Regardless of what it’s called--the electronic civic sector, cyber-commons, or online town square--the notion of devoting a portion of the online world to the affairs of civil society (i.e., activities that are neither market-driven nor state-run) remains elusive. Most Internet users, after all, begin their online travels at their browser’s default start page (more often than not AOL, MSN, Yahoo, Lycos, or Excite), venturing only as far as the commercial signposts and a handful of book-marked favorites take them. Some of these destinations may include noncommercial sites that might qualify as components of a virtual civic sector, although none approaches even the comparatively meager audience (a 2 percent share) that public television captures in the broadcast world. Precisely because the Internet has become such an expansive information buffet, with seemingly boundless amounts of content (limited more by bandwidth constraints than anything else), there has been little urgency to create the kind of virtual "buffer zone" between market and state that seems so imperative in the real world. With freedom of choice reigning supreme (or so it would seem), each of us has the opportunity to create our own personal online civic sectors, in effect, book-marking trusted sources of community information, for example, or compiling other valuable civic, educational, and cultural links.
The irony, of course, is that the civic sector is supposed to represent our collective selves rather than purely individual interests. More than simply an aggregation of meritorious URLs, the online civic sector demands a critical mass of activity that will permit it to achieve, if not the popularity of the media conglomerates, at least an appearance on the radar screens of the average Internet user. The civic sector draws its strength, in short, from mutual effort and shared expertise, and we are a long way from realizing those attributes online in any meaningful way. Laudable sites abound across the spectrum of civil society--from community networks and discussion forums to voter education sites and distance learning services--but nowhere is there the general acceptance of the notion that we need an online civic sector, in an Internet that grows more commercial, and more consolidated, every day. As a result, the Internet has evolved into a decidedly laissez-faire system, one that may admit a wide variety of expression, but also one that pushes all but the most heavily promoted fare to the margins.
Reexamining the Freedom of the Internet
In that light, the "freedom" of Internet users to surf where they will, to see what they wish, must be reexamined. Recent evidence (including the remarkable finding that four companies account for approximately half of all time spent online) suggests that traffic patterns on the Internet are fast approaching those of network television. The impending broadband era, moreover, in which the majority of households will eventually connect to the Internet through cable-controlled set-top boxes, threatens to reduce the range of our travels still further. In the closed context of cable broadband, our ability to reach any site on the Web will be compromised both by marketplace impediments (with network-affiliated content highlighted in program guides and sponsored portals) and architectural constraints (with expedited transport and local caching of featured content).
Thus the civic-sector content that we take for granted today--the scattered, noble experiments in public-interest programming that happen to catch our eye--is not guaranteed to be so readily available in the broadband future. Nor is it too early to begin planning for that future now, ensuring our opportunity to reach noncommercial sites through open-access regulations, demanding public-interest obligations of commercial programmers (through bandwidth or screen "real-estate" set-asides, for example), and in general building a public commitment to the "dot-commons" concept. The long process that produced both spectrum set-asides for noncommercial broadcasting and the subsequent system of public support for educational and cultural programming needs to be re-created in the digital era. Only this time we have a chance to act before commercial interests foreclose almost all other opportunities for public-interest programming, by insisting that accommodation for an online civic sector be incorporated into the design and deployment of the new broadband networks. (For further information on various ways that the new networks can better serve the public interest, see CDD’s Broadband Bill of Rights and Open Access Principles.)
Components of an Online Civic Sector
As one means of advancing this process, the Center for Digital Democracy has assembled this virtual tour of some of the component parts of an online civic sector, with an eye toward exploring both the range of possibilities therein, and the scope of activities that might fall under the dot-commons concept. In some instances, these are full-fledged online operations, undertaking in cyberspace many of the same activities that the nonprofit sector has carried out in the real world, but with variations and innovations that the digital medium permits. In other cases, the Web sites listed below offer a window on organizations whose work continues to be rooted in physical space, performing the tasks that civil society needs in order to thrive. In both cases, however, through old media or new, real world or virtual space, the work remains vital. "Without civil society," Benjamin Barber reminds us in A Place for Us: How to Make Society Civil and Democracy Strong, "citizens are homeless: suspended between big bureaucratic governments which they no longer trust … and private markets they cannot depend on for moral and civic values…. They are without a place to express their commonality. The ‘commons’ vanishes, and where the public square once stood, there are only shopping malls and theme parks and not a single place that welcomes the ‘us’ that we might hope to gather from all the private you’s and me’s."
Here, then, is a tour of 100 online "places for us," arranged alphabetically by themes that cut across a wide range of civic sector needs and interests. These are by no means the only public-interest sites that might be recommended. Nor are they necessarily the "best" sites available (although we think most of them are very good). In fact, CDD would welcome suggestions for additions to future versions of this survey, in the following categories, all of them parts of a multifaceted online civic sector:
Human Resource Development