Search for superhighway code

November 24, 1995

The potential social consequences of the information superhighway are to be investigated by researchers at Oxford University.

The study, backed by a Pounds 161,340 grant from the Economic and Social Sciences Research Council, under its media economics and media culture research programme, will focus on the question of what regulatory framework and what institutional arrangements will encourage a universal service and open access to the superhighway.

It will examine the conditions information providers need to meet to ensure that key information is accurate, complete and up to date.

And it will look at how access to information on the superhighway could have a major impact on beliefs and perceptions in society.

Andrew Graham, fellow and tutor in economics at Balliol College, Oxford, who is heading the project, said there were major questions about who would be members of the "wired society" and who would be excluded, and about the quality of information available to those with access.

"Information presents all kinds of problems for economists, because it is such a difficult thing to sell. While you can inspect most products, such as a car, to check its quality, information cannot be inspected without losing its commercial value.

"One of the characteristics of information on the Internet is that very few people operating on it have developed reputations for a reliable product. There is a lot of useless information and a very real danger that the superhighway will turn out to be super-useless," he said.

A worse scenario than this, however, would be one in which attitudes in society were shaped by inaccurate information on the superhighway. The ability for large numbers of people to express their views on particular issues might also have major political implications.

"We are already beginning to see some of the effects in America, where email lobbying is taking place," Mr Graham added.

The research programme will involve Michael Bacharach, a student at Christ Church, David Vines, fellow of Balliol, as well as political scientists at MIT, Harvard, and several European institutions.

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