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Open Source, citizenship, and the Government Online Initiative

Closing communication divides? (Project Completed, Summer 2007)

Despite great gains in bridging the digital divide in Canada over the past 10 years, there still remains a large gap in Internet access between lower income and higher income households. Public Internet access sites such as local libraries and community centers address the problem to a certain degree, but often cannot be relied upon by people with disabilities, less mobile seniors, and single parents. Given the importance and benefits of household Internet access, the proposed study will investigate the long-term sustainability of this access for lower income people who currently have household Internet access as well as examine policy and legal options that address the right to communicate in an increasingly Internet-mediated society.

The first major focus and unique contribution of the study considers recent technological innovations and developments in computer software and their relationship to lower income households. On the one hand, commercial providers of proprietary software are making it increasingly difficult to informally share software among family and friends. On the other hand, free and open source software has matured in recent years such that it is a viable alternative to proprietary software today. Given these parallel developments, this study proposes to investigate the ways in which lower income households are dealing with the challenges and opportunities presented by these recent technological changes. Not only will this research fill an important gap in our understanding of these developments, but it will also be of direct benefit to community organizations that provide support and resources to these households and to policy makers concerned with the digital divide and the opportunities provided by free and open source software in addressing this divide.

The second major and distinct focus of the study builds on insights into the micro-context of lower income households to investigate the institutional context of the federal Government On-Line initiative, which aims to provide government services via the Internet and to more fully engage citizens in the political process. To the extent that this initiative increasingly relies on Internet access, the study proposes to investigate in detail the requirements imposed on citizens as a prerequisite of communication and participation. In particular, the study will examine the degree to which these requirements are inclusive of recent innovations in free and open source software, which present new opportunities for lower income people and civil society.

Through an extensive analysis of international e-government programs, the proposed study will evaluate recent policy and law initiatives abroad that attempt to account for free and open source software and the rights of citizens to use this technology in their communication with each other and with their government. These initiatives, and their successes, shortcomings, and implementations will be analyzed to formulate options and alternatives that will inform the work of policy and law makers addressing communication rights in the Canadian context. In addition, the research findings will be of interest to systems developers involved with the Government On-Line initiative, social scientists concerned with the digital divide, and the public more generally, whose relation to each other and the government is undergoing significant changes.