system for information transfer.  In his Framework for Global Electronic Commerce, President Clinton identified the Internet as the site for billions of dollars in transactions.  He provided the following Principles for "the growth of commerce on the Internet":

  1. The private sector should lead
  2. Governments should avoid undue restrictions on electronic commerce
  3. Where government involvement is needed, its aim should be to support and enforce a predictable, minimal, consistent and simple legal environment for commerce
  4. Governments should recognise the unique qualities of the Internet
  5. Electronic commerce over the Internet should be facilitated on a global basis (1997: 3-4).
In terms of Porter's definition of policy role for government, this statement sees a failure of clarity about public interests.  Here, now, private elites are given priority in a tiered system of responsibility.  The tiered perspective of the vertical interactions suggests the following sequence:  science-technology-business.  Here the struggle between conflicting sets of values in the complex system gave way, as the elites of business-technology were given priority in the policy statements by the government elite.  Vertical relationships suggest a set of power relations which move from the top down, clustered around the Internet's evolving business-technology elite.

Furthermore, it is necessary to see the GII as part of globalizing trade politics, which is mediated by the business elite.  It remains to be seen if the GII and its elites over run the NII and public interest concerns.  In terms of my earlier discussion, the GII is a site where the New Public can be observed in its role as limiting the nature of the Internet to those uses which reflect that elite's ability to form alliances between itself and government.

As the documents cited above suggest, a range of policy priorities provided within the context of the US Government's NII were established.  In relation to public interest theory, it is possible to identify the vertical Industry model serving the American cyber-elite.  This is turn can be cast as a typology, where publics become fragments of a universal public.  For example, the first priority public can be constructed as those with transaction-focused uses, or the IT public elite.  A secondary public would be the US public, who are prioritized within the economy of the Internet.  A third public is the Global public, within the Global Information Infrastructure. In this scenario, the public exists as subsets drawn around the business interests of the rapidly growing Internet marketplace.  In terms of McQuail's earlier comments about the way public interest theory positions a discussion on evolving media, a number of critical questions can be raised about the counter-democratic reflex in the role of the elites in the vertical relationships.

In contrast, the Victoria, Australia government model applies a public interest approach, in which the policy statements identify two key elements of public interest theory:  equal access for the state's public and industry development.  This is a horizontal coordination model. These dual policy aims were then defined in terms of how the State Government would achieve its objectives.  The initial approach was to coordinate the government's activities in a "whole of government" strategy, in which a single set of activities were to be presented as the unified approach of the state government (Singh, Breen, Martin, Oliver & Burke, 1994).  From early 1995 three objectives were put into operation:

  • Transforming Government through the use of multimedia;
  • Advocating the use of multimedia across all state institutions;
  • Building the local industry to develop exports (Melbourne's Multimedia Opportunity).
These objectives were premised on the objective of linking the public to the networks of communication that the Internet offered, while providing employment through industry policy.

In this case, the State Government identified the range of sectoral interests within a multimedia industry policy, closely aligned with telecommunications.  Horizontal coordination in this case means that the cyber elite consists of a government led arrangement, where public interest is reflected in the way in which the State Government represents the interests of the following elites: creative, academic, bureaucratic, science, technology and business.  In any particular case (which I will not detail here) the configuration of elites will differ.  For example a research and development activity will focus on science in close association with a creative component, both of which are funded by the government or government agencies. In Victoria the cyber-elites have maintained a mix of public and private interests.  As much as $250m (Aus) of public money has been invested in an Electronic Service Delivery system, which is intended to provide the state's residents with access to high capacity coaxial cable connections provided by two competing telecommunications carriers - Telstra and Optus.  Through this approach the government has maintained the public interest, even as it uses private resources such as the cables and technology supplied by the telephone companies to connect its public kiosk and institution-based network.

This description of the Victorian approach to Internet policy illustrates the way in which the configuration of the cyber elites changes, as the public interest intersects with private providers.  The question is:  how does the government maintain its leadership of the public interest, when the private system is an essential component of the network?  To answer this questions it may be instructive to see the US transition as a precursor to the transformation of the Internet towards its reified use for electronic commerce.  This trend can also be noted in the Victorian context, particularly in recent press reports (Riley, November 25, 1997).  Moreover, the development of Intranets, private networking resources, such as banking and airline systems, place heavy private demands on the networked system built with the public interest as a priority.  What is clear, is that the Internet has become the dominant public face for networked communications.  Precisely how public interests function in the mix of interests will require detailed and ongoing analysis of Internet development.


At present, it appears that the Internet may be evolving to become a manifestation of econometrism, losing its humanism to become closely aligned with a mix of elites. Not the least of such elites are those that invoke a messianic, jelly bean culture of total connectivity.  The Internet is more than an economic set of goals and objectives, it is indeed a suitably structured set of elite relations stretching from the technical and scientific to business interests and sometime later to the public.  Yet this may overestimate the value of the process:  in a similar way to the claim that jelly beans will connect everything to everything.  In a variety of contexts the Internet is taking on multiple forms due to the way it interacts with competing cyber-elite interests.  Government policy settings may sustain a humanistic public interest consideration, although the advent of electronic commerce is rapidly transforming the Internet into a business tool.  In light of the humanistic public interest policy model, I have argued that localised policy approaches to public access by Governments may offset the achievements of the larger dimensions of the global business cyber-elite.  This may be a useful point to continue to investigate some of McQuail's own suggestions for public interest theory and its application.

Any consideration of the evolving nature of the Internet can be undertaken by mapping national and localised Internet mobilization, using public interest theory as the grid through which to evaluate change.  Using this approach, government and its public interest policy making function can be identified as a tool for preserving the humanistic potential of the Internet, as the mix of cyber-elites changes.

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