The Evolving National Information Network
As is obvious from the discussion above, successful realization of the National Research and Education Network will depend on resolution of a number of policy issues. While they are all interrelated to some extent, the first four; access, appropriate use, funding, and governance; are quite closely intertwined.
Breadth of access is one of the key determinants of the value of the network infrastructure. As the network reaches a broader community of users, it becomes more valuable to all of its users. On the other hand, the current structure depends to a large extent on a concentration on support of research and education. The network’s use, funding, and governance are all evolving in support of a focus on the research and education community.
If the focus is on the research and education community, what are the appropriate uses? There is consensus that communication among peers within that community is supported, and that services which originate in the community should be available to the community at large. There is developing agreement that services to the community provided from outside the community should also be supported. If those services are not in support of scholarship, however, there is no current agreement on the manner in which they should be provided.
This is undoubtedly the most troublesome of the policy issues, and is complicated by lack of resolution on the issues of access and appropriate use. If both access and appropriate use were constrained to activities internal to the research and education communities, the current arrangements for shared higher education, industry, and government funding would probably suffice. Since such a limitation would greatly handicap the network’s usefulness, a great deal of thought is currently being devoted to providing for fee-for-service types of network use. Such use, it is generally agreed, should pay for its use of network resources, and substantial discussions are underway throughout the networking community to construct the channels through which such funds could flow.
It is clear, even if the network could derive income from fee-based services, that expansion of the network’s access beyond the major universities and research laboratories as well as continued rapid advancement of the network’s capabilities w-ill continue to require significant government support. Even though that support will continue to constitute a small percentage of the overall support, it is the crucial anchor for investment by the higher education and industrial community.
The governance issue is particularly complicated. The current, broadly distributed, interlocking set of informal relationships characterizing the network is ideally suited to the community now served by the network and the network’s need to change and evolve rapidly. As the network evolves, an increasingly larger constituency needs representation, and feels a need for clarity and structure in governance. The community is actively discussing these issues, but there is no consensus yet visible.
The need for improved network security has ironically generated most of the general public awareness of the network’s existence. In fact, the security issues are now mainly confined to the computers attached to the network, and not the network itself. As network support services develop, however, the issues of security will become important to the network itself. Even in the current environment, an increasingly large proportion of the resources required to operate the network are being devoted to control and monitoring of inappropriate use of the network.
Unfortunately, in this arena, as in the privacy and free speech arena, there is not a broad community consensus on appropriate behavior. As the network community develops, these norms will be extremely important to the health of the enterprise.
Privacy and free speech
As always, there are tradeoffs involved in stimulating appropriate use, providing network security, and protecting the privacy and free speech rights of network users. The network already provides access to an extremely broad set of information, some of it offensive to many, and the network is expected to extend its reach. As a result, there has already been extensive coverage of free speech and appropriate use issues in the general press. Recent gatherings of the leaders of the network community have highlighted the concerns over the compromises involved, and increasing concern has been expressed that the governance structure for the network make provision for community involvement in resolving the issues.