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The Internet Upheaval: Raising Questions, Seeking Answers in Communications Policy

Editor: Ingo Vogelsang, Benjamin M. Compaine
Publisher: Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000
Review Published: February 2002

 REVIEW 1: Chrys Egan
 REVIEW 2: Pat Gannon-Leary
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Ingo Vogelsang

As the subtitle of The Internet Upheaval suggests, this work focuses on "raising questions-seeking answers." It succeeds on both fronts.

Edited by Ingo Vogelsang and Benjamin M. Compaine, and published in 2000 by MIT Press, this collection features sixteen research reports and explorative essays from members of the Telecommunications Policy Research Conference (TPRC). Voices from the academy, industry, and government blend primary data and expert analysis on the editors' four main subjects: Internet Policy Issues; The Internet Changes Paradigms; The Internet, Competition, and Market Power; and Universal Service.

The book's strengths outweigh its weaknesses. The benefits of this project are the editors' theme, writers' voices, and readers' interpretations. First, the theme of "raising questions-seeking answers" works well both to challenge assumptions about cyberculture and to document existing and emergent themes. Readers would do well to read the Preface and Introduction, which establish the thematic tone of the text. As the editors note, "This book is in many ways more about questions than answers. Good policy starts by raising good questions" (xix). This inquisitive philosophical underpinning provides a refreshing departure from over-confident texts on revolutionary media.

Second, as a result of this well-chosen, probing theme, the writers' voices offer much to this conversation. Some writers clearly ground their chapters in questions, such as Jed Kolko's "The Death of Cities? The Death of Distance? Evidence from the Geography of Commercial Internet Use," which challenges assumptions that the Internet will displace the need to live and work in metropolises, while Shane Greenstein's "Empirical Evidence on Advanced Services at Commercial Internet Access Providers" is more conclusive in its finding that "significant heterogeneity across ISPs is found in the propensity to offer these services, a pattern with a large/small, and an urban/rural difference" (253). Writing and research style and tone differ from more traditional data reports like Bradley S. Wimmer and Gregory L. Rosston's "Winners and Losers from the Universal Service Battle" to the investigative case study approach of Irina Dmitrieva's "Will Tomorrow Be Free? Application of State Action Doctrine to Private Internet Providers." Plus, writers belong to a variety of occupations including graduate students, professors, government employees, and industry workers. The writers' blending of theme, style, and discipline make for a richer text.

A final strength is purposefully allowing ample room for readers' interpretations of results and projections. Interestingly, the "Conclusion" appears at the end of the editors' Introduction rather than at the end of the book, announcing:

    The editors elected not to write a concluding chapter for this volume . . . [in part, because of] our confidence in the ability of the readers to draw their own conclusions. Another reason is that we chose these papers because we considered them addressing seminal topics and adding either important data or useful thought to the policy debate. But we do not necessarily agree with the conclusions drawn by the individual authors. Rather than adding our own spin, we decided to leave that determination to the policy makers (xxviii).

Readers will likely appreciate this faith in their interpretations.

However, there are three potential, although perhaps minor, problems: mechanics, timeliness, and economic focus. First, the observant reader will find some obvious typos, such as on the first page of the Preface and the first page of Chapter 3, two of the initial pages I read. Some writers can also get tedious and verbose, but most seem to make a genuine effort to engage readers.

Second, as is the nature of book publishing, some of the information and projections are already out of date just one year later. While the editors and authors could not be expected to foresee the September 11 terrorist attacks or the Bush/Gore election fiasco, these events have monumentally impacted US history and economy in the last year. For instance, most of the Preface discusses the health of the economy and ends by noting, "[p]erhaps by the time this book appears the economy could have problems" (xxix). Indeed. Also, some research, like "Beyond Concern: Understanding Net Users' Attitudes about Online Privacy," would be interesting to update in the wake of 9-11. In addition, the problems with Election 2000 make some statements in the study "Online Voting: Calculating Risks and Benefits to the Community and the Individual" seem ironic. In hindsight, readers may knowingly smirk or cringe at comments like "the Pentagon is now designing a system that will allow overseas military personnel to vote on the Internet" (100) and "[i]f the outcome of a presidential election . . . was still uncertain after January 20 (the constitutionally mandated day for a presidential transition), a constitutional crisis could ensue. America could find itself temporarily without a legitimate, duly elected chief executive. Such a situation would be turbulent for domestic politics, and possibly deadly for international affairs" (110). Again, while writers cannot be held responsible for predicting the future, some readers may find the material dated; however, other readers may appreciate this documentation of the rapidly changing world.

Finally, the focus of the book is clearly on economic concerns, not surprising considering that the editors work in economics and policy. While this focus is certainly not a pitfall per se, readers expecting a qualitative, psychological, Sherry Turkle-like approach to the Internet need to look elsewhere. But thankfully, this book offers interesting perspectives on the Internet upheaval.

While all sixteen chapters cannot be examined in detail here, one chapter from three of the four sections noted above will serve to illustrate the book's content.

In "Beyond Concern: Understanding Net Users' Attitudes about Online Privacy," a chapter within section one, Internet Policy Issues, Lorrie Faith Cranor, Joseph Reagle, and Mark S. Ackerman break new ground by examining what specific Internet privacy concerns users have. Whereas other researchers, i.e. Louis Harris and Alan F. Westin, document general privacy concerns such as "81% of Net users are concerned about threats to their privacy while online," Cranor, Reagle, and Ackerman search for particular worries and factors impacting likelihood of concern (47). The "Beyond Concern" sample is neither random nor representative of the general population since it consisted only of families using FamilyPC magazine who also were willing to respond to the survey, yet the results do offer useful data on privacy concerns.

Among the specific findings were that individuals tend to be "privacy fundamentalists" (17%), "pragmatic majority" (56%), or "marginally concerned" (27%) (51). Although specific percentages varied among the three groups when asked to rate concern over ten privacy factors, results were consistent in that some issues mattered more than others. For instance, "sharing of information," "identifiable use," and "purpose of information collection" all were rated as more serious concerns than if a site had a "privacy seal of approval" or "disclosure of data retention policy" (57). Respondents also indicated that they were more likely to give personal information at certain sites, with 49% willing to provide "identifiable information" to "news, weather, and sports" sites, while only 35% would provide such information to "banking" sites (53). When asked about information-sharing technologies, respondents favored automated transfer requiring user input and acceptance; 61% would use an "'Auto-fill' button for filling in form fields -- user intervention required to submit form," yet only 6% approved of "Automatic data transfer to sites with acceptable privacy policies" without any notification to the user (61).

Perhaps the most interesting data resulted from the vast differences in the specific personal information respondents would provide and what information they would let their children provide. For example, the percentage of adults that felt comfortable revealing certain information was as follows: "favorite TV show" (82%), "favorite snack" (80%), "email address" (76%), "age" (69%), " computer info" (63%), "full name" (54%), "postal address" (44%), "medical info" (18%), "income" (17%), "phone number" (11%), "credit card" (3%), and "social security number" (1%) (54). Concerning the respondents' children, the results indicate that not only do the percentages decrease, but the respondents' order of comfort changes: "favorite TV show" (52%), "favorite snack" (50%), "email address" (16%), "age" (14%), " computer info" (28%), "full name" (9%), "postal address" (6%), "medical info" (4%), "income" (not applicable), "phone number" (1%), "credit card" (not applicable), and "social security number" (0%) (54). Therefore, this study reveals that major privacy concerns include: children, user knowledge and control of information, site use of information, and degree of identity and potential harm.

In "Online Voting: Calculating Risks and Benefits to the Community and the Individual," a chapter found in section two, The Internet Changes Paradigms, Linda O. Valenty and James C. Brent present well-reasoned arguments for and against instituting online voting. As noted previously, while some of their statements are now ironic after the 2000 Presidential election, this chapter offers a thorough, thought-provoking analysis resting on logic, previous research, and social philosophies. Documented benefits of online voting (as an alternative to, not as a complete replacement of, traditional voting) include: increasing voter turnout, raising political legitimacy with more democratic input, reconnecting individuals to their communities, and reducing election costs (101-105). Risks are divided into three categories with related concerns for each. First, technological risks include: vote authentication, privacy, coercion if votes are identifiable, third party manipulation, and hackers or "cyber-terrorists" (105-111). Second, legal risks concern: fraud, violating the Americans with Disabilities Act (although online voting could assist some people with disabilities), policing campaigning near polling places, and gaining Federal "preclearance" (111-113). Third, political and social risks include changing campaign strategies, creating technological "haves" and "have-nots," challenging the two-party stronghold, moving to a direct democracy, weakening the symbolic act of voting, and decreasing voter quality and knowledge (113-121). Readers may notice that some of these "risks," may not seem like risks to everyone. For instance, the Green Party would not see threats to the two dominant parties as a negative, nor would some citizens view direct democracy as a pitfall. As a result of their analysis, the authors conclude, "[d]espite the significant cautions mentioned in this study, overall the benefits of online voting will eventually outweigh the risks" (121).

Finally, in "Media Mergers, Divestitures, and the Internet: Is It Time for a New Model for Interpreting Competition?" found in section three, The Internet, Competition, and Market Power, second editor Benjamin M. Compaine uses the question-raising theme throughout. His driving question "is whether the media are becoming more or unduly concentrated in a few hands" (199), to which he essentially answers "yes" and "no," but mostly "no." To begin to answer the question, he uses the example of the Monica Lewinsky scandal launched by the Drudge Report. The Matt Drudge case illustrates that someone without a college education or journalism training can transform a buried story into a world-wide media frenzy as long as he or she has one crucial thing: Internet access. As Compaine notes: "Two pieces of history were made that day . . . the impeachment of a president of the United States . . . [and] media history. Though not the first time that the mass media were goaded into running a story after its break in the small media or even the Internet, it was by far the biggest and most consequential" (199-200). Beyond this anecdotal case, Compaine analyzes corporate trends to determine that media concentration is not as consolidated or powerful as one may think. For instance, "as measured by revenue, there was little change in media concentration between 1986 and 1997" (216). Also, "there has been a pronounced shift in the nature of the players . . . In 1986 five of the top 12 companies . . . were best known as newspaper publishers . . . By 1997 there were no newspaper publishers in the top tier" (217), plus there was "a substantial turnover in the companies in the top 50" (216). In keeping with the book's theme, Compaine answers his question, then raises two more challenging ones: "How much diversity is enough?" and "How is that determined?" (221). While he does draw some interesting conclusions about the policy implications of these questions, Compaine ends his chapter appropriately with "Questions and More Questions" (225).

Since the editors place the book's "Conclusion" in the Introduction, it seems only fitting to conclude this review by referencing the first line of the Introduction: "Talk about upheavals." The various authors begin the "talk" by asking probing questions and formulating their answers. Readers are then invited to continue this dialogue and debate with the authors, whose e-mail addresses are all included in the book. As the conversation develops, so will our understanding of the Internet and its place in our evolving global culture.

Chrys Egan:
Chrys Egan is an Honors Teaching Fellow in Speech Communication at the University of Georgia, who received her Ph.D. from Florida State University. Her academic interests include media, censorship, popular culture, creative writing, and pedagogy.  <chrys@arches.uga.edu>

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