This discussion paper may ultimately generate Board motions, but initially intends to start discussion and develop issues.
This paper calls for NCF to discuss measures to retain local ownership (membership), and for NCF to re-affirm:
Ultimately, NCF exists to serve its members, who, by its bylaws, are its owners. Thus to maintain a regional focus, NCF must maintain a regional membership base.
Rights of existing members ought not be affected, no matter where they live.
NCF's attractions are two-fold: 1) dial-up internet access; 2) services and content. In 1992 when NCF started, access, content and services were all bundled together under the phrase 'computer-based information-sharing network'. The rise of the internet and world wide web in the mid-to-late 1990's caused a separation between 'access' (getting connected to the internet) and 'content and services' (what you do once connected). It is now possible and routine to use a local internet access provider (such as Bell Sympatico or Rogers) solely for access, and then go to global service providers such as Yahoo for services or to Google to find content anywhere on the global internet. The internet can make distance irrelevant -- a computer in California or China or France can respond just as quickly as a computer in Ottawa.
In 2002, NCF's dial-up internet access service remains a pillar of NCF's service to the community. By nature, dial-up access is regional; it is value primarily to people within the local telephone calling area. Thus most of NCF's members are also of this region.
NCF's services and content are also important. These include: email, newsgroups, web-page hosting, facilitating people helping people get online, and soon, 'thin client'. NCF's services and content are potentially useful to anyone connected to the global internet (distance is irrelevant). As NCF's web-based services and content improve, NCF's usage and membership base may become increasingly global (since distance is irrelevant to usage of web-based services). At the moment, usage is tied to membership, and membership is tied to voting, so increased globalization of NCF's usage may have unintended and unwanted consequences.
Should NCF's services be available to anyone on the global internet? Or are NCF services intended for the region?
When someone donates extra, who are they intending to benefit with that extra donation? People of the global internet, or people of the local region?
Do NCF members want NCF to be a local community organization, governed by members of the region, or a 'global village' organization, governed by members around the globe?
NCF's Executive Director believes strongly that many of NCF's institutional and corporate sponsors support NCF solely because it has many local members, and would not support NCF (at least not in the same way) if NCF were a global organization. It is thought that it would be much more difficult to get sponsorship for services targeting the global internet. Thus a policy that strengthens the local nature of NCF may help NCF get and retain sponsors. Without such sponsorship, it is doubtful that NCF could continue with its current donation-based policy.
Membership, and rights of membership, are difficult to change once granted. Currently, membership is available to anyone globally, and gives the right to use NCF services and to vote in NCF's AGM.
At the moment, most NCF members live in the National Capital region (eastern Ontario and western Quebec). If NCF members would like NCF to remain a "national capital region organization", then pro-active measures ought to be put in place to encourage and retain local ownership.
In this alternative, NCF is a global group of people getting together to share costs, doing something good for themselves and their planet. This acknowledges that the internet can make distance irrelevant. NCF becomes a global community services provider like Yahoo, eventually offering services in any character set and language, with members and possibly with Board members from around the globe.
This is similar to the model used by the regional library -- anyone within the region can be a voting member at no cost, and people from outside the region can be non-voting users by paying an annual fee.
Existing members would retain all current rights. Members who move out of the region would retain their membership and rights.
Regional Members Only: In this alternative, only people of the national capital region can use NCF's services or vote. People who leave the region would no longer be able to use NCF's region-only services (but anyone can read NCF web pages, etc).
Alternative 1 (status quo) is attractive being 'no effort', but if membership becomes global, it may lead to gradual overload without compensating donations, and perhaps loss of NCF's sponsors. Even if there were compensating donations, it is hard to reconcile NCF at Yahoo-style global service with the spirit of NCF's mission statement, which mentions a focus on 'people of this region'.
Would remote users donate to support a global service? Large cities (eg,. Toronto, Montreal) seem to be unable to support a FreeNet. Would sponsors, such as Carleton and Mitel, support NCF if it globalized? The belief is that most sponsors are interested in supporting NCF as a local community organization.
Alternative 3 (regional members, no global users) is a draconian subset of Alternative 2 (regional members, global users). Forcing people to relinquish their NCF hosting privileges immediately if they leave the region would be harsh and probably unpopular.
Alternative 4 (intentionally globalize) is what for-profit 'community network service providers' such as Yahoo, AOL, Microsoft, and CommunityZero are doing. If NCF pursues this alternative, it would have to consider whether its sponsors and members would support such a change of direction (and whether NCF has an appropriate ownership structure for such a venture).
Alternative 2 (regional members, global users) limits new membership to people living in the Eastern Ontario / Western Quebec region; anyone could use NCF's services, but contributions would perhaps be mandatory for not-voting users from outside the national capital region. This alternative signals that NCF is a regional service. Voting control remains in the region.
Why wait? It may be difficult (impossible) to reduce someone's privileges as a member once they become a member. Conceivably, as NCF moves increasingly toward internet-based services, with no policy change NCF could eventually have a majority of voting members outside the region, and be unable to do anything about it. It's better and less disruptive to head off this potential problem by taking simple actions now.
Policy implementation is the domain of staff, but ideas are always useful from anyone and help to supplement sometimes abstract policy discussions. Here are some ideas:
NCF's donation model is rare. Many cities have tried to set up FreeNets such as NCF, but most have failed. NCF is the only known 'FreeNet' that is able to exist without charging a mandatory membership fee (NCF asks for, but does not require, a donation). There is something special about NCF, and it is probably related to people of the national capital region, NCF's sponsors and supporters, and how NCF has been operated.
NCF mission: "The National Capital FreeNet is a free, computer-based information sharing network. It links the people and organizations of this region, provides useful information, and enables an open exchange of ideas with the world. Community involvement makes FreeNet an important and accessible meeting place, and prepares people for full participation in a rapidly changing communications environment."
NCF's most popular web homepage. Homepages allow members to become 'publishers' to the global internet, expressing their views limited only by the laws of Canada. However, do the people donating to maintain NCF's web platform and paying for the bandwidth intend it to be used by companies based in Florida?
The NCF 'homepage' with the most traffic is http://www.ncf.ca/~aa571/, a company called "Computall Services", which gives a contact address and phone number in Florida. Computall Services sells software for manipulating audio files, ripping CDs, MP3s, etc. Apparently someone is using NCF as a host for commercial purposes (and obviously successfully, since it is NCF's most-served page -- there are lots of references on the internet to Computall Services, even a mention in a review at ZDnet, at http://www.zdnet.com/windows/stories/main/0,4728,347538,00.html). Is this what NCF donors and sponsors have in mind when they support NCF? Maybe so -- nothing wrong with a member doing well, and commerce is an important part of vibrant community interactions. However, most members probably believe that NCF ought to have a regional focus and probably there ought to be a limit to how much a member asks other members to subsidize their activities.