Information About Free-Nets

** What is a Free-Net? The best way to understand the dynamic of a Free-Net is to think of it as a public space like a city hall, a city park, a public library, or a public museum. It is an open place where individuals, organizations, and institutions can interact and exchange information, a public space on the Information Highway. Although public libraries and commercial bookstores "compete" to some extent, the latter noes not provide all the benefits to society of the former, and likewise a Free-Net fills a different niche than the other players on the Information Highway.

** How does it work? The heart of a Free-Net is a central computer network dedicated to storing and retrieving thousands of files of information and to relaying thousands of messages each day among community members and organizations.

** Is a Free-Net really free? Is anything? Free-Nets are non-profit community-based access providers, but they do not operate for free. That is, there are hard expenses, such as phone lines, modems, the computer server, maintenance, and so forth. These routine costs must be recovered in some way.

** Who pays for it? Although some early Free-Nets were generously subsidized by grant funds, this is no longer true. At the present time, Free-Nets must charge a fee for membership, special services, charge those not from the local community, or some similar charge to offset hard costs. Free-Nets have various active fund raising efforts as well. Free-Nets in Canada are presently seeking to clarify their status as charitable organizations. At the moment, however, the costs are hidden in large measure by the diligent volunteers who donate so much time.

** Who runs a Free-Net? It depends, but generally it is community volunteers. The Calgary Free-Net is run by a gallant corps of volunteers (organized into a Board of Directors and a variety of subcommittees) and four employees. All members are encouraged to follow the Board's discussion and contribute to the discussion, and volunteers are always needed to keep the project going (hint, hint).

** What services do Free-Nets provide? Free-Nets help local organizations provide information to the public. Local discussion groups are also important for creating links between the local community groups and individuals. To registered users, a Free-Net generally provides a personal e-mail address and private mailbox. Gopher and Usenet news are standard features. Telnet to other Free-nets and community networks is commonly available to registered users. Beyond these services, it depends on the resources of the community. Some Free-Nets, such as ours, are WWW based and provide home pages to each user. Others can't afford the disk space and offer only temporary file storage space. Almost every Free-Net offers free guest access to their files and local discussion groups for outsiders.

Although "free" access attacts so much attention, Free-Nets provide information and education re computer-mediated communication as equally vital parts of their missions, free of any conflict of interest created by added concerns such as selling hardware and software.

** How can I learn more about Free-Nets? The easiest way to learn about Free-Nets is to join one. If you have a telephone, or Telnet access, or WWW access, you will be able to reach a Free-Net somewhere in the world.

** Does every city have a Free-Net? Not yet, but more are organizing every day.

** So where is the list of Free-Nets? National Public Telecomputing Network (NPTN) is the American-based association of Free-Nets. NPTN maintains a list of affiliated Free-Nets from around the world. They can be reached by LYNX at this URL: http://www.nptn.org (or by sending e-mail to info@nptn.org). In fact, NPTN claims to hold the trademark rights to the word "free-net", thus many "Free-Nets" are renaming themselves as "Community Nets".

Note: as of October, 1996, NPTN has filed for bankruptcy protection.

However, not every Community Network or Free-Net is an NPTN affiliated group. One useful archive of other sites is maintained by Peter Scott in Saskatoon

In Canada there is a fledgling umbrella group known as Telecommunities Canada

Announcements relevant to Free-Nets can also be found in newsgroups such as alt.online-service.freenet. There is an on-line discussion group devoted to Canadian Free-Nets; you can subscribe and participate or just lurk by sending e-mail to listprocessor@cunews.carleton.ca with the message "subscribe can freenet".

Sobering thoughts can be found in an on-line presentation by Douglas Schuler, "How to kill community networks."