Roughing It in the Electronic Bush: Community Networking in Canada

Leslie Reagan Shade

Abstract: This paper provides an overview of the community networking movement, with a closer look at community networking in Canada and, in particular, an examination of the National Capital FreeNet in Ottawa. It explores ways that community networks in Canada are envisioned to support and sustain community and contribute to the continuance of Canadian content and cultural sovereignty, and concludes with issues regarding sustainability.

Résumé: Cet article passe en revue le mouvement de réseaux communautaires, et jette un regard particulier sur les réseaux communautaires au Canada et, en particulier, le Libertel de la Capitale nationale à Ottawa. L'article explore comment les réseaux communautaires au Canada peuvent appuyer et maintenir la communauté et aider à perpétuer le contenu canadien et la souveraineté culturelle. Il conclut avec des questions portant sur la possibilité de soutenir les réseaux communautaires.


The rapid movement towards setting up community-based computer networks across North America, which has grown expansively in the 1990s, is indicative of the need felt by many localities and individuals to assert the primacy of the local community in creating and sustaining educational opportunities, communicative associations, economic development, and civic participation. Community networking proponents wish to make this technology readily available to all community members at no (or nominal) charge, with public libraries and other community network sites set up as public access points.

The Morino Institute, a non-profit organization concerned with the impact and development of community networking, has identified over 300 community and public access networks in North America, alternatively and interchangeably referred to as: free-nets, community-based computer networks, community computing, community telecomputing, community bulletin boards, civic networking, telecommunity systems, public access systems, and community information systems (Morino Institute, 1995). Alongside the creation of community networks, a variety of on-line forums, electronic resources, and grass-roots organizations have emerged to consolidate a vast literature, lend technical advice and emotional support, and disseminate policy news.1

This paper will provide an overview of the community networking movement's goals and ideologies, with a closer look at community networking in Canada and, in particular, an examination of the National Capital Freenet in Ottawa. It will explore ways that community networks in Canada are envisioned to support and sustain community (geographically based and "virtual" communities) and contribute to the continuance of Canadian content and cultural sovereignty, and conclude with issues regarding sustainability, such as expanding the community of users, system design, funding, and the tension and temptation to push away from the local towards the global.

Goals of community networking

Many studies exploring the notion of virtual communities in both the academic and popular contexts have appeared. However, research into community-based computer networks has not attracted as much attention as research on other on-line communities such as the text-based virtual reality environments of MUDs (Multi User Dimensions) and MOOs (MUD, Object Oriented), or on Usenet newsgroups,2 but it is increasing (Avis, 1995; Beamish, 1995; Doheny-Farina, 1996; Patrick, 1997; Schalken & Tops, 1994; Schuler, 1994, 1996; Tsagarousianou, Tambini, & Bryan, 1998).

Community-based computer networks are situated between commercial on-line services (i.e., CompuServe, Microsoft Network, America Online), Internet Service Providers (ISPs), and individual computer bulletin board services, or "BBSs." The fundamental difference is that community networks provide communities with public, low-cost access to the Internet. However, they provide more services than a mere "on-ramp" to the "information highway." They are pre-eminently local systems, run by local people and organizations, utilizing local resources to meet local communications, educational, social, and economic needs.

Community networks are typically owned and operated by a non-profit, community-based organization whose Board of Directors is made up of people active in local community affairs. They are variously organized but, in general, they are staffed by a few paid members and a large volunteer core, who typically group themselves into several committees concerned with technology, content, volunteer recruitment, fund-raising, outreach, and training. Often community networks are affiliated with institutions such as universities, public libraries, or non-profit associations. Funding for community networks varies from system to system and is rarely stable; it can include a pastiche of government funding, grants, in-kind contributions, cash donations, volunteer time, donations of hardware and software from large equipment manufacturers, and sponsorship of modem lines by local businesses and individuals.

Community networks are examples of the democratic technology movement, which brings together various stakeholders in the design, development, and deployment of the system, including experts (i.e., computer professionals), community activists, librarians, teachers, and "ordinary citizens" (Sclove, 1995), and they are the antithesis of the hyperbolic exultation of the information highway which promises 500 "interactive" channels available couch-side, and which Agre (1994) dubs a "technologically enabled agoraphobia" (n.p.). Community networks also enforce what Barber (1983) dubs "strong democracy": a way of organizing a heterogeneous society along potentially inclusive and participatory lines.

Schuler (1994, 1996) has likened community nets to a democratic participatory medium whose characteristics include:

Community-based: the system promotes participation because everyone has a stake;
Reciprocal: any potential `consumer' of information, commentary, issues, or questions is a potential `producer' as well;
Contribution-based: forums -- both moderated and unmoderated -- are based on contributions from participants;
Unrestricted: anyone can use the community network;
Accessible and inexpensive: the systems are readily accessible from a variety of public as well as private locations;
Modifiable: users can design or co-design new user interfaces or services. (Schuler, 1994, p. 41)

Three main characteristics which distinguish community networks from commercial networks and bulletin board services have been identified by Beamish (1995):

  • Local. Community networks emphasize local resources, services, culture, and people. Information, even the more seemingly mundane (local bus schedules, calendars of events, restaurant listings, etc.), and formal and informal communication forums can potentially aid in the continuing education, health, well-being, and equity of citizens.
  • Access. Community networks are concerned with ensuring heterogeneous access to the network at free or reasonable low cost to all members of the community. There are incentives towards creating public access points in libraries, community information and recreational centres, and shopping malls (in Canada, many of these public access sites are facilitated through the Community Access Program, funded by Industry Canada).
  • Social change / Community development. The proponents and volunteers operating and championing community networks share the belief that their systems can strengthen and revitalize communities, through positive and interactive communication between residents and local institutions.

Computer-mediated communities can be marked by the same elements that shape communities posited by geographical location: shared values, a sense of ideological unity, the ability to exercise free expression, and the provision of a mechanism to barter "goods" (in the case of computer networks, the "goods" bartered tend to be "information"). In contrast to the varied definitions and attributes of "virtual communities" or "networked communities" (see Jones, 1995), community-based computer networks profess a set of aforementioned shared values, and their inception in various communities seems to have been led by an almost evangelical fervour.

Unlike other forms of virtual communities, such as MUDs, listservs, Usenet newsgroups, and commercial on-line services, community networks encourage participation in both virtual and real-life activities. Wellman & Gulia (1999) point out that

enthusiasts and critics of virtual community tend to speak of relationships as being solely online. Their fixation on the technology leads them to ignore the abundant accounts of community ties operating both on-line and off-line, with the Net being just one of several ways to communicate. Despite all the talk about virtual community transcending time and space sui generis, much contact is between people who see each other in person and live locally. (p. 179)

Likewise, many community networks sponsor get-togethers such as parties, fund-raising events, and open Board meetings which encourage familiarity and dialogue amongst members. These encounters emphasize the fundamental distinction between community networks and other ISPs, commercial services, and BBSs: community networks, by encouraging community control, become a means whereby communities can participate in the design and evolution of the network as a new zone of socialization and learning.

Canadian community networks

In the emerging sociotechnical and policy landscape, community networks have often had to define themselves by what they are not. These definitional tensions posit the duality between the local versus the global and the non-commercial versus the commercial. In Canada, the widespread creation of community networks has become a powerful model to many for enabling citizens to support and sustain community (geographically based and "virtual" community), participate in the public sphere, exercise democratic imperatives, and reinforce Canadian identity.

Public policy recommendations related to the information infrastructure (Skrzeszewski & Cubberley, 1995) have picked up on the popularity of community networks and have touted them as being a distinctly Canadian success story promoting the goals of universal access, despite their influence by the now-defunct U.S.-based National Public Telecomputing Network (NPTN), and other U.S.-based predecessors such as Santa Monica's PEN and Community Memory in Berkeley.3

An umbrella organization for all community-based networks in Canada, Telecommunities Canada (TC), was founded in August 1994 at the second Community Networking Conference in Ottawa. TC issues include the status of community networks as charitable organizations, assisting groups on local liability policies, developing an on-line literacy program for the public, and organizing and promoting annual national conferences (URL:

According to the latest Victoria Telecommunity Network statistics, as of May 1998 there were almost 60 community networks operating in Canada from coast to coast (URL: / freenets.html). Growth figures reported by the Chebucto Community Network in Halifax, Nova Scotia, reveal typical user enthusiasm for community nets:

Now serving 6,000 accounts -- a number growing at 200 per week -- with 36 phone lines, the freenet is adding 24 additional lines, giving it a total of 60 lines.... In the month of March, local and worldwide accesses to this community network exceeded 1 million in one month.... During the past 9 months, more than 100 organizations and 500 individuals have been trained to use the system and another 1,000 have attended demonstrations. Volunteers who respond to requests for help have been there 2,600 times. Other volunteers have written about 600 screens of documentation. (David Trueman, "Chebucto in Halifax Changes Its Name," posting to can-freenet@, April 13, 1995)

In 1993, the National Capital FreeNet attempted to register itself as a charitable entity under the Income Tax Act. The Charities Division of Revenue Canada ruled that there was "no judicial precedent to recognize networks, electronic or otherwise, and in particular computer networks, as charitable" (Charities DivisionRevenue Canada to the National Capital FreeNet, 1994).

However, in 1996, the Vancouver Regional FreeNet Association was successful in appealing their decision to the Federal Court of Appeal. In Vancouver Regional FreeNet Assn. v. Canada, the Federal Court of Appeal, in deciding whether "the provision of free access to the information highway is a charitable activity so as to qualify the organization providing such access as a registered charity within the meaning of the Income Tax Act," granted charitable status to the FreeNet, and in its decision affirmed community computer networks as a social utility and a public good.4

The National Capital FreeNet

Schuler's (1996) vision of a new community contains six interrelated core values which successful community networks embody. These values include information and communication; conviviality and culture; education; strong democracy; health and well-being; and economic equity, opportunity, and sustainability. Using these core values of the new community as a template, the National Capital FreeNet is described below.

The National Capital FreeNet (NCF) in Ottawa is considered to be a Canadian model of successful community networking. It was established in 1992 as a non-commercial, co-operative, community project with the active participation of volunteers, Carleton University, and private industry (which donated modems and the communications equipment for connecting the FreeNet to the local public library).

Information and communication

In a media environment characterized by corporate monopolization and a converging infotainment sector (Herman & McChesney, 1997), the ability of community voices to be heard is becoming increasingly rare. Community networks, by providing interactive forums for diverse community members, facilitate the voicing of alternative opinions.

The NCF encompasses a gamut of vital community information. This, no doubt, has contributed to its success, as over 250 information providers have posted information on a multiplicity of topics (including health, social services, education, recreation, federal and local government, and women's issues). Special interest groups are eclectic, including those devoted to computers, media, arts, teaching, sports, dogs, librarians, home beer- and wine-making, astronomy, and mental health.

In order to ascertain what information and services users of the NCF prefer, Patrick, Black, & Whalen (1994) surveyed the use of the "Go" feature on the NCF. The "Go" feature allows a user to jump to a certain point on the menu tree, such as "Go Mail" to read e-mail. Breaking down their analysis by the top 25 uses of the "Go" feature indicated that most users chose to access outside communication links, such as e-mail, Usenet newsgroups, gopher, and IRC (Internet Relay Chat). (The survey was conducted before the NCF had text-based access to the World Wide Web through Lynx.) Access to role-playing games, NCF special interest groups (SIGs), and the NCF general announcement area was also popular.

It is also possible to gain some insight into what services NCF users are accessing, and whether NCF use concentrates on local resources and communication or other Internet services, because the menu-oriented Freeport software (from the National Public Telecomputing Network) has been augmented with substantial infrastructure added by a volunteer to measure NCF usage. Communication services (e-mail and public discussion groups) were the main services used on the NCF. The most popular newsgroups, ranked by the number of unique users, are typically split between local NCF and Ottawa newsgroups (ncf.announce, ncf.general, ncf.admin,, The most popular newsgroup subclasses of ncf. include the SIGs (special interest groups), announcements, general news, government information, administration, and on-line newspapers. The most popular SIGs are for recreational uses: IRC (Internet Relay Chat), gaming, computer groups, and hobbies.

Conviviality and culture

Community networks reinforce what Illich (1973) referred to as "tools for conviviality" for a convivial society: "A convivial society would be the result of social arrangements that guarantee for each member the most ample and free access to the tools of the community and limit this freedom only in favor of another member's equal freedom" (p. 12). The plethora of aforementioned SIGs and information bolster and promote an animated community culture.

The other source of NCF's liveliness is its corps of over 200 volunteers, who handle a variety of tasks, including administration, computer programming, manning help desks, and facilitating public access and outreach. In July 1996, the NCF had 57,653 members with approximately 14,000 connections per day. By 1997, this figure had jumped to 62,000 users (Patrick, 1997).


Facilitation of life-long learning through computer networking has been touted as a desirable outcome by policymakers and educators -- thus, the impetus by various stakeholders to connect schools, libraries, and community centres (Moll, 1997). Community networking is one mechanism which advances this goal through providing community-based and global Internet resources, and through fostering computer and network literacy.

A variety of educational resources are provided on the NCF, from information on K-12 schools and school districts, to college and university information. Other information provided includes discussion areas provided for Christian education, home schooling, Russian-language teachers, supply teachers, and Native-language study; forums for high school tutoring, a students' SIG, and a Parent School Association area.

Access to local library resources, gateways to OPACs (on-line public access catalogs), resource materials (dictionaries, thesauri), and general Internet search engines (provided through both Gopher and Lynx) are also provided.

Besides providing information and gateways to educational resources, the NCF enables network literacy through training. There are frequent training meetings held for general questions and answers and demonstrations. These meetings are free and are presented by FreeNet volunteers and members of the Help Desk Task Force. NCF has also created a Network Professionals Directory, which lists network /computer professionals in the area, and an introductory guide to using the NCF. An on-line Help Desk provides a general FAQ resource on services, tools, and technology.

Economic equity, opportunity, and sustainability

Community networks can encourage and support a renewed economic base within the community, as well as provide an integral support system. One of the first studies to evaluate claims made by advocates of community networking in Canada was conducted by Avis (1995). He solicited interviews by participants on various systems about their beliefs on the educational, democratic, and community development potential of community networks.

Avis found out that respondents from the NCF did not use the system for formal education, but rather for informal education and "life-long learning." Although most participants took advantage of the "repository of information accessed for educational purposes from other points on the Internet" (Avis, 1995, n.p.), community-wide information was more important and useful to them. NCF participants were able to use the system successfully for local political participation, as information on municipal, provincial, and federal elections had been posted, and forums had been provided for public discussion and debate. Given that Ottawa is the capital city of Canada and overly populated by civil servants, the use of the NCF for community development was one of its strengths, with a wide variety of social service agencies and community organizations posting information. SIGs were also reported to be very popular, as they provided a sense of community for people with like-minded interests.

Media coverage has often emphasized only the "free" nature of community networking, and the systems have been seen merely as a cheap on-ramp to the Internet, typically ignoring the existence of local resources and animated communication links -- both virtual and face-to-face -- among members of the community. The successful introduction of community networks into various locales (in particular, Ottawa, Vancouver, and Calgary) has also spurred the introduction of many commercial Internet providers who have had to compete somewhat for content providers and customers (Mattison, 1994).

Health and well-being

Community health has increasingly paid attention to the nuances between economic, environmental, and psychological well-being. Mutual self-help forums and groups exist on the NCF, with various SIGs devoted to issues surrounding health, sexuality, disabilities, and mental health. For instance, "Ask the Doctor" is a moderated SIG where members can anonymously post questions, which are then answered by over 60 doctors and medical practitioners. Questions have run the gamut from AIDS treatment, depression, and breastfeeding to queries concerning allergies and angina. The NCF posts a message after each response, stating that the information is offered solely as a community education service and that information contained on the system is not intended to supplant individual professional consultation.

Strong democracy

The building of democracy through the provision of interactive forums that allow citizens and government officials to communicate is one way to reinforce tenets of strong democracy.

A variety of interactive forums for on-line democracy have been conducted on the NCF. With the Ontario Provincial Election in the Spring of 1995, the Ontario Politics Area of the NCF provided an interactive forum for voters and candidates to exchange views on issues relevant to the election campaign, with the results of the exchange visible in a semi-permanent form to interested parties. A discussion group, intended as an immediate opportunity for voters and candidates to exchange views on issues relevant to the election, was initiated.

The VOTE system has been designed to provide network access to a set of information describing voting issues, and was initiated in the spring of 1996 for electing NCF Board members. Candidate platforms, resolution outlines, and interactive forums were provided. As NCF members logged in during the voting period, a screen message reminded them as to whether or not they had voted.

Establishing a Canadian identity

Anderson's (1991) reflection that nationhood is "an imagined political community" (p. 6) rings true with Canada. For almost a century, Canadian nationalists have attempted to assert Canadian cultural sovereignty in order to control the effects of American newspapers, films, television, magazines, comic books, videotapes, and music flooding across the borders. Although American cultural products continually flood the borders of other countries -- both First World and Third World -- Canada's situation is somewhat unique in that its exposure is mediated by its geographical proximity to the U.S. border (approximately 80% of the Canadian population resides within 100 kilometres of the U.S. border) and the large size of the country, resulting in distances between communities (Thompson, 1992). In Europe, the metaphor of "Canadianization" refers to the "anticipated changes that will follow new broadcasting technologies" (Collins, 1990, p. ix).

Although Canada can brag that it is one of the more technologically advanced countries in the world, boasting "major infrastructure advantages, including the world's highest combined penetration of telephones, cable TV and home electronics like the VCR" (Ellis, 1994, p. 11), a schizophrenia exists between the race to implement diverse communications technologies and the fact that often these technologies carry more non-Canadian cultural material than Canadian cultural material. Two recurring viewpoints -- (1) that culture can colonize minds and (2) that cultural sovereignty is a necessary condition for political sovereignty -- have surfaced again with respect to the "information highway." The twist now is that culture has less to do with proximity and more to do with "technology, information, and the diffusion of texts" (Acland, 1994, p. 235).

Some Canadians fear that the global sweep of networked technologies amidst an increasing climate of open competition could result in the Americanization of Canada (Menzies, 1996; Raboy, 1997). Will Canadians have equal access to the channels of production and distribution as their southern neighbours?

Community networking activists have championed the idea of community networks as being a distinctly Canadian communications facility, reflective of the goals of the federal Information Highway Council -- jobs, cultural identity, and universal access. Public interest intervenors at the CRTC Information Highway hearings reminded the Commission of the continued surge and enthusiasm for community-based networks, and urged the CRTC to recommend the creation of both social and economic policies to sustain community networks: "We believe that community networking represents a grassroots effort by Canadians to create a truly citizen-based Information Highway, one which reflects what people want from this new technology: a place to think, learn, and communicate with their neighbors and an emerging knowledge-based world" (Stevenson & Searle, 1995, n.p.).

In their recognition of the continuance of Canadian cultural protectionism, official policymaking bodies such as the Information Highway Advisory Council (IHAC), the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC, 1995), and public interest groups have recognized that local community-based networks can foster Canadian content, revitalize communities, contribute to network literacy, and reinforce tenets of universal service and widespread access for the public (Graham & Shade, 1996).

Sustaining the local amidst the global

The convictions that "cyberspace is public space" and that spectrum and bandwidth are in the public domain reflect the belief that there must be electronic areas where all citizens can post information, conduct free and unfettered communication on a diversity of topics, and interact with their municipal, provincial, and federal governments and with community and national groups. It is believed that creation of such an "electronic commons" would allow all citizens to participate in the widely bandied "knowledge economy" in support of "life-long learning." Community networks have been championed as creating and nurturing this "electronic commons." In the Information Highway Advisory Council's (IHAC) Phase II report, Preparing Canada for a Digital World, released in April 1997, the issue of addressing the sustainability of community access networks and community access points was recommended (Rec. 4.9 and 4.11).

Sustenance of the electronic commons includes several components: Social: maintaining a balance between commercial use and social use continued respect for free speech nurturance of the volunteers that keep the community net going outreach to the wider community, including provision for training and encouraging citizens to create interactive content
Economic: ensuring economically stable and affordable local phone access that is not predicated on a "pay-by-the-clock" scheme
Design: participatory network design that can expand as technological enhance- ments are needed and meet the needs of diverse users creation and maintenance of public access points (libraries, community information and recreation centres, shopping malls)

Social and economic factors

Access to the networked information infrastructure is multifaceted and encompasses an overlapping mixture of technical, economic, and social infrastructures. Technical features include broadband and a switched and inter- operable system, as well as features encouraging usability and design for multiple users (with varying physical and cognitive abilities). Economic issues include physical placement of the system: Is it available domestically, at the workplace, in rural environs, or at public libraries and local kiosks? Is access subsidized through institutions such as libraries, schools, community nets, or community centres? Is a two-way directional flow of communication and content encouraged? Will communities be able to control and provide their own information? Does the networked information infrastructure encourage network literacy?5

Issues of funding and sustainability for community networks are worrisome. It is increasingly difficult to secure government support for community networks in an era of government downsizing, federal and provincial deficits, and widespread fiscal restraint; and private industry has often been reluctant to lend support. Libraries and schools, institutions that support the goals of community networking, are also facing funding woes, and appropriate network training and support is, for the most part, lacking. Some community networks have found it difficult to remain sustainable. Libertel Montreal, because of a lack of provincial support, was forced to close down in November 1996, and its new incarnation, Nouveau Libertel, is finding it difficult to fund-raise and maintain its operations (URL: / libertel / index.htm). Manitoba's Blue Sky Community Network (BSCN) was recently forced to shut down because of an onerous debt load (URL: http://www.

Given the prevalence for community network users to use the system to access services or to communicate with the world beyond the community net content areas, the question arises: What are the parameters of community for community networks? There is a stated tension between the local versus the global, and the use of community networks as merely on-ramps to the wider Internet world, instead of their use as a vital tool that maintains and creates local content, resources, and relationships.

One of the fears is that commercial interests will encroach onto the non-commercial nature of community networks. Canada has witnessed the roll-out of several Internet services from major telecom players, including Bell Canada's Sympatico service. Bell Canada is also promoting Integrated Community Networks (ICNs), "a community based network that provides connectivity and services to a defined geographical area." Services envisioned by Bell include health care, government, business, and education applications, all in support of community economic-wide development. What is particularly interesting is how Bell has appropriated some of the goals of the community networking movement ("developing information rich citizenry" and "empowering -- not controlling -- their entire community") with the electronic commerce goals ("building competitive strength and distinction") and using Bell Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) technologies "to transmit purchase orders, shipping notices, invoices, and a host of other day-to-day business documents...multimedia advertising; marketing and sales throughout the world using the Internet; increase productivity..." (Shade, 1997, n.p.).

At the industry level in Canada, there has been no interest expressed in supporting and developing viable community networking software. For instance, CANARIE, the Canadian Advanced Network for Research, Industry and Education (whose members consist of a wide range of private stakeholders in the computer, information services industry, and research and education communities), is mandated to develop advanced networking projects, but an application to develop a Canadian version of public domain software for use by community networks was turned down. And although the Toronto FreeNet received support by Rogers Communications, many critics had reservations about their undisclosed agreement. Could this major carrier be a gatekeeper of information if the broadcasting policy model becomes applicable? And could the carrier then control the content and potentially erode tenets of free speech?

Canada has had no viable on-line services equivalent to those in the U.S., such as the Well, CompuServe, America Online, Echo, or Prodigy. Community networking in Canada has, in a sense, served to fill this void. Although at one time Prodigy was rumoured to be creating a "Canadian content" Prodigy in tandem with Southam, a Canadian media conglomerate, attracting and retaining Canadian users in a global information environment will be a challenge.


Cisler (1995) has asked "How do you keep `em down on VT100 after they've seen MOSAIC?" The predominance of the text-based and menu-oriented structure of most community networks, with only Lynx access to the World Wide Web, could be an impediment in attracting and retaining members. Cisler suggests that community nets focus on content, information, and services that can reside on another larger system or even commercial on-line services or regional network providers. This tactic of distributed information is how the Boulder Community Network has proceeded, and it puts the onus on maintaining accurate and timely information on the information provider (Klingenstein, 1995). As well, it allows communities to create value-added information and tailor the specifics of the content for what the local population desires.

Participatory design practices, where the users of the technology initiate active participation in the systems design of the computer systems (Schuler & Namioka, 1993), is one way of designing community networks. Participatory design could be a way to expand the user base of community networks by reaching out to citizens who are electronically disenfranchised. Researchers such as Balka (1997) suggest that notions of participatory design must be expanded from considerations of business norms to encompass a wider range of organizational settings, such as organizations that are unstable, poorly capitalized, and include a wide range of learners.

For instance, an innovative project which allowed low-income African-American residents of a Boston community to design their own virtual spaces was initiated and designed by Alan Shaw. Linking Up Villages (LUV) allows residents to

develop local forums and discussions around community concerns, and to organize and manage neighborhood-based programs and social activities (or social constructions). It is to help provide local information infrastructure (instead of national information infrastructure) so that neighborhoods can stay interdependent and actively engaged in the development of their own social setting. (Shaw, 1995, n.p.; see also Shaw & Shaw, 1999)

The software Shaw developed, Multi-User Sessions in Community (MUSIC), enables participants to create on-line versions of their neighbourhoods, with "buildings" and, within the buildings, "rooms." Individual communities adopt local "rules" for how citizens can "stroll" through this graphical neighbourhood. Information on community services and activities, citizen contributions, chat groups, and discussion areas are also available. Because of LUV, residents of Dorchester got together to create a food co-op, a neighbourhood watch, and a community newsletter.


The concept of wiring up local neighbourhoods, nations, and the global commons is not new, and conceptual pronouncements of wired cities in the 1970s are illustrative of the naïve optimism and visions of unbridled consumerism that swarmed around early projects. Interactive cable trials emphasized delivering consumer information to the home, and only later did they encompass concerns over provision of basic telecommunications services, the significance of telecommunications for the economic prosperity of individuals and nations, and the furtherance of national interests and cultural values (Dutton, Blumler, & Kraemer, 1987).

In contrast to our current scenario where federal policymakers and technological pundits envision national information infrastructures as existing in a privatized and deregulated environment, early wired city proponents saw the technological infrastructure as a public utility, rather than a private commodity. "Early views of the wired city were anchored in traditional concepts of the neighborhood and polity as the basic building blocks of wired cities. Th[is] notion that electronic media would support local communities and institutions was an emphasis that carried through experiments of the 1970s in both the U.S. and Japan" (Dutton, Blumler, & Kraemer, 1987, p. 16). Public policy was thereby encouraged to support universal service in a just and equitable fashion, with appropriate subsidization.

Given that national and global information infrastructures are now being promoted and legislated in this deregulated, competitive, and self-regulated environment where private industry can have unbridled (albeit interoperable) power (Bernard & Shniad, 1998), community networks, which are indeed a social utility, could find themselves in a vexatious position. Community networks occupy the ground between government and the private sector which Barber (1995) calls civil society or civic space. This civic space is voluntary, embraces co-operatism, consensus, and the common ground:

it is not where we vote and it is not where we buy and sell; it is where we talk with neighbors about a crossing guard, plan a benefit for our community school, discuss how our church or synagogue can shelter the homeless, or organize a summer softball league for our children. In this domain, we are "public" beings and share with government a sense of publicity and a regard for the general good and the commonweal; but unlike government, we make no claim to exercise a monopoly on legitimate coercion. (Barber, 1995, p. 281)

The Information Highway Advisory Council (1997), along with issuing recommendations to foster the development of electronic commerce applications, has also recognized community networks as a vital social good. One group which has been able to influence this process is the Steering Committee for the Electronic Public Space Project.7 They have formulated a model for electronic public space. According to the Electronic Public Space Committee,

electronic public space is a shared learning space. It is the community that is the network, not the technology. The creation of a community network extends the idea of community into a shared electronic public space, a new not-for-profit transaction space where the impact on community values and social interaction is worked out in new ways. (URL:

A model for local administration, operation, and maintenance was outlined, with priority given to administration at the local level by an incorporated not-for-profit organization with an elected board featuring both not-for-profit community organizations and institutions and individual citizen representatives. The mix of organizations should reflect the broad community interest, including existing community networks, community health, education, publicly funded libraries, municipalities, labour organizations, volunteer and community services, and individual citizens. In addition, public space community networks are intended to operate as not-for-profit services with "the main purposes of Public Space Community Networks ... of access to, and participation in, the creation and exchange of public information, content development and availability, broad social and formal education, learning, and training" (URL: /research /iprp /ua /eps.html).

The challenges to community networking are twofold. First, the nurturance and sustainability of community networks must not be eroded. But, secondly and most paradoxically, as community networking becomes more populous, and as Internet services and users explode, will that sense of the "local" in community networking become less distinct?

As the policy milieu becomes more complicated (at the level of the local community networking board and both federally and internationally), how can the community be managed and controlled? One of the co-founders of the National Capital FreeNet commented that "Today's youthful community networks ... must take that opportunity to learn how to celebrate the vast diversity that is also the local community. The local community is where people live their social and political lives and that is where differences must be publicly worked through.... Community networks must be up to letting everyone speak, as painful as this will be for some, some of the time" (Weston, 1997, p. 201).

Another challenge for Canadian community networks (and, in fact, all community networks of small nations) is to maintain their sense of the "neighbourhood," within the "local nation," amidst a burgeoning global information infrastructure dominated by an increasingly homogeneous American "infotainment telesector" which respects no jurisdictional boundaries (Barber, 1995, p. 79). Many argue that the health of a nation depends on the strength and vitality of its cultural industries; although community networking has not secured the same credibility as the broadcasting, publishing, and film industries, it has proved to be a very responsive and viable "local culture."


The author wishes to thank the anonymous reviewer for his or her thoughtful and supportive comments.


Resources for community networking include: Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility-Community Networking (URL: /dox/program /community- nets /community-nets.html), Community Networks: An Online Guide to Resources (URL: / ~pbaker/ ), and Telecommunities Canada (URL: Mailing lists include: Can-Freenet (to join, send a message to: with the line subscribe Can-Freenet Firstname Lastname) and Communet (to join, send a message to: with the line subscribe Communet Firstname Lastname).
For instance, Turkle (1995) and Jones (1995) provide accounts of both Usenet communities and MUDs. See also Smith & Kollock (1999).
See, for example, Grundner (1993); an account of the early days of Community Memory in Levy (1994); and Rogers, Collins-Jarvis, & Schmitz (1994).
Excerpts from the decision affirmed community networks as a social utility: "The information highway is almost limitless in its scope and capacity but that is no reason for failing to recognize its vast potential for public benefit. The appellant's purpose in providing access to it is one of general public utility" (para. 18). "The appellant's purpose is to provide public access for the inhabitants of the lower mainland of British Columbia to the modern information highway. That is, in my view, as much a charitable purpose in the time of the second Elizabeth as was the provision of access by more conventional highways in the time of the first Queen of that name. (The preamble to the Charitable Uses Act, 1601, sometimes called the Statute of Elizabeth, contains a list of what were then considered by Parliament to be charitable purposes. See 43 Eliz. 1, c. 4.)" (para. 20). See Vancouver Regional FreeNet Assn. v. Canada (Minister of National Revenue -- M.N.R.) Between Vancouver Regional FreeNet Association, appellant, and Minister of National Revenue, respondent (1996). See also Charities DivisionRevenue Canada to the National Capital FreeNet (1994).
Some of the literature on universal access includes: Clement & Shade (1996), Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (1993), Drake (1995), Kahin & Keller (1995), and Miller (1995).
In the Province of Ontario, the Ontario Network Infrastructure Program (ONIP), which supported the development of network infrastructure projects, including the seed money for many community networks throughout the province, was cancelled in late 1995 after a new Progressive Conservative government was elected.
The Steering Committee of the Electronic Public Space Project consists of representatives from the education, library, and public interest community. Members include Karen Adams, Canadian Library Association; Joanne Cournoyea, Association pour l'avancement des sciences et des techniques de la documention; Garth Graham, Telecommunities Canada; Liz Hoffman, Coalition for Public Information; Marita Moll, Canadian Teachers' Federation; Andrew Reddick, Public Interest Advocacy Centre; Sid Shniad, Telecommunications Workers Union; Marie Vallée, La Fédération Nationale des Associations de Consommateurs du Québec; and Michael Williamson, National Library of Canada.


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