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EFFector - Volume 2, Issue 11 - Shari Steele on The Modem Tax Legend


EFFector - Volume 2, Issue 11 - Shari Steele on The Modem Tax Legend

########## ########## ########## |        Shari Steele on            |
########## ########## ########## |       THE MODEM TAX LEGEND        |
####       ####       ####       |                                   |
########   ########   ########   |       Howard Rheingold on         |
########   ########   ########   |     VIRTUAL COMMUNITIES, 1992     |
####       ####       ####       |      (First of three parts)       |
########## ####       ####       |                                   |
########## ####       ####       | to wed |
EFFector Online             June 22, 1992                  Issue 2.11|
         A Publication of the Electronic Frontier Foundation         |
                           ISSN 1062-9424                            |

[Note: Because of the length of this essay, this is the first of three
parts, to be published in consecutive editions of EFFector.  Our readers
are asked to take careful note of the author's remarks at the end of
each section.]

                               (Part One)
                     by Howard Rheingold  June 1992

    I'm a writer, so I spend a lot of time alone in a room with my words
and my thoughts. On occasion, I venture outside to interview people or
to find information. After work, I reenter the human community, via my
family, my neighborhood, my circle of acquaintances.  But that regime
left me feeling isolated and lonely during the working day, with few
opportunities to expand my circle of friends. For the past seven years,
however, I have participated in a wide-ranging, intellectually
stimulating, professionally rewarding, sometimes painful, and often
intensely emotional ongoing interchange with dozens of new friends,
hundreds of colleagues, thousands of acquaintances.  And I still spend
many of my days in a room, physically isolated. My mind, however, is
linked with a worldwide collection of like-minded (and not so
like-minded) souls: My virtual community.

           Virtual communities emerged from a surprising intersection of
humanity and technology.  When the ubiquity of the world telecomm
network is combined with the information structuring and storing
capabilities of computers, a new communication medium becomes possible.
As we've learned from the history of the telephone, radio, television,
people can adopt new communication media and redesign their way of life
with surprising rapidity. Computers, modems, and communication networks
furnish the technological infrastructure of computer-mediated
communication (CMC); cyberspace is the conceptual space where words and
human relationships, data and wealth and power are manifested by people
using CMC technology; virtual communities are cultural aggregations that
emerge when enough people bump into each other often enough in

    A virtual community as they exist today is a group of people who may
or may not meet one another face to face, and who exchange words and
ideas through the mediation of computer bulletin boards and networks. In
cyberspace, we chat and argue, engage in intellectual intercourse,
perform acts of commerce, exchange knowledge, share emotional support,
make plans, brainstorm, gossip, feud, fall in love, find friends and
lose them, play games and metagames, flirt, create a little high art and
a lot of idle talk. We do everything people do when people get together,
but we do it with words on computer screens, leaving our bodies behind.
Millions of us have already built communities where our identities
commingle and interact electronically, independent of local time or
location. The way a few of us live now might be the way a larger
population will live, decades hence.

    The pioneers are still out there exploring the frontier, the borders
of the domain have yet to be determined, or even the shape of it, or the
best way to find one's way in it. But people are using the technology of
computer-mediated communications CMC technology to do things with each
other that weren't possible before. Human behavior in cyberspace, as we
can observe it and participate in it today, is going to be a crucially
important factor. The ways in which people use CMC always will be rooted
in human needs, not hardware or software.

    If the use of virtual communities turns out to answer a deep and
compelling need in people, and not just snag onto a human foible like
pinball or pac-man, today's small online enclaves may grow into much
larger networks over the next twenty years. The potential for social
change is a side-effect of the trajectory of telecommunications and
computer industries, as it can be forecast for the next ten years.  This
odd social revolution -- communities of people who may never or rarely
meet face to face -- might piggyback on the technologies that the
biggest telecommunication companies already are planning to install over
the next ten years.

    It is possible that the hardware and software of a new global
telecommunications infrastructure, orders of magnitude more powerful
than today's state of the art, now moving from the laboratories to the
market, will expand the reach of this spaceless place throughout the
1990s to a much wider population than today's hackers, technologists,
scholars, students, and enthusiasts. The age of the online pioneers will
end soon, and the cyberspace settlers will come en-masse.  Telecommuters
who might have thought they were just working from home and avoiding one
day of gridlock on the freeway will find themselves drawn into a whole
new society. Students and scientists are already there, artists have
made significant inroads, librarians and educators have their own
pioneers as well, and political activists of all stripes have just begun
to discover the power of plugging a computer into a telephone. When
today's millions become tens and hundreds of millions, perhaps billions,
what kind of place, and what kind of model for human behavior will they

    Today's bedroom electronic bulletin boards, regional computer
conferencing systems, global computer networks offer clues to what might
happen when more powerful enabling technology comes along. The hardware
for amplifying the computing and communication capacity of every home on
the world-grid is in the pipeline, although the ultimate applications
are not yet clear. We'll be able to transfer the Library of Congress
from any point on the globe to any another point in seconds, upload and
download full-motion digital video at will. But is that really what
people are likely to do with all that bandwidth and computing power?
Some of the answers have to come from the behavioral rather than the
technological part of the system. How will people actually use the
desktop supercomputers and multimedia telephones that the engineers tell
us we'll have in the near future.

    One possibility is that people are going to do what people always do
with a new communication technology: use it in ways never intended or
foreseen by its inventors, to turn old social codes inside out and make
new kinds of communities possible. CMC will change us, and change our
culture, the way telephones and televisions and cheap video cameras
changed us -- by altering the way we perceive and communicate.  Virtual
communities transformed my life profoundly, years ago, and continue to
do so.

A Cybernaut's Eye View

    The most important clues to the shape of the future at this point
might not be found in looking more closely at the properties of silicon,
but in paying attention to the ways people need to, fail to, and try to
communicate with one another. Right now, some people are convinced that
spending hours a day in front of a screen, typing on a keyboard,
fulfills in some way our need for a community of peers.  Whether we have
discovered something wonderful or stumbled into something insidiously
unwonderful, or both, the fact that people want to use CMC to meet other
people and experiment with identity are valuable signposts to possible
futures. Human behavior in cyberspace, as we can observe it today on the
nets and in the BBSs, gives rise to important questions about the
effects of communication technology on human values. What kinds of
humans are we becoming in an increasingly computer-mediated world, and
do we have any control over that transformation? How have our
definitions of "human" and "community" been under pressure to change to
fit the specifications of a technology-guided civilization?

    Fortunately, questions about the nature of virtual communities are
not purely theoretical, for there is a readily accessible example of the
phenomenon at hand to study. Millions of people now inhabit the social
spaces that have grown up on the world's computer networks, and this
previously invisible global subculture has been growing at a monstrous
rate recently (e.g., the Internet growing by 25% per month).

    I've lived here myself for seven years; the WELL and the net have
been a regular part of my routine, like gardening on Sunday, for one
sixth of my life thus far. My wife and daughter long ago grew accustomed
to the fact that I sit in front of my computer early in the morning and
late at night, chuckling and cursing, sometimes crying, about something
I am reading on the computer screen. The questions I raise here are not
those of a scientist, or of a polemicist who has found an answer to
something, but as a user -- a nearly obsessive user -- of CMC and a deep
mucker-about in virtual communities. What kind of people are my friends
and I becoming? What does that portend for others?

    If CMC has a potential, it is in the way people in so many parts of
the net fiercely defend the use of the term "community" to describe the
relationships we have built online. But fierceness of belief is not
sufficient evidence that the belief is sound. Is the aura of community
an illusion? The question has not been answered, and is worth asking.
I've seen people hurt by interactions in virtual communities. Is
telecommunication culture capable of becoming something more than what
Scott Peck calls a "pseudo-community," where people lack the genuine
personal commitments to one another that form the bedrock of genuine
community? Or is our notion of "genuine" changing in an age where more
people every day live their lives in increasingly artificial
environments? New technologies tend to change old ways of doing things.
Is the human need for community going to be the next technology

    I can attest that I and thousands of other cybernauts know that what
we are looking for, and finding in some surprising ways, is not just
information, but instant access to ongoing relationships with a large
number of other people. Individuals find friends and groups find shared
identities online, through the aggregated networks of relationships and
commitments that make any community possible. But are relationships and
commitments as we know them even possible in a place where identities
are fluid? The physical world, known variously as "IRL" ("In Real
Life"), or "offline," is a place where the identity and position of the
people you communicate with are well known, fixed, and highly visual. In
cyberspace, everybody is in the dark. We can only exchange words with
each other -- no glances or shrugs or ironic smiles. Even the nuances of
voice and intonation are stripped away. On top of the technology-imposed
constraints, we who populate cyberspace deliberately experiment with
fracturing traditional notions of identity by living as multiple
simultaneous personae in different virtual neighborhoods.

    We reduce and encode our identities as words on a screen, decode and
unpack the identities of others. The way we use these words, the stories
(true and false) we tell about ourselves (or about the identity we want
people to believe us to be) is what determines our identities in
cyberspace. The aggregation of personae, interacting with each other,
determines the nature of the collective culture. Our personae,
constructed from our stories of who we are, use the overt topics of
discussion in a BBS or network for a more fundamental purpose, as means
of interacting with each other. And all this takes place on both public
and private levels, in many-to-many open discussions and one-to-one
private electronic mail, front stage role- playing and backstage

    When I'm online, I cruise through my conferences, reading and
replying in topics that I've been following, starting my own topics when
the inspiration or need strikes me. Every few minutes, I get a notice on
my screen that I have incoming mail. I might decide to wait to read the
mail until I'm finished doing something else, or drop from the
conference into the mailer, to see who it is from. At the same time that
I am participating in open discussion in conferences and private
discourse in electronic mail, people I know well use "sends" -- a means
of sending one or two quick sentences to my screen without the
intervention of an electronic mail message. This can be irritating
before you get used to it, since you are either reading or writing
something else when it happens, but eventually it becomes a kind of
rhythm: different degrees of thoughtfulness and formality happen
simultaneously, along with the simultaneous multiple personae. Then
there are public and private conferences that have partially overlapping
memberships. CMC offers tools for facilitating all the various ways
people have discovered to divide and communicate, group and subgroup and
regroup, include and exclude, select and elect.

    When a group of people remain in communication with one another for
extended periods of time, the question of whether it is a community
arises. Virtual communities might be real communities, they might be
pseudocommunities, or they might be something entirely new in the realm
of social contracts, but I believe they are in part a response to the
hunger for community that has followed the disintegration of traditional
communities around the world.

    Social norms and shared mental models have not emerged yet, so
everyone's sense of what kind of place cyberspace is can vary widely,
which makes it hard to tell whether the person you are communicating
with shares the same model of the system within which you are
communicating. Indeed, the online acronym YMMV ("Your Mileage May Vary")
has become shorthand for this kind of indeterminacy of shared context.
For example, I know people who use vicious online verbal combat as a way
of blowing off steam from the pressures of their real life -- "sport
hassling" -- and others who use it voyeuristically, as a text-based form
of real-life soap-opera. To some people, it's a game. And I know people
who feel as passionately committed to our virtual community and the
people in it (or at least some of the people in it) as our nation,
occupation, or neighborhood. Whether we like it or not, the
communitarians and the venters, the builders and the vandals, the
egalitarians and the passive-aggressives, are all in this place
together. The diversity of the communicating population is one of the
defining characteristics of the new medium, one of its chief
attractions, the source of many of its most vexing problems.

    Is the prospect of moving en-masse into cyberspace in the near
future, when the world's communication network undergoes explosive
expansion of bandwidth, a beneficial thing for entire populations to do?
In which ways might the growth of virtual communities promote
alienation? How might virtual communities facilitate conviviality?
Which social structures will dissolve, which political forces will
arise, and which will lose power? These are questions worth asking now,
while there is still time to shape the future of the medium. In the
sense that we are traveling blind into a technology-shaped future that
might be very different from today's culture, direct reports from life
in different corners of the world's online cultures today might furnish
valuable signposts to the territory ahead.

    Since the summer of 1985, I've spent an average of two hours a day,
seven days a week, often when I travel, plugged into the WELL (Whole
Earth 'Lectronic Link) via a computer and a telephone line, exchanging
information and playing with attention, becoming entangled In Real Life,
with a growing network of similarly wired-in strangers I met in
cyberspace. I remember the first time I walked into a room full of
people (IRL) whose faces were completely unknown to me, but who knew
many intimate details of my history, and whose own stories I knew very
well. I had contended with these people, shot the breeze around the
electronic water cooler, shared alliances and formed bonds, fallen off
my chair laughing with them, become livid with anger at these people,
but I had not before seen their faces.

    I found this digital watering hole for information-age hunters and
gatherers the same way most people find such places -- I was lonely,
hungry for intellectual and emotional companionship, although I didn't
know it. While many commuters dream of working at home, telecommuting, I
happen to know what it's like to work that way. I never could stand to
commute or even get out of my pajamas if I didn't want to, so I've
always worked at home. It has its advantages and its disadvantages.
Others like myself also have been drawn into the online world because
they shared with me the occupational hazard of the self-employed,
home-based symbolic analyst of the 1990s -- isolation. The kind of
people that Robert Reich, call "symbolic analysts" are natural matches
for online communities: programmers, writers, freelance artists and
designers, independent radio and television producers, editors,
researchers, librarians. People who know what to do with symbols,
abstractions, and representations, but who sometimes find themselves
spending more time with keyboards and screens than human companions.

    I've learned that virtual communities are very much like other
communities in some ways, deceptively so to those who assume that people
who communicate via words on a screen are in some way aberrant in their
communication skills and human needs. And I've learned that virtual
communities are very much not like communities in some other ways,
deceptively so to those who assume that people who communicate via words
on a screen necessarily share the same level of commitment to each other
in real life as more traditional communities.  Communities can emerge
from and exist within computer-linked groups, but that technical linkage
of electronic personae is not sufficient to create a community.

(To be continued in EFFector 2.12, June 24, 1992)

Note: In 1988, _Whole Earth Review_ published my article, "Virtual
Communities." Four years later, I reread it and realized that I had
learned a few things, and that the world I was observing had changed.
So I rewrote it. The original version is available on the WELL as

Portions of this essay will appear in "Globalizing Networks: Computers
and International Communication," edited by Linda Harasim and Jan Walls
for MIT press. Portions of this will appear in "Virtual Communities," by
Howard Rheingold, Addison-Wesley. Portions of this may find their way
into Whole Earth Review.

This is a world-readable file, and I think these are important issues;
encourage distribution, but I do ask for fair use: Don't remove my name
from my words when you quote or reproduce them, don't change them, and
don't impair my ability to make a living with them.

                                            Howard Rheingold
                                            Editor, Whole Earth Review
                                            27 Gate Five Road
                                            Sausalito, CA 94965
                                            Tel: 415 332 1716
                                            Fax: 415 332 3110


                   by Shari Steele (

[The EFF's Washington Staff Attorney Shari Steele, recently exchanged
letters with Jim Warren on the Infamous Modem Tax Cyberspace Legend That
Refuses to Die.  Her response clears up what seems to be a classic
misunderstanding that permeates the online world. We reprint it here in
the interest of truth, justice, and the American Way.]

Dear Jim,

Mitch forwarded me your message to John Snyder re: modem taxes and FCC
Docket 89-79.  I hope I can help clear this up.

Section 89-79, while problematic for information service providers and
their users, does not propose or institute a modem tax.

I repeat, there is no modem tax proposal before the FCC.  (I sound like
the President . . . read my lips, no new taxes:-)!)

With that said, let me try to explain what 89-79 does say.  

89-79 sets up rules for implementing Open Network Architecture (ONA),
ordered by the FCC in 1987/1990.  Under the structure we have become
used to, enhanced service providers (ESPs) have been exempt from paying
the access fees long distance carriers pay for their lines.  Under the
original ONA order, the BOCs were required to unbundle their services
and provide basic service elements (BSEs) separately and at prices the
ESPs could afford, to encourage the growth of the ESPs. (BSEs are
optional, software-based features that are above and beyond the common
line, local switching and transport elements provided as part of basic
service, such as Automatic Number Identification.)

Since many of the BSEs involved the use of the BOCs' switching networks,
the FCC concluded in its initial ONA order to amend the local switching
rules to permit unbundling.  The FCC also determined that the
then-existing access rules already permitted unbundling and would not be

However, the FCC gave the ESPs an "interim exemption" from "full access
charge treatment . . . to permit them to avoid service-disrupting 'rate
shock.'  We have refrained from applying full access charges to ESPs out
of concern that the industry has continued to be affected by a number of
significant, potentially disruptive, and rapidly changing

In the recent order regarding 89-79, the FCC decided to keep the
exemption for basic access to the network, but decided to unbundle
access charges for the BSEs. In this way, ESPs "may select from a basic
building block access arrangement, choosing optional additional features
and functions and paying only for what they use."

This "change" in charging access fees sorta slipped by everyone during
the rule making process, because the FCC specifically stated that it was
leaving the access fee exemption intact. And for access to the basic
services (i.e., line, switching, and transport), this is true.  But by
allowing the ESPs to be charged for the BSEs they use, the FCC is, in
effect, setting up usage-sensitive access charges for ESPs, forcing them
to choose between 1) not using the BSEs (and therefore not competing
with the BOCs' own information service offerings), or 2) paying the fees
for the BSEs and, subsequently, passing the fees on to their users.
(Not really much of a choice at all, I'd say.)

The House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and Finance is very upset
with this, and, in a letter dated April 30, 1992, and signed by all 26
members, the subcommittee expressed to FCC Chairman Sikes their
"previously expressed concerns that ONA not become the vehicle for
imposing carrier access charges on enhanced service providers."  They
urged the FCC to ensure that "usage-sensitive access rates at carrier
charge levels" not be "a precondition [for ESPs] to obtaining
federally-tariffed ONA services."  They also mentioned that the decision
in 89-79 is currently under reconsideration at the FCC.

Letter-writing on this issue is a good idea, as long as letter-writers
are very careful to not call this a modem tax; the FCC dismisses such
letters summarily.


                          NOTES FROM THE MBOX

                        Wedding Bells On the Way

Rita Marie Rouvalis ( and Ignacio F. Garcia-Otero aka Nico
Garcia ( have announced their engagement. A July 1993
wedding is planned.  Rita is associate editor here at EFF and Nico, a
member of the original Bandykins mailing list, is a research engineer at
Mass Eye and Ear Infirmary.  They met on the Net.

                            CFP3 On the Way

The third COMPUTERS, FREEDOM, AND PRIVACY conference is starting to
rev up with a call for session and topic proposals in order to shape
the offerings of the conference to be in San Francisco, 9-12 March, 1993.
During the previous two conferences subjects covered were "Electronic
Speech, Press and Assembly", "Public Policy for the 21st Century",
"Access to Government Information", "Who Holds the Keys? (cryptography)",
and a host of other issues concerning privacy and freedom in the age of
information.  If anyone would like to submit a proposal for a session at
CFP3, the format is as follows. Single topics should have at least a
one page position statement describing the presentation, its theme, and
its format. Proposals for panel discussions should also include a list
or proposed participants and the session chair. Proposals should be sent
by email to  Should you need to send hard-copy 
it may be mailed to 
                    CFP 93 Proposals,
                    2210 Sixth Street
                    Berkeley, CA 94710
For information, send email to with the word 
"Information" in the subject line.

                           CFP2 On the Radio
The Second CFP lives and can be heard beginning June 23rd on various
stations subscribing to the public radio satellite system. Among the
various programs are Bruce Sterling's chilling and hilarious noon-time
rant "Speaking the Unspeakable", "Computers in the Workplace: Elysium or
Panopticon?", "Free Speech and the Public Telephone Network", and seven
others.  Since each station on the PRSS decides whether or not to air an
offering interested listeners should contact the program director at
their public radio station to request local broadcast of the Computers,
Freedom, and Privacy Series. KALW in San Francisco Oregon Public
Broadcasting, KPBS in San Diego, WYEP in Pittsburgh, and WUMB in Boston
plan to air the programs. The series was recorded and produced by Bruce
Koball and Gregg McVicar.

                      The USENIX Report

This just in from Chris Davis and Helen Rose, sysadmins at EFF
concerning their recent adventures at USENIX:
     "We spent last week in sunny and warm San Antonio. As is fairly
typical for us, we were more interested in the technical conference,
USENIX, than the warm weather outside. We co-chaired an EFF BOF (Birds
of a Feather session), which filled the room. We sold numerous T-shirts,
and gave out lots of brochures. Many good ideas were brought up at the
EFF BOF, including a brochure, to be published by the EFF, of the "Top
20 questions about legal risks to system operators, administrators, and
owners". After discussing this at this week's staff meeting, we decided
to go ahead with this project.  We will start by gathering questions on
various USENET newsgroups, the EFF CompuServe forum, and the WELL. EFF
Staff Counsel Mike Godwin will answer them as his time permits (he is
preparing for the Massachusetts Bar Exam). So look for a topic starting
soon asking for suggestions of questions in each of these forums."



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