Is the Internet Just for the Elite?

by / February 29, 1996
I often testify and lecture before public officials and administrators about technology-aided access to public records. I invariably urge that already-computerized public records be made available for public access via the global Internet, without agency fees.

And someone invariably makes some comment about the Internet being only for the elite few -- especially after I recommend fee-free access. My response:

First, they say it's only available to those who are wealthy enough to afford it. But in fact, online access to public records is usually less expensive to the recipient than access to paper copies.

Consider the two kinds of access -- onsite access (somewhere) for review, and access in the form of an actual, removable personal copy.

To simply review a copy, one must go where the copies are located. That may mean the nearest depository library somewhere in the state or federal legislative district. But for most folks -- especially in the case of local agency information -- it means a trip down to the agency offices. At a minimum, this costs gasoline, parking fees (or possible parking tickets for the risk-prone) and possible salary loss. Additional subliminal costs include time away from work (whether home or office), and often the trauma that most citizens incur when having to face an unknown, distant bureaucracy. (Just think of it as akin to visiting an IRS office.)

For most citizens in most urban areas -- where Internet access is rapidly escalating -- the gasoline and parking costs alone would pay for most of the monthly minimum fee for CompuServe or America Online, or for many ISPs (Internet Service Providers) in competitive urban and suburban areas where the majority of the nation's population work and live.

Rural residents (I am one) might have to pay long-distance charges, but the call would almost certainly cost less than the cost of travel and parking, to say nothing of lost daylight on the farm or ranch.

Obtaining a paper copy costs even more -- the cost of xerography or the cost of an entire preprinted book, even though the recipient rarely wants most of its contents. The cost gets even worse if the item is a map or similar oversized image. (We won't even mention the environmental costs of creating the paper, creating the ink and imprinting it, delivering it to the agency, and storing it for the next several centuries in the local landfill.)

And, once acquired, the paper copy
is hard to use. Murphy's Law requires that some or all of the items of interest will not be in the index, and the
10 lengthy excerpts that must be
included in the citizen's work have to be laboriously re-typed, re-proofed and re-corrected.

Contrast these costs with the cost -- if anything -- of logging in from home, office, hotel or transcontinental vacation cottage; "visiting" the agency at whatever hour is most convenient, including evenings, holidays and weekends; and obtaining the information in a form where every word and phrase can be trivially stored, retrieved, searched and even indexed however the user desires it. Rarely needed paper copies can be printed upon demand, and text and images can be easily cut and pasted with unchanged accuracy.

But what about the cost of the computer, modem and online service? Users don't need the latest, greatest PowerMac or Pentium PC to access the Net. There's perfectly good data communications freeware and shareware that runs on some of the oldest computers one can find at a flea market.

Older, slower modems are available for almost nothing. And this year's fireball 28.8 Kbps modems are about the price of a boom box or the cheapest, smallest television.

Monthly access fees in most urban and suburban areas are $10 to $15
per month including five or 10 hours
or more. That's less than the ticket costs for two people to see a first-run movie.

And more and more communities have free or wee-fee BBSs (bulletin board systems) and civic nets that provide access to all the computerized public records that agencies are willing to provide -- if the agencies don't charge for them.

For those who still "can't afford" a used computer and modem -- to accompany their color television -- who also can't find an older one for free, there's the library, school, church basement, senior center or community hall (although these have most of the travel, parking and timing disadvantages of onsite access). More and more of these are providing free access for anyone who wants it.

Admittedly, one must learn how to use the computer, the datacomm software and the Net connection -- but those are trivial in comparison to, say, the time and expense of learning to drive or cook.

But there are real access problems.

Online access is for the elite few -- who can read; who can write, if they are to express themselves; and especially, who want access. Though it's wonderful to think otherwise, the access problem for public information is not so much, "have nots," as it is "want nots."

Jim Warren has served on the California Secretary of State's Electronic Filings Advisory Panel, received John Dvorak's Lifetime Achievement Award, the Northern California Society of Professional Journalists' James Madison Freedom of Information Award, the Hugh M. Hefner First Amendment Award, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation Pioneer Award in its first year. He founded the Computers, Freedom & Privacy conferences and InfoWorld magazine. He lives near Woodside, Calif. E-mail: