The Link list and telecommunications policy: improved effectiveness or an electric elite?
Paper prepared for Communication Research Forum, Canberra, September 1998
[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
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.
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
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 http://sunsite.anu.edu.au/link
3 Pubsec no longer has a home page.
4 Information about Cirg-L can be found at http://www.ogit.gov.au
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 http://www.ipac.gov.au/
Aikens, Scott. (1996). "A History of Minnesota Electronic Democracy 1994". Proceedings of INET
'96. Annual Conference, Internet Society. Montreal http://www.dar.cam.ac.uk/gsa1001/Paper2.html
Anderson, Liane Argyris and Schon's theory on congruence and learning. Accessed from the Web
page with URL: http://www.scu.edu.au/schools/sawd/arr/argyris.html May 1997.
Barry, Tony. (1997). "The link list on network policy". AUSWEB 97. Gold Coast, Queensland
Beder, Sharon. (1997). Global Spin - the corporate assault on environmentalism. Scribe
Boddy, David, & Gunson, Nicky. (1996). Organizations in the Network Age. Routledge: London
Bogard, William. (1996). The simulation of surveillance - hypercontrol in telematic societies.
Cambridge University Press: Cambridge
Branscomb, Anne W. (1994). Who Owns Information? from privacy to public access. Basic Books:
Brown, David. (1998). Cybertrends - Chaos, Power and Accountability in the Information Age.
Calabrese, Andrew, & Borchert, Mark. (1996). "Prospects for electronic democracy in the United
States: rethinking communication and social policy". Media, Culture and Society, 18(2), 249-268.
Clayton, Peter. (1996). "Email surveys: old problems with a new delivery medium". LASIE, 27(2),
Considine, Mark. (1994). Public Policy: A Critical Approach. Macmillan: Melbourne
Dahl, Robert A. (1989). Democracy and its Critics. Yale University Press: New Haven and London
Doheny-Farina, Stephen. (1996). The Wired Neighborhood. Yale University Press: New Haven and
Fang, Nien-Hsuan. (1995). The Internet as a Public Sphere: A Habermasian Approach. PhD Thesis,
State University of New York at Buffalo.
Feenberg, Andrew. (1991). Critical Theory of Technology. Oxford University Press: New York and
Geiselhart, Karin. (1996). "Factors Affecting the Spread of Electronic Democracy in the Australian
Public Service". Proceedings of AUSWEB 96, The Second World Wide Web Conference. Jupiter's
Casino, Gold Coast, Queensland 7-9 July, 1996
Geiselhart, Karin. (1997). "Moving towards the millenium" pp. 96-102 in An ethical global
information society - democracy and culture revisited, Jacques Berleur, & Diane Whitehouse
(editors), Chapman and Hall: London
Gomez, Richard. (1997). "Information society and civil society: non-governmental organizations and
computer-mediated communication in Latin America" pp. 186-196 An ethical global information
society - democracy and culture revisited, Jacques Berleur, & Diane Whitehouse (editors), Chapman
and Hall: London
Hauben, Michael, & Hauben, Ronda. (1997). Netizens - On the History and Impact of Usenet and
the Internet. IEEE Computer Society Press: Los Alamitos, California
Haywood, Trevor. (1995). Info-Rich Info-Poor: access and exchange in the global information
society. Bowker-Saur: London
Held, David. (1996). Models of Democracy (second edition). Polity Press: Cambridge
Herman, Edward S., & McChesney, Robert W. (1997). The Global Media - the new missionaries
of global capitalism. Cassell: London and Washington
Klein, Hans. (1996). "Public Access Television and Democratic Empowerment: Lessons for the
Internet". Internet Society Conference: Transforming Society Now. Montreal June 1996
Lyon, David. (1988). The Information Society - issues and illusions. Polity Press: Cambridge
Macpherson, M Citizen politics and the renewal of democracy . Accessed from the Web page with
URL: http://www.snafu.de/~mjm/CP/cp2.html May 1998.
Mander, Jerry The Net Loss of the Computer Revolution . Accessed from the Web page with URL:
http://www.corpwatch.org/trac/feature/feature1/mander.html July 1996.
Martin, H. P., & Schumann, H. (1997). The Global Trap - Globalisaton and the Assault on
Democracy and Prosperity Patrick Camiller translator . Pluto Press: Sydney
McChesney, Robert. (1996). "The Internet and US Communication Policy-Making in Historical and
Critical Perspective". Journal of Communication, 98-119.
Meeks, Brock. (1997). "Better Democracy Though Technology". Communications of the ACM, Vol
40(No 2), 75-78.
Nieuwenhuizen, John. (1997). Asleep at the Wheel - Australia on the superhighway. ABC Books:
Pateman, Carole. (1970). Participation and Democratic Theory. Cambridge University Press:
Preissl, Brigitte. (1997). "Information technology: A Critical Perspective on its Economic Effects".
Prometheus, 15(1), 5-26.
Reinecke, Ian. (1989). "Information as a free public good" pp. 147-162 in Australian
Communications and the Public Sphere, Essays in Memory of Bill Bonney, Helen Wilson (editor),
Macmillan: Sydney and Melbourne
Rosenberg, Richard S. (1997). The Social Impact of Computers, second edition. Academic Press:
Sachs, Hiram. (1995). "Computer networks and the formation of public opinion: an ethnographic
study". Media, Culture & Society, 17, 81-99.
Semler, Ricardo. (1994). Maverick! Arrow: London
Shapiro, Andrew L. Is the Net Democratic? Yes -- and No Accessed from the Web page with
URL: http://cyber.harvard.edu/shapiroworld.html March 1998.
Spender, Dale. (1995). Nattering on the Net. Spinifex Press: Melbourne
Spurgeon, Christine. (1997). The Digital Value of Communication. PhD Thesis, University of
Strangman, Denis. (1996). "List servers as a discussion forum across the public sector". INTERNET:
Superhighway or Goat Track, Seminar organised by the Institute of Public Administration Australia
(ACT Branch). Canberra 26 February 1996
Zuboff, Shoshana. (1988). In the Age of the Smart Machine - The Future of Work and Power.
Heinemann Professional Publishing: Oxford
Return to Karin Geiselhart's papers