Why Civic Networking in Russia?

Since our early work with broader community networking between Russia and the U.S. three years ago, much has changed between our countries and with the Internet - and one of the most significant for our work is the rapidly improving Internet infrastructure in Russia. It would not have been practical to talk of civic networking three years ago. But, due to commercial and non-commercial service providers, government commitments, and access and training programs from various funding organizations, access to and use of the Internet in Russia is growing rapidly - opening many possibilities and opportunities for Russian citizens to engage in local, national and international communications and information exchange. Indeed, according to recent domain name counts (http://www.genmagic.com/Internet/Trends/), Russia represents one of the fastest growing Internet markets in the world now.

Thus, the basic infrastructure available now provides us with a practical option to explore civic networking opportunities.

As mentioned in the introduction, we feel it is not only possible but timely to build models which provide good demonstration of civic networking's potential. By providing good models now, we intend to illustrate how civic networks are socially meaningful and helpful initiatives - and help build the case for a broader civic networking initiative throughout the Russian Federation.

The following points illustrate the primary advantages of civic networking which we wish to apply in Russian communities.

Civic networks in Russia should:

  • facilitate diffusion of information technologies and new communications media into broader population. Why is this important?

    • at simplest level, it gives more people access to current information and to enabling technologies

    • it helps broaden base of citizens involved in infrastructure development and ensures a "public voice" for broadening ownership and management of communications networks which can otherwise be made inaccessible. Civic networks can provide an effective response to inaccessibility of new technologies due to issues of public access, existing media dominance, and industry authority/pricing.

    • it can help speed up infrastructure development and ensure more reasonable cost.

      By enabling and encouraging broad use, civic networks serve to broaden markets for higher end services which can then be serviced by the commercial sector. But, also, by providing lower end services at a very inexpensive cost, they help to ensure a more reasonable cost model for all services. Early Internet infrastructure development in Russia with exorbitant pricing by commercial providers and with special tariffs on foreign communications has served as a very effective deterrent to usage and growth.

  • reduce or eliminate financial disincentives to use of communications technologies and capabilities.

    Appearance of global information and communications technologies has great potential to further disenfranchise those without the means to access them, further exacerbating the gap between rich and poor in Russia. Whether through civic networks or other means, something must be done to address wider access to enabling information technologies.

  • extend ability to publish information (locally, nationally, globally) to non-governmental organizations, educators, health care providers, students, individual citizens, etc.

    One of the most significant features of the Internet is how it facilitates the ability to publish to almost every user - reducing the relevance of the old maxim "freedom of the press belongs to he who owns one". Even with improved freedom to publish in Russia, traditional factors - such as financial means, government regulation, 'contacts', or commercial marketing acumen - still generally determine who can publish information.

    Providing a broad platform from which many without "voice" can publish information -locally, nationally, and globally - will lead to a more diverse set of independent information resources.

  • enable development of a rich base of local information.

    One of the most useful features of civic networks in North America and Europe is the provision of information about the local community - including government services (and responsible government leaders and employees), community services, organizations and events, community problems and issues, etc.

    Unlike many 'web sites' about communities, information services are not developed solely to "sell" the community to outside interests (although they certainly have an important role in economic development), but rather to provide information which is of genuine interest and benefit to the local citizenry.

  • provide local, national and global communication services.

    The most important service provided by civic networks is providing access to communications technologies.

    By supplying citizens with an "account" on a network server, civic networks supply a global identity and address by which each citizen can correspond with others locally and around the world. Without question, email is the most fundamental service provided by civic networks. But, civic networks also provide additional communications services such as access to global USENET discussion forums, email listservers, local and global bulletin boards, and on-line, interactive "chat" facilities.

    These new communications technologies tend to "flatten" traditional hierarchies and make it possible, practical and simple for any citizen to express concerns, offer opinions, ask questions, etc.

    By enabling and encouraging a "critical mass" of local citizens to use such media for communications and by providing "public spaces" on the civic network for discussion of key topics, these technologies can help improve and magnify the quantity and quality of communications within communities.

  • provide new educational opportunities. These include:

    • Civic networks are a natural fit for providing good training ground for the use of information and communications technologies.

    • Through their information servers, they provide "links" to global educational resources - including libraries, reference resources, distance education opportunities, etc.

    • Civic networks usually maintain an extensive area for students - offering links to various educational resources but also to local and global communications areas - such as education-oriented Usenet discussion forums, bulletin board systems, study opportunities, etc.

  • further community development by encouraging non-governmental organizations, improving delivery of social services (by improving education about their need and availability), enhancing 'sense of community' and personal empowerment through improved and expanded communications.

    The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be ignited. - Plutarch

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1996 Friends and Partners
Natasha Bulashova, Greg Cole
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Updated: 1997-08-

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