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The Civic Cloud: A Public Access Model and the Internet

March 25, 2016

Bradley Holt and Jason Pelletier (Code for America)

Community media advocates have long recognized the growing importance of digital media. Forward-looking public, educational, and governmental (PEG) access organizations have embraced digital media through various forms of digital production and distribution. The Civic Cloud, a shared computing resource for community-created Internet applications and digital creative works, is an example of how the PEG access model can be applied to the Internet as a fundamentally distinct form of mass media (Ohiagu 2011).

Burlington’s Civic Cloud

The Civic Cloud is a full rack of servers and networking equipment in Burlington, Vermont. Physically located within Burlington’s fiber-optic gigabit network (which provides residential Internet speeds of 100 times the average national broadband speed (Belson 2013), the Civic Cloud hosts a growing number of community-created applications.

High-definition live streaming hosted on the Civic Cloud is used by local community media organizations. Big Heavy World, a nonprofit that preserves and promotes Vermont-made music and operates a low power FM (LPFM) community media radio station, uses this live streaming to broadcast cultural events such as concerts. CCTV Center for Media & Democracy, Burlington’s governmental access organization, plans to use this live streaming to broadcast public meetings such as local City Council meetings.

Code for BTV, Burlington’s Code for America Brigade, has worked with Big Heavy World to build a set of volunteer-developed applications, such as an online music archive. These applications, along with the Big Heavy World website, are hosted on the Civic Cloud.

Lakecraft, another Code for BTV project running on the Civic Cloud, is a re-creation of the Lake Champlain Basin in the popular multi-user game Minecraft. ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center in Burlington utilizes Lakecraft in their educational programs. The Civic Cloud could allow for instances of Lakecraft to be run in classrooms throughout Burlington.

Governance & Policies

Many potential uses of the Civic Cloud were identified during research efforts involving Civic Cloud stakeholders; including providing tools for civic hackers, nonprofits, and grassroots organizers. With an abundance of community interest, it needs a governance structure and policies around managing access. Several organizations involved in the development of the Civic Cloud are community media organizations with decades of relevant experience managing the public’s access to mass media.

Free Speech & Privacy

The Civic Cloud provides a non-commercial space where Internet applications can be developed without the economic pressures that lead to an erosion of privacy. Of the top 100 websites in the United States by traffic ranking (“Top Sites in United States” 2014), only two are non-commercial (Wikipedia and WordPress.org). While many commercial websites purport to be free, these are often funded by advertising that relies on the relinquishing of user privacy. As Bruce Schneier has said, “Surveillance is the business model of the Internet” (“Surveillance as a Business Model” 2014). This lack of privacy can have an unsettling effect on free speech.

Diversity in Digital Media

Mobile apps, websites, and other digital works are forms of media. Adults in the United States now spend more time with digital media each day than watching television. This includes web browsing, mobile apps, and other digital media (“Digital Set to Surpass TV in Time Spent with US Media” 2014).

The Internet is a highly commercialized space built by a tech industry with a striking lack of diversity. For example, 85 percent of Facebook’s tech workforce is male (50.8 percent of the United States population is female). Four percent of Facebook’s employees are Hispanic (16.9 percent of the United States population is Hispanic or Latino), and two percent are black (13.1 percent of the United States population is black or African American alone) (“Facebook Mirrors Tech Industry’s Lack of Diversity” 2014), (“USA QuickFacts” 2014).

> > The need to affirmatively provide a diversity of perspectives online is just as important as with other forms of mass media.

The digital divide has followed existing social inequalities along demarcations such as gender, race, ethnicity, and wealth (Drori 2005, 64–70). The Civic Cloud offers a non-commercial digital space in which a diversity of perspectives can be shared, with a focus on those voices most often marginalized.

A Sustainable Funding Model

The first phase of the Civic Cloud was completed with a Knight Prototype Fund grant, donated equipment, and a significant amount of highly skilled volunteer labor. The Civic Cloud was the result of collaboration between several local individuals and organizations. While the above stated factors have been critical to reaching this milestone, this approach is likely not scalable within Burlington or reproducible in other communities.

The Civic Cloud needs a sustainable funding model in order to continue to operate as a non-commercial digital space. Though not without its challenges, one potential model is a change in government policy that would allow infrastructure such as the Civic Cloud to be funded throughfranchise fees from Internet service providers. Public access television stations are able to access up to 5% of their local cable company’s gross revenues to fund their operating costs. These franchise fees are a form of rent for the use of public rights-of-way (Linder 1999, 51–53).

Although Internet service providers use the same public rights-of-way as cable television providers, they currently are not obliged to pay franchise fees on revenues from Internet service. These providers often deliver both video and Internet services over the same physical cables, yet only pay franchise fees on their video services.

Prior to a change in government policy, Internet service providers could voluntarily support projects such as the Civic Cloud. Burlington’s fiber-optic gigabit network (Burlington Telecom) is providing colocation services and other support to the Civic Cloud. For providers who have invested in next-generation fiber-optic networks, projects like this present an opportunity to showcase the unique benefits of their high-speed gigabit networks.

A Cloud for Every Community

Burlington’s Civic Cloud could inspire similar endeavors in other communities looking to promote free speech, privacy, and access to a diversity of local perspectives through digital media. Those with fiber-optic gigabit networks are likely the most fertile ground for such innovative projects. Community media organizations can play an instrumental role in the development of a shared computing resource for community-created Internet applications and digital creative works in their communities.

References

Belson, David, ed., Akamai’s State of the Internet Q4 2013 Report | Volume 6 Number 4 (Cambridge, Mass.: Akamai Technologies, 2013), 23.

Ohiagu, Obiageli P, 2011. “The Internet: The Medium of the Mass Media.” Kiabara: Journal of Humanities 16 (2): 225–232.

Drori, Gili S. 2005. Global E-Litism: Digital Technology, Social Inequality, and Transnationality. New York: Macmillan.

Linder, Laura R. 1999. Public Access Television: America’s Electronic Soapbox.** Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1999.

If you like what you just read, please click the green ‘Recommend’ button below to spread the word! More case studies and calls for submissions are on the Civic Media Project. To learn more about civic media, check out the book Civic Media: Technology, Design, Practice.

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