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
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
- 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
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
- 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
- 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
I'm going to turn on the light, and we'll be two people in a room looking at each other and wondering why on earth we were afraid of the dark. - Gale Wilhelm