The Link list and telecommunications policy: improved effectiveness or an electric elite?

Paper prepared for Communication Research Forum, Canberra, September 1998

Karin Geiselhart

[then] PhD student, Faculty of Communication, University of Canberra


The analysis of electronic mailing lists has become one way researchers look for signs of public space

developing on the Internet. It is argued here that lists and related technologies can also be used to

improve policy outcomes. The Link list, which originated in Canberra, has become an established

channel of communication for those interested in telecommunications policy and developments in

Australia. However, its contribution to this area has not been formally acknowledged or assessed.

The author has been a subscriber to the Link list for several years as part of wider research on the

role of interactive technologies in democratic policy processes. The participatory, ethnographic

aspect of this case study was supplemented by discussions and a survey of subscribers, and a draft

analysis was made available to the list for comment.

Link was found to serve many important functions for subscribers, including discussion, information

sharing, networking, and feedback on draft policies and proposals. The inclusion of government

officers, lawyers, journalists, academics, publishers, activists and the business community creates

particularly fertile ground for pluralistic deliberation on both the technical and political aspects of a

wide range of Internet and telecommunications policy, both as it affects Australia and globally.

However, the spontaneous and casual nature of Link limits its suitability as a mechanism for more

formal policy deliberations. Complementary, overt and normative mechanisms are necessary to

maximise the contribution which interactive tools can make to ensuring democratic benefits accrue

from telecommunications development.


Although there is a long history of critical analysis of technology and society (overviews are available

in Feenberg 1991or Rosenberg 1997), specific discussions on what is roughly called ‘electronic

democracy’ have mostly emerged in the past decade. A substantial literature now exists on this topic,

although very little has been written from an Australian perspective. The author has previously

discussed the factors affecting electronic democracy in a public sector context. (Geiselhart 1996)

Electronic democracy refers to the potential of new communication technologies to contribute to

democratic forms of governance. This can be considered at various scales of community, such as

local, state or national. On a smaller scale, the importance of democratic governance at the

organisational, or enterprise level, has been emphasised by many authors, (Dahl 1989, Pateman

1970, Semler 1994), and is the subject of the author’s principle case study.(1) The intensification of

trends towards global concentrations of ownership and power have also highlighted the need to

consider what democratic governance might mean on an international scale.

The extent to which interactive electronic communication technologies can contribute to effective

governance at any level is an area of debate. Electronic town halls, virtual communities and projects

such as the Minnesota E-democracy project have demonstrated the possibilities for pluralistic

discussion and citizen participation on-line. (Aikens 1996, Hauben and Hauben 1997, Macpherson

1997, Meeks 1996)

Other writers are more sceptical, and have drawn attention to counter-indicators of technology’s

ability to benefit democracy. These include the history of originally interactive technologies, such as

radio and cable TV (McChesney 1996, Klein 1996); the origins of information technology in the cold

war (Lyon 1988, Haywood 1995); the convergence of telecommunications and computing with the

media and entertainment industries (Herman and McChesney 1997, Beder 1997); pressures to

minimise public provision as information is increasingly costed to generate profit (Branscomb 1994,

Reinecke 1989, Preissl 1997); and the corporatisation of education. (Nieuwenhuizen 1997)

Still others take a middle ground which acknowledges the potential for information technology to

assist in democratic processes with the caveat that only consensus and commitment to democratic

values can ensure that this will happen. (Calabrese and Borchert 1996, Shapiro, Doheny-Farina


This paper accepts the last approach and considers the evidence presented by an existing

technology, the Link list. Although Link was established as a information and discussion forum, it is

useful to consider its contribution to a particular aspect of democratic process, namely policy

formulation. The research question for this analysis then becomes: Does the Link list contribute to the

democratisation of Internet and telecommunications policy in Australia? What factors affect this?

The following sections will provide some background on the Link list, and discuss the methodology

used to study it. The findings will be presented and discussed, and finally conclusions will be drawn

about wider implications for electronic democracy more generally.

Background of Link

The Link list (2) is a predominantly Australian list which is open to all subscribers and discusses the

Internet and telecommunications policy. Electronic lists allow subscribers to post to the list as a group

through automated software such as ‘majordomo’. Link was established in 1993 as a forum for the

exchange of views about the impact of networks on libraries and publishing. It grew out of a Working

Group on Local Systems Interconnection, which is now the Electronic Libraries Forum (ELF). The

founders were Eric Wainwright, then Deputy Director-General of the National Library of Australia,

and Tony Barry, then Head of the Centre for Networked Access to Scholarly Information,

Australian National University Library. The initial membership was from the library, networking and

standards community. (Barry 1997)

The list has been through several technical stages, and has been archived since 1995. It currently

resides on a Sunsite at the Australian National University. Because the early backbone of the Internet

in Australia, AARNet, was maintained by the universities, much of Link’s content focussed on the

standards and performance of this network, more or less within an academic framework. The

membership of Link evolved to reflect the changes in government policy on the Internet: membership

and contributions of government groups such as the Broad Band Service Expert Group grew, and

then gradually became less dominant on Link as private interests took notice, and eventually control

of Internet ownership and policy.

This pattern of growing commercialisation reflects not just Australian telecommunications policy, but

the experience of other nations. In this sense, Link may be part of a fractal pattern of development,

where the values characteristic of globalisation create similar structures at different levels of

organisation. This metaphor has also been suggested by other writers (Brown 1998) and is discussed

more fully elsewhere. (Geiselhart 1997)

By the time Telstra took ownership of the backbone, Link had a much broader membership, and

included many government officers, people from telecommunications industries and Internet Service

Providers, specialist media reporters, Internet activists and other individuals, some representing

professional organisations, along with a sprinkling of Ministerial and opposition staff members, in

addition to the original core of networking and library professionals.

Membership ebbs and flows, but has remained fairly stable with approximately 400 subscribers. As

many as two-thirds of subscribers contribute, with postings following a statistical pattern of

distribution familiar to some academic disciplines. (Barry 1997) Link remains open to all subscribers,

and the archive is accessible via the Web archive. Two other lists which cater in similar ways to

specific Australian policy communities will be discussed in the next section.

Other studies of electronic lists

Fang (1995) used discourse analysis to examine three lists in the United States with public policy

implications, using a Habermasian theoretical framework. Only one was found to have substantial

debate or discussion. Mostly they were used for posting enquiries or announcements, and evidence

was found for the emergence of a two tier communication system, where the mass media was

covered on the new, networked system, but not necessarily the reverse. Convenience, rather than the

uniqueness of the network as an information source, seemed to determine use. It was also found that

freedom of communication was most likely when professional reputation was not at stake. The lists

were found to have a left-of-centre bias. One conclusion was that while the new media is not likely to

dissolve or supplant the prevailing state-corporate-media power nexus, they may complement the

dominant communication system.

Sachs (1995) conducted ethnographic interviews with fifteen frequent users of PeaceNet electronic

network, and analysed the results by grouping data. Part of the intent was to look at the process of

public opinion formation in a non-profit computer network. Not surprisingly, Sachs found a strong

left-wing bias among users, which limited the representativeness of the network as a sample of public

opinion. Respondents voiced strong feelings that the network allowed them to access information not

readily available in the corporate media. Respondents also felt PeaceNet helped them to overcome

both geographic and ideological isolation, by finding kindred spirits on line. Contributors fell into two

groups: experts and local sources. In addition, there was a group of lurkers, who did not contribute

postings. The critical orientation, opportunity for reflection offered by the asynchronous nature of the

network, and the non-linearity of lingering or discontinuous conversations were also significant, along

with the markedly cooperative aspect of information sharing. Sachs concluded that the network may

be ‘both a complement and an alternative to traditional forums.’

Gomez (1997) looked the use of computer-mediated communication within several Latin American

non-government organisations. He found that electronic interactions can help restructure real life

relationships, often in unpredictable ways. He found that although there were strong indications that

these organisations could use computer technologies as a powerful communication tool for their

work, there was little evidence that this use contributed to democratisation or development.

Few researchers have studied Australian lists. Strangman (1996) discusses the possibilities for his

newly established Pubsec list to contribute to policy deliberations by creating a collaborative forum

for academics, policy practitioners, and private sector parties. His early observations were that the

primary use was for information exchange. After a modest beginning in the Department of

Administrative Services early in 1996, Pubsec (3) grew to become a lively forum with international

input and discussion. In the past year or more, however, this list has contracted in content and

number of postings. While it still offers some useful information, there is almost no deliberation. This

diminished activity may reflect the less open culture which seems to prevail in the public sector

generally since the change to a Liberal government in 1996.

The Cirg-L (4) list is another government initiated list, with high proportion of Canberra bureaucrats as

subscribers. It was part of a semi-formal network of middle-ranking officers concerned with Internet

policy and implementation, the Commonwealth Internet Reference Group. The author was a member

of this physical group for a while, as one of those involved in setting up departmental Internet

connections, agency Web pages, etc. It was in some senses a competitor with Link, with some

overlapping subscribers and topics, and many duplicated postings, until its range was narrowed in

mid 1996 to focus more specifically on government initiatives. It then became more like a bulletin

board, featuring rare announcements from the originator/moderator and one other subscriber.

Pubsec and Cirg-L inevitably reflect their government sponsorship. Strangman is no doubt correct in

his assessment that issues of legal liability would make a Commonwealth-sponsored public and

unmoderated list highly unlikely. Likewise, government sponsorship limits the scope of policy

discussion, as public servants are hesitant to even comment on policy proposals that fall outside the

established boundaries. The development of Link, as an independently owned list, has followed a

different trajectory.


Link was studied as an ethnographic case study. That is, the researcher was also a participant on the

list. In addition, a brief survey was sent to the list in September 1997, asking other subscribers for

information about the way they use the list. However, only a handful of the 400 subscribers

responded, even though the survey was limited to three brief questions. This is a frequent problem

with email surveys. (Clayton 1996) A number of other subscribers were subsequently sent direct

messages asking for their comments, leading to 14 eventual survey replies. Most of the data was

received via face to face discussions or off-line dialogue. Further commentary came when the

summary of the findings were posted to the list, with a pointer to a web site with the full report. Thus,

the case study had an iterative quality, a common feature of web-based information. The analysis was

also informed by the researcher’s participation on Link and other lists.

There was also an element of ‘action research’ in this study, through the explicit articulation of the

desirability of incorporating democratic norms into computer-mediated policy discourse. The

researcher therefore overtly sought to engage other list participants in a dialogue about these



As email lists go, Link can be described as a ‘Rolls Royce’. The list infrastructure is professionally

managed by the ANU Information Technology Services Group. The list owner, Tony Barry, was

involved in the establishment of that infrastructure when employed there. He continues to manage the

list and is webmaster of the list site mounted on the Australia Sunsite which is also maintained by

ANU. Not many lists have a meticulous archive as Link does, searchable by date, keyword, and

person. The list hasn’t suffered from the maddening glitches that can plague this technology, such as

thousands of messages sent to all subscribers when someone’s automated software has a nervous


The Link list has also shown durability. Electronic lists tend to be ephemeral, and to ebb and flow in a

rather arbitrary fashion. Many vanish without a trace. Link has been relatively stable, with new

subscribers in a rough balance with those who depart. This is probably not coincidental to its


Postings to Link are highly professional, and reflect the sophistication of the subscribers. This is not a

casual CB band on the Internet, but more like the ABC. This also reflects the respect held for Tony

Barry. While notionally an unmoderated list, Link is sometimes gently redirected by the owner to

remain ‘on topic’ when the debate heats up or strays into alien territory.(5) At one point over the

summer in early 1998, a humorous thread developed with a set of postings in Latin, until someone

returned from holiday and noted the absurdity.

Based on a ‘who’ listing of subscribers, Linkers are unevenly divided between sectors with

overlapping interests in Internet and telecommunications policy: legal, regulatory, a wide range of

commercial activities, academic, media and activists. Exact figures on distribution of membership is

difficult to determine, as subscribers often choose to join as individuals, thereby disguising their

organisational affiliations. Only a handful are from overseas, and the author’s experience is that most

of those with international email addresses are Australians temporarily living elsewhere.

A rough analysis by gender, which counted only email addresses containing a clearly

gender-identifiable name, indicates that perhaps one third of subscribers are female. Several of these,

mostly technically literate professionals, are active posters. While one informant indicated that

women’s voices seem to be a somewhat silent minority on Link, the researcher has not observed

gender bias. Spender’s argument that women are discouraged on networks does not seem to find

substance on Link. (Spender 1995)

Overall, flaming or rudeness are absent from Link, another indicator of its stature. The standards of

netiquette are quite high, and there is much helpful information offered to enquiries. The researcher

once requested sources of government Internet policy, and received at least 8 helpful replies within a

few days. Postings are cordial, and often light-hearted.

Content on the list reflects the globalisation of the Internet telecommunication industry through the

influence of overseas policy and events on the Australian telecommunications conceptual, technical

and legal infrastructure. Any significant overseas event, such as news or decisions about domain

names, software company mergers or electronic commerce, is quickly reported on Link, generally

with an Internet URL for more detailed information. The availability of the web as a publishing

platform for more thoughtful and lengthy contributions has been noted as a vital element in the

success of the Link list. (Barry 1997)

Along with Australian-based information, requests, and discussions, this forms the core of Link

postings. Much of the content is technical, requiring a professional understanding of the technology to

assess its implications for wider policy. These exchanges are important, and allow professionals to

untangle the intricacies of Microsoft or browsing software, learn more about routing devices or find

out about email-transmittable viruses and internet hoaxes and scams. Subscribers who are not

involved with these issues technically can improve their general knowledge about Internet issues.

However, the high technical content may also inhibit some subscribers from posting, even though the

tone of the list is tolerant and friendly. The technical and policy issues, while entwined, are not equally

transparent for the interested onlooker.

Survey results

The following summarises the uses and views of Link identified by respondents:

Keeping current on trends in Internet policy.

Getting to have a go at standing on the soapbox myself in a friendly, funky intellectual environment

Keeping myself informed on technological trends with regard to privacy, security, abstract concepts

in IT management...

Relaxation and enjoyment

Keeping in touch with interesting people, who I may have otherwise not been able to interact with

Learning, thinking, discussing, developing ideas, testing ideas amongst a 'safe' audience...

A good barometer about hot topics in the Australian government marketplace.

I read / write / lurk on the Link list as a general way of increasing my learning about the many type of

issues that Linkers discuss. I am a consultant. So I often re-use the ideas when giving advice to my


Current knowledge of internet, IT, tele/communications policy issues and developments, etc.

Access to the knowledge and opinions of respected professionals.

Source of best practice examples.

Sharing my thoughts/opinions with the Link community for feedback

Learning about the Australian IT policy environment in general and keeping up to date with the fast

moving changes, particularly since the change of government

'Venting' my concerns with some others who may be like minded to me

Quick identification of who's who in Oz IT - journos, government bureaucrats

Information on policy, help from other subscribers (great networking) information on community

attitudes; occasionally to float ideas.

I enjoy Link for the gossip, and occasionally use it a little naughtily, because I know certain people in

Canberra read it and I can put a viewpoint across about an issue.

Link gives me an opportunity to contribute to the "gestalt" of Australian Internet policy in whatever

small way, and hopefully it's positive.

LINK is the BEST email list I'm on. I try to at least skim every entry.

You can usually rely on any comments made on the list being from an expert on the subject rather

than people taking guesses.

Thus, respondents indicate a range of uses for Link, with most ranking it 4 or 5 out of five for value.

Link is unsurpassed within Australia as a channel for communication sharing, dialogue and networking

on an important range of issues associated with the Internet and telecommunications generally. The

conversations that flow off-line and the subsequent telephone discussions, exchanges of material, and

meetings with like-minded people help to establish a feeling of ‘place’ within an otherwise evanescent


Use of Link by media and government

There is no doubt that Link has become a true ‘link’ between the media and other players in

telecommunications policy. A number of journalists at various high profile computing magazines and

the technology sections of leading newspapers regularly use Link for sourcing ideas/contacts/leads for

stories about government policy in high-technology areas. Those who don’t are likely to be seen as

less up to date, as they are ‘out of the loop’.

This situation has evolved over time, and the gap between a story appearing on Link and its coverage

in print journalism has shrunk from several weeks to overnight.(6) Connections between these

journalists and government officers or company contacts have no doubt been facilitated through Link,

as have many other sorts of personal and professional interactions. Of course, this cuts both ways,

and government also uses Link to monitor issues, ‘let them wash over’, so they can preempt what is

likely to show up as a thoughtful piece in the technology pages.(7)

Aikens (1996) maintains that one democratising effect of electronic community-based

communications is in agenda-setting. That is, the media may be forced to pick up on issues prominent

in electronic deliberations, rather than those determined by an elite outside the community.

Both government agencies and media groups often assign someone to be a ‘designated lurker’ on

Link, a human filter who will pass along selected messages and monitor the overall thread of

discussions. Such a use of hierarchical practice indicates that the list is valued by people without the

time to read it themselves. It also seems that several agencies and a research group subscribe to Link

through a ‘dummy’ address which is then forwarded directly via an internal newsgroup.(8)

Link and policy

The influence of Link on telecommunication and Internet policy, either nationally or within government

agencies or private organisations was more difficult to determine. The concept was kept deliberately

vague in the survey, with most respondents giving an intuitive answer. The general and most common

answer was that Link did influence policy decisions, often in the context of ‘assisting in identifying

issues and associated resources which need addressing at a policy level.’ In the wider context of the

researcher’s work, policy is considered a form of communication, in which actors and their networks

use resources and decisions to promote their value systems. (Considine 1994)

The influence of Link on policy is probably more distinguishable within smaller companies and

agencies, where an informed member of staff can apply personal leverage, develop support within a

team, and exert influence. One respondent comments:

I also feel in a crazy way that this list has helped keep me "One up" on the management, and it has

given me ammunition when I have wanted to argue a point of view!

While internal decisions about technological applications are never without political implications for

the organisation, some of these are less highly charged than others. Value clarification is also simpler

on smaller scales. One extended discussion on Link concerned the way in which a tender for internal

computer systems had been managed within a government department, with allegations of bias

towards a particular multinational software supplier. That was an example of internal decision-making

overflowing the agency to become an external topic, raising questions of accountability and probity.

However, such discussions are not the norm on Link, and situations usually remain within agency


Such direct effects on agency policy are probably more often limited to smaller issues, such as web

design. Criticisms submitted to Link about the format and utility of a web page, and even the failure

to ask for feedback, can become minor sources of embarrassment to the offending party. Such

chiding tends to be collegial, in keeping with the list’s genteel tone.

For policy issues with wider impact, tracking the influence of an ephemeral electronic forum such as

Link would be even more difficult, because so many of the important exchanges occur off-line. Any

likely audit trail usually ends when messages become personal, rather than public. A trace of such an

exchange once appeared accidentally, when a government protagonist on a policy matter hit the

wrong button and a private reply was received by all Linkers.

Other glimpses of policy and regulatory workings are made available to Linkers that would otherwise

remain opaque. For example, it may not be general knowledge that the Australian Competition and

Consumer Commission seeks information from journalists about possible anti-competitive practices

of software companies. Such a request to a Link subscriber was passed along to the list for input,

and the comments on Link about the ACCC’s approach might have helped them to refine it, if seen

and heeded. The bluntness of some of the comments: ‘The ACCC must be clueless!’ might not be

music to regulatory ears, but is normal in an informal forum such as Link.

Other notices about internet governance appear on Link, giving subscribers an early opportunity to

become involved in these global policy issues in whatever way they can. A proposal by the World

Intellectual Property Organization about resolving domain names disputes over the Internet was

forwarded to the list for comment.

Areas in which Link has had particularly active discussion include privacy, encryption and censorship.

This may be partially due to the efforts of several subscribers who are well informed and articulate

activists in these areas. Their well-reasoned analyses and steady provision of relevant information on

these topics have no doubt increased the levels of understanding of all Linkers.

There is clearly a fine line between gathering information and making decisions, and Link is clearly

highly valued for information sharing. On many technical issues, policy is less contentious. Because no

government officers replied to the survey, the contribution of Link to broader policy debates involving

value-laden issues about the direction of the national telecommunications infrastructure is less

obvious. Press releases and draft papers on policy issues are regularly posted by the Departments of

Communication and the Arts, the Office of Government Information Technology, the Australian

Broadcasting Authority and other agencies. Invited comments on these drafts are the norm, but are

rarely summarised and fed back to participants through the agency site.

This practice, which can be described as ‘full transparency’ was the final query on the Link survey.

Some respondents offered examples, but several indicated they didn’t understand the concept. The

complex issue of Link’s involvement in policy agenda setting or shaping, and the related concept of

full electronic transparency will be returned to in the analysis and conclusions.

Overall, while information and opinion sharing are vital elements in policy deliberation, the role of

Link in policy processes is primarily informal. Its contribution therefore to the equally important tasks

of consensus building and value clarification is likely to be overlooked and underutilised, partly

because it is never acknowledged.

Analysis and conclusions

Link, as one respondent noted, may be considered ‘the very definition of Australia's elite

technocracy.’ Such a group, operating within a developed country such as Australia, is a potentially

powerful source of advanced thought. However, the rarefied nature of this input requires emphasis,

given that the focus of this research is on Link’s contribution to democratic policy processes. Within

Australia, perhaps 10% of the population uses the Internet, according to information provided on

Link. Globally, this drops to 1%.(9)

The distribution of this ‘digerati’ is not uniform across this wide continent, but is concentrated along

the Sydney-Canberra-Melbourne axis, with supplementation by other regions. This is important,

because it increases the physical cross-fertilisation of ideas and networks. Thus, Link is not just a

‘virtual’ community, but rather a loose association of people who have much in common personally

and professionally, including their Australian orientation and a generally critical view of both

governments and multinational monopolies, particularly when they attempt to control the Internet.

The importance of geographical proximity in maintaining electronic relationships is critical in shaping

their use (Doheny Farina 1996), and is evident in many aspects of Link. Linkers meet at conferences,

meetings, and social events. They tell others about the list,(10) and refer and defer to each other’s

areas of expertise. The Internet Reality Checks which a prominent Linker has occasionally organised

in Canberra and elsewhere have allowed Linkers to meet and reinforce personal contacts. Such

contacts, while perhaps not a dominant feature of Link interactions, are probably more frequent than

in a more populous country, and therefore reinforce the feeling of community within the group.

While many relevant issues, such as encryption, have a technical component in their solution, others

are more entwined in political will and social justice. These include employment and conditions in

related industries, globalisation and how it affects telecommunications in Australia through specific

initiatives such as the Multilateral Agreement on Investment, and equity in telecommunications access.

Aside from intermittent assertions of good will, these issues tend to be set aside on Link.

The scope for meaningful engagement with such topics on Link is limited. There are a range of

reasons for this, including the broad scope of these as both social and technical issues. Government

or corporate lurkers may have neither the time nor the inclination for discussion, and are also aware

of the need for self-censorship. Link’s role, which is neither measured nor recorded, is marginal as a

policy instrument.(11) Also, while many subscribers to Link are sophisticated and articulate, the

tradition of the technology culture works against exploration of social issues. One respondent noted

that there do not seem to be any information economists on Link, thereby limiting the input, quality

and impact of debates which require engagement with this aspect of telecommunications. There do

not seem to be many sociologists on Link either. The specialist knowledge represented on Link is a

precise recipe for highly-informed debate on technical matters. But by their nature such discussions

do not easily translate into information and options which can be readily understood by other groups

who would find ‘A Dummie’s Guide to the Internet’ a daunting read.

The very technicality of so many issues associated with telecommunications and computers and their

wider social outcomes increases the need to develop an underlying consensus on values, along with

transparency of process and evaluation. Any attempt to use Link to cover this additional territory

would no doubt dilute and enfeeble the quality of the current content. However Link could consider

other mechanisms for using interactive technologies more effectively in democratic and transparent


The framework of the discussion about telecommunications policy in Australian currently reflects

what have been called ‘the digital values of communication’ (Spurgeon 1997), which minimises an

earlier nation-building and redistributive orientation. Link continues to exist because of the unpaid

efforts of its owner, and the largess of the university which continues to sponsor the site. This is the

very sort of community building and altruism the Internet is famous for, and demonstrates that

commercial and democratic interests can co-exist comfortably. This pattern of social capital is

repeated at other scales, wherever individuals donate their time to enhancing technology use and

development. Yet the democratic potential of the new technologies to make policy, or other aspects

of governance, more transparent and accountable has not been fully exploited, and is generally

threatened by convergence, privitisation and similar processes associated with globalisation.

It is interesting that the most effective pressure on the government to retain some public ownership of

Telstra has come from what is being described as the ‘far right.’ Given the liberal, tolerant leanings of

subscribers to Link, this situation is disconcerting. It raises a further question: if the elite on Link are

not able to influence policy outcomes in their area of expertise, then where might one look for

democratic process in this arena? The issue of where and how to establish such a process is arguably

an issue for Link and any other gathering, virtual or otherwise, of informed and well-intentioned

netizens. Telecommunications policy is social policy (Calabrese and Borchert 1996), just as, on

another fractal level, technology use and organisational change cannot be separated. (Boddy and

Gunsun 1996)

Given the progress of events with the privitisation and deregulation of increasing components of the

information superstructure, it may not be quite accurate that ‘there is no need for electronic

democracy, as it is inherent in the Westminster system.’ That was the position of an officer in a

relevant government agency, when refusing to discuss electronic democracy with the researcher, in

the context of managing government information.

It may be that Linkers, like many other cybernauts, have been seduced by their access to convenient

and useful interactivity, mistaking global access to information and conversation for influence, while

government and the corporate world relentlessly converge to a point off-screen and to the right. One

analyst says we should call our freedom to communicate in cyberspace ‘virtual democracy - because

someone forgot to tell the transnationals.’ (Mander)

It would be interesting to know if references to Link appear in government documents about

consultation or information gathering on telecommunications policy. Notices about draft government

documents appear on Link, indicating the liklihood of a ‘paper trail’ which textualises this.

One answer to why such governance efficiencies are not as forthcoming as with electronic commerce

may lie in Zuboff’s well-known concept of ‘informating.’ This terms describes the potential for

information technology to not only analyse information but also produce information. (Zuboff 1988)

This is the feature driving ‘cookies’, along with more malign forms of surveillance. (Bogard 1996)

Zuboff maintains that this creates a fundamental choice about whether we will use this informating

potential to enhance learning or suppress innovation.

Other dualities expressing a similar concept are instrumental versus developmental, which can be

applied to the democratic process (Held 1996), or one-loop versus two-loop learning. Only

two-loop learning looks beyond efficiency to question fundamental assumptions and set new goals.


Applications of technology are always a battleground for values. The more explicit the debate over

values becomes, the greater the possibility of ensuring that technological advances serve the

‘common good.’ If this goal is not universally acceptable, and its components cannot be clarified,

then there is little chance that the current obsession with the mystical ‘market’ will be exposed,

confronted or rebalanced.

If a substantial ‘market’ existed for participation in telecommunications policy, would Link be

swamped with new subscribers, anxious to express their needs in an open forum? The self-limiting

nature of Link may be evidence to the contrary, ie, that the pluralism and populism apparent on Link

represents the maximum potential for citizen communication on this issue. Link may be ‘as good as it

gets’ from an electronic democracy perspective. Others argue that the blunted levels of public

awareness and involvement in policy issues in general is a result of the bread and circuses, or

‘tittytainment’(12) served up by a convergent and neo-liberal media (Herman and McChesney 1997).

The reality is probably somewhere in between. For this researcher, Link presents a unique

opportunity to communicate and to benefit from the sharing of information that flows through the list.

This is a precious civic entitlement that compels recognition, protection and further development.

Link’s effectiveness is partly due to its professional management and independence. The lessons

being learned now for electronic commerce could be extended to policy processes; there is a similar

need for integrated solutions that encompass a variety of available technologies and allow user

flexibility. But values are all-important in this process. We live in a world where the creation today of

public libraries as an institution would be formally described as 'not economically viable', and

privately considered ridiculous by those who make the decisions.

Returning to the initial search for public space on the Internet, we may conclude that Link partially

serves that purpose. Part of the missing element is an explicit shared vision of what interactive

technologies should do for society. Decisions affecting the shape of the information superstructure are

being made now on behalf of a citizenry which by and large has little understanding of either the

technologies or their implications. The report of the Information Policy Advisory Council(13) lists

social and community outcomes before the economic and infrastructure goals. It also acknowledges

the dominance of globalisation patterns and multinational corporations in Australia’s technology

future. The recognition of the need to ensure social benefits through the ‘commonwealth of

information’ runs through that document. Not coincidentally, one of the contributors to that report is a

librarian and co-founder of Link.


1 An overview of this research was published in Internet Research: Electronic Networking

Applications and Policy, Vol 8, Number 3, 1998.

2 The Link web site is at

3 Pubsec no longer has a home page.

4 Information about Cirg-L can be found at

5 An excerpt from one such reminder: Linkers, Lets steer the discussion away from the failings of the

US Navy and their programmers, NT boxes and redundancy and back to networks in Australia.


6 Tony Barry, personal communication

7 Government IT policy officer, personal communication.

8 Tony Barry, personal communication

9 David Brown, Cybertrends, p 17.

10 The researcher has alerted academics, a journalist and a staffer from the Telecommunications

Ombudsman's Office to the list.

11 Earlier this year a group of Linkers attempted to set up a Link Institute to formalise this role, but

the idea seems to have faded.

12 This is the term for popular appeasement used by Zbigniew Brzezinski at a meeting of global

business and political trendsetters, as reported in Martin and Schumann 1997.

13 A national policy framework for structural adjustment within the new Commonwealth of

Information, IPAC August 1997. Available at


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