From the book Net Traveller by Tom Worthington

Vision for a Networked Nation

This was written with Roger Clarke in May 1994 (Clarke et al. 1994). The purpose was to establish the policy of the professional body of information technologists in Australia, the Australian Computer Society, in relation to the public interest in network services. It was submitted to the ASTEC Working Group on Research Data Networks; the Broadband Services Expert Group; the Bulletin Boards Task Force; and the Senate Standing Committee on Industry, Science, Technology, Transport, Communications and Infrastructure.

The public policy debate at the time was of the `national information infrastructure'. The Internet had not yet emerged as the global network. Debate ranged over the role of the long-standing public switched telephone network, the more recent analogue mobile telephone services, the new digital mobile telecommunications services, television terrestrial broadcast, satellite and narrowcast, and cable TV.

Discussion of metaphors, such as the information superhighway, now sound very dated. What haven't dated are the economics and politics associated with an information infrastructure, public fears about what may go wrong and the role of government.

Telecommunications Convergence and the National Information Infrastructure

There is currently very active discussion about the direction of telecommunications policy in Australia. The matter is complicated by the convergence of telephone, television and data. There is also excitement from the initiative of the Clinton/Gore Administration referred to as the National Information Infrastructure (NII). It is vital that information technology (IT) professionals be active in the policy formulation process.

The Information Infrastructure (II) movement has been primarily driven in the United States, but other advanced nations are considering related initiatives, Australia among them. In the United States, the main driving forces are the progressive inter-weaving of:

Fibre-optic cables of local and long-distance telephone operators (telcos) provide sufficient capacity to compete with cable TV companies. The cable TV companies can offer services to compete with traditional telcos. Satellite and terrestrial broadcast and narrowcast are increasingly competitive with cable. The Internet is increasingly able to provide low cost services comparable to telcos.

Added to this, telcos are very heavily regulated, whereas the cable TV companies are somewhat less so. The Internet developed only during the last decade and is largely free from government interference. The large telecommunications and entertainment companies are lobbying for reduction of their regulatory regime.

Australia's infrastructure, economics and politics differ from those of the USA. Australia has a single provider of local telephone networking and services: Telstra and two long-distance operators: Telecom and Optus. It has three mobile telephone services providers, Telstra, Optus and Vodafone. Cable TV is virtually non-existent in Australia, whereas 60% of the US population has access. Its viability and coverage in Australia are unclear. Satellite services exist and are being extended.

Many competing transmission technologies are becoming available:

Most of these transmission media are likely to find niches that they can dominate. One particular technology is unlikely to be an overall winner.

Development of the technologies has redefined the businesses of various companies and previously distinct kinds of corporations are in the process of rapid convergence. Fax traffic has become very important to Telcos and increased bandwidth enables them to contemplate additional services into what was previously the entertainment sector. Meanwhile, cable TV companies want the ability to provide responses up the line and video-on-demand.

An important outcome of these developments is an expectation of ubiquitous computing and communications. Many people work at least partly from home; airports make space available in which travellers can make connections; and aircraft are being designed to provide mid-air digital connections.

The Internet's growth has been so explosive, and threatening to telcos, cable TV companies and value-added network providers, that a brief introduction is warranted.

The Internet

Technically, the Internet is just a collection of networks inter-connected using the TCP/IP standards. It emerged from the ARPAnet, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Defense to link private sector and university-based defense researchers.

The Internet is a non-hierarchical, democratically structured, collaborative arrangement. This emerged from a military priority on robustness, and dispersed, non-hierarchical networks, which exhibit greater resilience than centralised star-topologies.

AARNet (the Australian Academic and Research Network) is a segment of the Internet, which is located in Australia. It was established by the Australian Vice-Chancellor's Council (AVCC) and funded primarily by the Universities, the CSIRO, and the Australian Research Council.

The Internet has spawned an extraordinary explosion in creativity. Outside North America, Australia is one of the most vigorous participants, both in terms of usage and contributions.

Initially, access required considerable technical capability; but the days of obscure services such as `ftp' and `archie' are quickly receding. Contemporary services which provide server and client software for:

Documents accessible via the Internet are no longer limited to abstruse computer science papers, discussions about pop-groups, films and life on the net, game software and university student polemics. For example, university library catalogues are accessible over it; specialist collections of scientific papers and data can be located using it; government committees make their discussion papers available over it; lobby groups prepare their submissions to government committees on it. Government agencies in places as remote as Washington DC, California, Wisconsin, Tasmania and now in Canberra, publish reports, Bills, submissions and proceedings on servers connected to the Internet.

To sustain some semblance of order and accessibility within the Internet's constructive anarchy, programs busy themselves constructing directories of participating sites and people, and registers of documents.

The services are maturing beyond structured data and text. Sound, graphics and images can also be transmitted. Text messages can be delivered to fax machines, circumventing the telcos' much more expensive direct-dialled fax services. Synchronous conversations are being supported, particularly in text, but also using sound. Video (moving-image) transmission is being trialed in many locations, and may well make the `video-phone' widely available before the telcos can launch `official' telephone-with-picture services.

If it were left alone, the Internet, or rather corporations exploiting it, may well mature into alternative value-added telecommunications service-providers. These will be in direct competition with telcos, and perhaps cable TV operators, for some of their mainstream services.

In a decade's time, the Internet may prove to have been just an experiment that leads to the inter-network of the early twenty-first century. Nonetheless, its exponential growth, the scale it has achieved, the services it provides, and the vibrancy of the electronic communities it has spawned, have attracted the attention of telcos, cable TV companies, and governments.

The Information Infrastructure and Information Services

The design of a networked nation needs to be such that users are unaware of the technical features upon which they depend.

It is conventional and useful to distinguish two levels: the infrastructure, and the services that depend on it:

Information Infrastructures

A wide diversity of services has already been delivered and many additional variants will emerge. The information infrastructure must make all of these available in order to bring about a networked nation.

Indicative List of Information Services

Generally the infrastructure should support all services, despite their different requirements. Some services will require special features and require either multiple infrastructures, or multiple backbones within the national information infrastructure.

Special Features

For commercial services the infrastructure must support convenient value-transfer. Insecure credit cards need to be supplemented by encryption, and in due course replaced by more sophisticated alternatives such as electronic cash based on chip-cards. This requires the incorporation of appropriate features into the infrastructure.

Metaphors on the Superhighway

Analogies will inevitably be used in policy discussions, because the issues confronting government regulatory agencies and parliamentarians are unfamiliar. Particularly in the United States, but increasingly also in Australia, the information infrastructure is commonly referred to as the Information Superhighway and equivalents in other languages.

Metaphors need to be carefully chosen, to avoid the risk of the regulatory decision-making being made based on serious misunderstandings. There are many problems with the term superhighway. It is a little long for common usage, and the term infobahn has emerged to address that deficiency. More importantly, however, highway has many negative associations, ranging from traffic jams, accidents and speeding tickets, to tollways. It implies massive investment, and a swathe cut through the countryside.

A number of alternative notions are popular among Internet and sci-fi aficionados. `The Net', `the Matrix', and `the Web' all have appeal, but lack the power to convey the essential difference to newcomers. `Cyberspace' may be technically misleading, but its virgin nature enabled William Gibson, Bruce Sterling and others to paint meaning on a blank canvas. It still seems unlikely, however, that an idea popularly defined as `shared hallucination' will be saleable to hardheaded public servants, parliamentarians and Cabinet Ministers.

Finally, perhaps a metaphor should be chosen which is driven not by the technical way in which the information infrastructure works, but rather by the social possibilities it delivers. For example, images such as electronic `collective', `community' and `society' may better convey the real meaning, or, in Australian terms, `the bush telegraph'.

The Public Interest

The purpose of this section is to argue the critical importance of the public's interest in the information infrastructure debates. The term `the public' is used here to refer to the non-corporate participants in society, including individuals, informal groups and communities of common interest, not-for-profit incorporated associations, and small businesses. It is used in distinction to large corporations, including government agencies and authorities, government business enterprises and large joint stock corporations.

The Internet

The Internet and the culture surrounding it cannot be understood on the basis only of corporations seeking to exploit resources. The net has long been a playground for individuals, and a significant proportion of the traffic has been of little direct benefit to their employers. It has been of great indirect importance, however, as it has resulted in the foundation of electronic communities, and an explosion of creativity.

Access to networked resources is quickly assuming the shape of a public utility, i.e. a service that needs to be available to all, on an equitable basis. Advanced western societies have recognised clean water, electricity and the telephone as facilities that the majority of people should have access to. In the same manner, network access becoming a reasonable expectation a civilised information society. However, unlike many utilities, an information infrastructure must support a great diversity of services.

The Public Electronic Library

Closely associated with the rise of the Internet has been the re-definition of the notion of library. Documents are increasingly coming into life in electronic form and made available via the Internet.

The librarianship profession is adapting by reducing its curatorship function and accentuating its knowledge navigation expertise. Libraries for many years have been the way equitable access to knowledge, and to literature, have been provided to people in all walks of life. Equity of access to the new, dispersed electronic library must be sustained.

Network Literacy

A necessary condition for public access to network services is the widespread ability to use them. Public book-libraries could only be of benefit where social programs were instituted to promote literacy in the population. The notion of literacy, and the focus of literacy programs, needs to reflect the new electronic environment.

The whole population needs skills in order to operate computer equipment and use the basic application software. Moreover, the nature of the media makes new styles of communication necessary. For example, replying to email demands care with the selection of addressees. Commenting on documents, and on other people's comments about documents, requires some form of linking arrangements or text to ensure that recipients understand to what the comment relates.

The Universal Telephone Service

The people who wrote the Australian Constitution at the end of the nineteenth century recognised that equitable, universal access to transport and telecommunications services was fundamental to the cohesion of the federation. Roads, telegraph and telephone links were critical to the agrarian and emergent industrial society of 1894. A century later, equitable, universal access to the much wider range of networking services is at least as critical to the cohesion of our information-based society.

A further important aspect of telephone services, is the freedom from monitoring of and interference with conversations. The cluster of rights associated with freedom of thought, freedom of communication and freedom of assembly must be embedded in the conception and architecture of the information infrastructure.

Supplier-Driven Services versus Participation

The public switched telephone network is `symmetrical', i.e. all parties have comparable capacity to send and receive signals. The pattern of cable television has tended to be `asymmetrical', or `broadcast' in style, i.e. suppliers have high sending capacity, and drive their products and services outwards. Consumers have little or no capability to send messages, and adopt a passive role, choosing among the supplier-decided alternatives placed before them.

The new information infrastructure could be conceived and developed using the asymmetrical model, supplier-driven, with consumers passively selecting among 500 largely similar channels (as the popular image of next-generation cable TV has it). This would be greatly against the public interest. The model to be preferred is one more nearly symmetrical, in which consumers have at least the ability to provide responses, and even to initiate.

With sufficient outgoing capacity, people can actively participate in decision-making, and can contribute to the pool of available materials. A measure of the success of the infrastructure will be the extent to which it enables appropriately motivated and organised individuals to be service providers, performing electronic publishing and maintaining collections for access by others.

This capability can be applied in other contexts as well. Of particular importance is the use of the information infrastructure to encourage the public to exercise their democratic rights and responsibilities.

Justifying the Public Interest

The public interest being the primary determinant of the information infrastructure architecture might be criticised as idealistic. However, notions of social equity, equal opportunity, and assistance for the socially and educationally disadvantaged have become established underpinnings of contemporary Australian society.

At the political level, genuine democracy demands that the information infrastructure provide access to information to the population as a whole. Resource allocation and public policy must not be arranged to suit narrow sectional interests.

The clever country with a high standard of living, and high labour costs, must harness the creativity of its well-educated population. Distance education must become much more than just a means to attain geographical equity for far-flung populations; it must become a way of life for a workforce continually preparing itself for the next change in market demands. Universal access to network services is a pre-condition for any society that seeks to sustain its well being in a world in which an increasingly large proportion of countries are becoming clever.

There are also potential benefits to be gained from a greater proportion of the population interacting with people in other countries, improving mutual understanding and tolerance. Moreover, Internet services are designed to be robust and are therefore appropriate for third-world countries, with scope for advanced nations like Australia to help.

Public Dangers in the Information Infrastructure

There is a danger in assuming conclusions reached in the United States are directly relevant to Australia's needs. Australia needs to determine its own priorities.

At the other extreme, Australia may adopt too parochial an outlook. The Internet is inherently superordinate to national jurisdictions. Australia must conceive of its information infrastructure as a component of a `global information infrastructure'.

Dominance of the Agenda by Corporate Interests

There is a danger that the agenda may be captured, by large organisations:

The ethos of the Internet favours the general good of its electronic citizens, not sectional self-interest, and this ethos needs to permeate the networked nation. For the public to have confidence in the information infrastructure, the decision-making process about its architecture needs to be undertaken with the maximum practicable degree of participation and visibility.

Destruction of the Collaborative Community through Commercialisation

Commercial services must be able to develop, while sustaining the non-commercial, mutual-service ethos of existing communities. This implies formal recognition within the information infrastructure architecture of both for-profit and not-for-profit sectors. Not-for-profit communities must be able to keep themselves free from commercial incursions.

Excessive Intervention by Government into Network Architecture

The worst-case scenario would be an attempt to create the information infrastructure by a government agency or a tightly regulated monopoly. Tight government regulation would result in a lack of diversity in carriers and technologies. An example of such a mistake would be for the government to pick winners among ISDN, ATM, fibre-optic versus various kinds of copper cable, geosynchronous-orbit satellite, low-orbit satellite, analogue cellular and digital cellular technologies.

It is vital that government not intervene unless it is clear that: a market failure is occurring, i.e. socially desired developments are not occurring; or the line of development being taken by the market is harmful to Australia's socio-economic objectives and these aims cannot be achieved without intervention.

Architecture Designed to Suit Supplier-Driven Services

The architecture must facilitate participation by the public in both the provision and consumption of services. A particular concern is that the architecture might reflect the old pattern of corporate-sender / passive-consumer. This was consistent with broadcast telecommunications, but it is not consistent with the new environment where two-way communication and consumer-initiated selective transmission are economically feasible.

Excessive Intervention by Government into Services and Traffic Content

In the United States, government agencies have moved to ensure that the information infrastructure can be readily eavesdropped. In Australia, some of the first suggestions made have been for the censorship of data flows on the Internet, due to the scope for it to be used to disseminate pornographic and racist materials.

It is inconsistent with the notion of a free society to commence with a design requirement that the content of communications be subject to the purview of government agencies. That would be equivalent to designing public spaces like parks and street-corners in such a manner that conversations could be monitored, requiring all mail to be left unsealed to facilitate inspection, requiring prior submission of all published materials to the Chief Censor, and outlawing the use of vague language and unauthorised dialects on the telephone (or, indeed, anywhere else).

Controls over content should be when published material comes to the notice of regulatory authorities. The law should be modified to ensure that the standards applied to other kinds of communication are also applied to network-based communications. However, no pre-emptive powers should be built into the infrastructure.

Pre-justified court-issued warrants should be necessary before tapping of network traffic is undertaken. The design of the infrastructure should not be subverted in order to facilitate interception.

Similarly, there is a concern that the provision of services might be permitted only subject to prior licensing of the service and/or the service-provider. Controls should be exercised over services that breach the law; the force of the law should not be used to pre-determine which corporations will profit from the new order.

Licensing would stultify creativity, and reduce diversity of supply, leading to higher prices. Some industries will undergo a revolution because of application of the information infrastructure (not least of them the publishing, entertainment and news industries). This will benefit of the public, although not necessarily of the corporations presently active in those industries.

Inequity of Access

Access to the infrastructure may be advantaging some organisations and people at the expense of others. In many cases, access inequities are likely to compound existing discrimination:

The Basis of Charging

One way bias can come about against the public in general, and against particular classes of people, is through the charging for the information infrastructure.

One approach, which would be inimical to the public interest, would be to `front-end load' the charges to consumers, small groups and communities, incorporated associations and small business. This might involve high connection fees, high software or set-up costs for each small organisation, or high annual subscriptions. This would have the highly detrimental effect of discouraging a great many people from ever connecting to the information infrastructure, or from gaining access to particular services.

A related concern is that small organisations and people who are in remote locations may be forced to bear a large proportion of the costs involved in the outreach of the infrastructure and the services to them. As argued earlier, this is contrary to the principles on which the Commonwealth of Australia was founded. Any per-transaction or data volume charges that are levied should be distance-independent, at least for traffic within Australia, as is already the case with data transmission via the public packet-switched network, Austpac.

A Tower of Babel of Standards

If proprietary protocols were to dominate, then inter-operability among services, would be restricted. This is largely overcome in the Internet. It is desirable that, once each new carrier-technology and each new service stabilises, standards be generally open and non-proprietary. Standardisation may require encouragement through government policies, and in extreme instances even mandating through legislation.

The Information Infrastructure as a Weapon of Surveillance

There is a fear that the enthusiasm of security, law enforcement and other control-oriented agencies to use the information infrastructure as a means of monitoring the population will unduly influence its design. The Courts should supervise appropriate agencies with the legal authority to intercept and monitor flows. The interceptability and monitorability of traffic should not be a requirement of the information infrastructure. To do this would not only warp the architecture, but would also create political power even more dangerous than the criminal activities it would assist in detecting and prosecuting.

This concern about monitoring of network traffic is particularly pronounced in the United States, because its National Security Agency is seeking to sustain its ability to intercept communications by exercising control over the use of cryptographic techniques. This has led to the current controversy over the so-called `Clipper-Chip' for telephones and `Tessera-Chip' for data transmission. There have been no public signs of Australian security agencies seeking to control the use of cryptography.

Policy Proposals

This section considers the role of government generally, then proposes a specific agenda for government in relation to the information infrastructure and services available over that infrastructure.

The Role of Government

Historically, it has been normal for infrastructure to be established, and in many cases also maintained, partly or even entirely by government agencies. Ports, rail and road transport corridors, water, electricity and gas, health and education are common examples. In addition, in most countries of the world, the provision of basic telecommunications infrastructure is undertaken by government agencies.

The conventional presumptions in Australia in the 1990s are that government has the responsibilities to:

Because it is so vital to Australia's future, it is imperative that the Commonwealth Government adopts a very positive stance in relation to the Information Infrastructure.

Australia's population is heavily concentrated in a few urban centres, with small numbers scattered over the remainder of a vast continent. It is difficult to achieve equity in such a context, regionally, and even racially.


Very substantial long-distance and international capacity is installed, but is currently priced very high in order to ensure profit from the investment. These prices are falling only very slowly. There appear to be essential areas in which monopoly conditions still exist, and hence direct intervention may be required.

Consideration is needed as to whether AARNet represents the basis of the information infrastructure, or merely a prototype. It would therefore be beneficial for both AARNet and alternative services to be allowed to develop in parallel. Hence, basic telecommunications links should be readily available to intermediaries and end-users.

The central elements of the information infrastructure require substantial public funding, at least in the early years of development. This is needed in order to ensure that the manner in which the costs are allocated does not inhibit use, or bias developments against the interests of the Australian public. However, the further development of the information infrastructure needs to be facilitated by the encouragement of competition among many suppliers of diverse technologies.

Some features of an entirely market-driven infrastructure are unlikely to satisfy the needs of Australian society, and some intervention is needed. Important public interests which need to be protected:

This refers not only to the possibility of connection, but also to the practicality and costs involved;

To ensure that the market addresses these specific matters, the government has a range of approaches at its disposal:

Governmental Stimulatory Measures

Governmental Coordination Measures

Governmental Regulatory Measures

Adaptation of existing laws to deal with the new networked environment, and maintain an effective balance between the interests of originators and owners of data and services, and users of data and services. In extreme and well-justified cases, this might include licensing. Particular areas in which activities may prove to be necessary include:

Some kinds of what might be referred to as `high-science' research need a high capacity network. Consideration could be given to the funding of such a network for Australian `high-science' research.

Another segment, which has a requirement for high-capacity, is distance education.


At the level of services, government again does not need to, and should not, adopt a general role of services provider, nor of services planner, nor of services regulator. The market appears to be, subject to a few provisos, sufficiently enthusiastic and dynamic to ensure appropriate development of services, and access by Australians to services available in other countries.

Individual agencies, however, should be active participants both as users and as providers of network services. Of especial importance are such services as electronic data interchange (EDI - structured business transactions transmitted electronically rather than using hard-copy documents).

Care is needed concerning the pricing policies adopted by agencies which offer services or data of interest to corporations, other government agencies, researchers, and the public generally. It is important that the same policy be adopted as by the Clinton Administration in its NII initiative: free availability of basic data, and pricing of the remainder at the cost of dissemination only.

In addition, law enforcement is of course necessary in relation to services that break the law. Legislative amendments to ensure clarity of the law, and, in extreme and well-justified cases, licensing, may also be necessary in respect of some kinds of services provided using the networked nation's information infrastructure.


A networked nation is emerging. It is critical that the public's interest in the services, and in the underlying infrastructure, be reflected at all stages in its development and use. Specific, targeted government actions will contribute to the process. Excessive governmental involvement in activities that will develop satisfactorily anyway, would, on the other hand, retard and distort the available services and the underlying infrastructure.

The government must recognise the importance of its multiple roles:

Australia's information technology academics have placed Australia among the top few nations in relation to the implementation of networking. This important national asset needs to be recognised and exploited for the economic and social benefit of all Australians. Australia's IT professionals, through such bodies as the Australian Computer Society, need to continue to promote the country's expertise to our Parliamentarians, community leaders and the community as a whole.

Discussion Questions

  1. Trace the use of the term Networked Nation for public policy in Australia, the US and other countries. When and where was it first used?
  2. How many of the policy proposals in this document found their way into government reports? How many were adopted by Government? Where did they originate?
  3. Check press clippings and other media records to try to determine how long it took the concepts in this document to come to public prominence. Count the occurrence of particular words or phrases.
  4. Information technology develops rapidly and tends to render policy obsolete quickly. Which of the observations and recommendations are no longer relevant?
  5. Where are the current information infrastructure policies for Australian Government expressed? Are those documents on-line?
  6. Which, if any, policy issues discussed are yet to be resolved in Australia? Why?
  7. Several now largely obsolete technologies are mentioned, including archie, gopher and WAIS. What are these? When did they come to prominence and go out of use? What replaced them? What applicability do they still have, if any?


  1. Clarke, R. and Worthington, T. (1994) Vision for a Networked Nation - The Public Interest in Network Services, Australian Computer Society, URL

Further Information

Copyright © Tom Worthington 1999.