The Internet and Public Interest Theory

Marcus Breen


Prevailing views of the policy processes associated with the Internet vary dramatically and are generally untheorized. By adopting Public Interest Theory, the examination of Information Technology policy and its implementation in relation to the Internet can be undertaken. Public interest theory maintains that universal service should be a government policy priority in constructing local, regional, national and global infrastructures. Yet some evidence suggests that the public Internet is developing more slowly and in isolation from private systems and networks. With Intranets expanding alongside private use of the Internet, major reconfigurations of I.T. are taking place, which may include no constituents of Public Interest. Two I.T. models are developing, creating a significant challenge to Public Interest Theory, users and ethicists.

This paper will use Public Interest Theory to discuss two approaches to Government Policy and the Internet:

  1. Industry Model;
  2. Government Policy Model.

Model 1: Vertical Influence – Industry Model The cyber-elite in the industry driven model offers a tiered perspective of the science-technology-business nexus which is dominating US I.T. activity. This model could be characterized as the top down approach. Implications flowing from this approach are that the market has been perceived by the cyber-elite to exist at three levels: the I.T. Public; the US. Public; the Global Public. The meaning of universal service and the public interest is problematic and increasingly secondary.

Model 2: Horizontal Coordination – Government Policy Model Here, interests associated with the creative, Government and academic sectors are not treated as relegated participants in I.T. The alignment of the tiers differ considerably in this model from the Industry Model. Government-industry-technology and creative sectors share a partnership in national and global activities. Academic and science concerns are closely related yet problematic. The relationships speak to and for the public through I.T., communications and artistic policy statements, closely associated with consultative policy formulation. Public benefit is considered a localized, national, yet contestable goal, linked directly to universal service obligations.

Knowledge of these two models of Government policy provide insights into the approaches to Internet and Communications Policy. Public interest theory may sensitize policy makers to the constituents of the policy process. The paper will make a clear distinction between the public threshold of universal access to communication technologies in the US, compared with an example from Victoria, Australia.

Both models recognize public interest and the responsibility of Governments and related authorities to accept their policy advocacy function. The paper will describe differences in the approach taken by Governments to these models and the ethical dilemmas arising.

The paper will argue that limits to growth and universal service are prevalent within the Industry model, where the US government has minimized policy activity in response to industry pressure. In Australia, the partnership between levels of activity offers greater public interest outcomes.