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Lesson of Public Access

An important lesson about how to foster effective public access to the network revolves around where to put public-access computers. Most community networks still tend to site their terminals in schools and libraries. But our experience shows that it is better to locate public access computers not in the quiet solitude of libraries but in venues in which people in low-income communities tend to gather informally during the course of their daily lives. What’s more, many libraries do not permit patrons to develop their own Web pages or to upload files to Internet servers; librarians tend to view the Internet as a reference tool, not a means for personal publishing. We’ve had success locating terminals in churches, recreation centers, and local businesses, and hope to put additional computers in cafes, laundromats, alternative schools, youth centers, shopping centers, and even bars and sports facilities. After all, the skills required for using the Internet are acquired by sharing experiences with others, and in a social atmosphere.

Regardless of where the terminals are situated, users need to be able to put their own information on Internet servers. But this generally requires that users have access to a server’s file structure-an ability that system administrators are wary of providing. Some community networks are therefore beginning to experiment with software tools that will allow people to create Web pages in “protected” areas of a server and that do not require sophisticated programming. The City of Austin, for example, has developed software that allows nonexpert users to create Web pages without knowing hypertext markup language or how to load Web pages onto a server; pushing a button automatically inserts all the necessary codes to format the text, create hyperlinks, and deposit the page into the right space on the server’s hard disk. This system may enable local nonprofits and neighborhood associations to maintain Web sites without assistance from a system administrator or an expert Web page developer.

An even more urgent need is for software that makes it practical for community networks to offer the one service that has more than any other wedded people to the Net: electronic mail. Neither the Austin Free-Net nor many other community networks offer e-mail. The costs of constantly creating new accounts, eliminating dormant ones, and managing “bounced” mail are beyond the means of volunteer-run networks. In the commercial world, e-mail accounts are usually made available to people who are part of a relatively stable group, such as a university community or corporation, or to customers who pay by the month or year. There are no precedents for people using e-mail on a pure “pay-per-use” basis akin to the purchase of postage stamps.

Millions of people are reportedly using free e-mail accounts provided by HotMail, a company that derives revenue by selling advertisements that users see each time they access their account. Unfortunately, HotMail suffers from a fundamental security flaw: hitting the “back” key on the browser has brought to the screen the mail written and received by previous users of the same terminal, presenting a significant privacy concern. HotMail has announced a new feature in its service-a “logout” button that will clear the mail from a public access terminal-that, if it works the way the company promises, will solve this problem.

Much work remains to tailor the software and hardware of public-access stations to accommodate users who cannot afford personal computers or Internet accounts. We are confident that the computer profession can come up with solutions; whether those will develop into a profitable market remains to be seen, but in the meantime, we can hope that skilled programmers and responsible companies view this task as a public service to the nation.

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