Consumer Bulletin

U.S. DEPARTMENT OF COMMERCE/Office of Consumer Affairs/Washington, D.C. 20230

This page was last updated 1/96

Number 11

"The Information Superhighway"

The advent of the personal computer has presented extraordinary capabilities to society in recent years. The consumer has been left with a dizzying amount of information to digest in an incredibly short period of time. What is "the information superhighway" and how does it affect consumers everyday?

What is "The Information Superhighway"?

As the United States economy continually shifts from an industrial base to a knowledge base, the need for information has become an ever growing priority. "The information superhighway" is a term used to describe the National Information Infrastructure (NII). It is the vehicle that information takes to travel electronically from one source to another with remarkable speed. Technology has made such transfers a simple process for most participants. Those that compose the "Superhighway" are members of government, private business, labor groups, academia, and anyone else with access to computer services. Many of us often hear of a litany of terms when dealing with computers. Modems, "online", e-mail, and Internet are a few that come to mind. Here is a short directory of terms that may help alleviate some of the confusion:

CD-ROM (compact disc read only memory) Memory disc able to hold audio and visual information
Cyberspace Term used to describe the National Information Infrastructure
E-Mail (Electronic Mail) Messages sent through phone lines from one computer user to another using a computer and a modem
Fiber Optics Strands of pure glass that enable transfer of 10 thousand times more information than copper wire
Hardware Computer equipment, i.e.- keyboard, monitor
Internet World's largest network of computers and data banks with more than 15 million users
Modem Tool to connect computers via phone lines
Online Term used to describe being logged into a computer through the modem
RAM (Random Access Memory) Computer memory allowing temporary data storage
ROM (Read Only


Computer memory allowing permanent data storage
Software Coded computer instructions for the computer to carry out specific tasks
Surfing The Net Term used to describe browsing the Internet
World Wide Web Computer storage space maintained upon the Internet allowing you to access links to other computers

If you have had difficulty deciphering such phrases it is because computer language is as different from English as any other language. However, in today's job market basic knowledge of computers is essential to success. The only requirements for getting connected are a personal computer, monitor, modem and a subscription to an online service or an Internet provider, depending upon what it is you want to accomplish with your time.

How Does the National Information Infrastructure Affect You?

Every day consumers are directly included in this transfer of information. From use of Automatic Teller Machines (ATM's) for retrieving bank funds to the accessing of your personal medical records by hospitals, computers are a part of your life. Recent advances in how quickly and easily information can be transferred holds new and improved methods of simplifying daily routines. "Once people realize that this technology has practical, helpful applications, I am confident they will embrace it and get connected," says Larry Irving, U.S. Department of Commerce Assistant Secretary for Communications and Information. Future applications of technology will exceed consumers' expectations by delivering information of all kinds to their fingertips instantaneously.

Possibilities Abound

This new technology will mean the merger of television, computers, telecommunications, publishing, and information services into one knowledge base. Through the same fiber optic lines you will be able to receive a multitude of information directly into your home or business. That means access to the daily newspaper will be right there at your video screen as soon as it's created. There may be no need for a VCR. You will be able to access last night's episode of your favorite program or your favorite movie from a video library selection list on your television. More than simply entertainment, you may be able to be examined by a medical specialist thousands of miles away. There are many possibilities for this new technology that will enhance the way Americans interact with one another.

Getting Connected

In order to get connected you first need a personal computer and connection to an online service or the Internet. You may want to contact your local library, college or university to explore computer access services they provide, sometimes free of charge. These days, you don't have to be a computer whiz to subscribe to an online service. Computer software has been developed in recent years with an emphasis on simplicity. Computer manufacturers and software makers often have 24-hour helplines to assist consumers. The National Telecommunications and Information Agency (NTIA), a division within the U.S. Department of Commerce, operates a home page on the Internet that describes ongoing government initiatives. The NTIA also offers matching grants to schools, libraries, and state and local governments to help communities in underserved and rural areas assist their citizens connect to the information superhighway.

Is Big Brother Watching?

Consumers and government are both concerned about the ramifications of expanded databases of information. Public access and unauthorized use of this information is a concern for government as well as businesses and consumers. The Information Infrastructure Task Force (IITF) was created by President Clinton to ensure that such issues are addressed with the advance of the Information Age. Chaired by Commerce Secretary Ronald Brown, the IITF works with the Department of Commerce, the White House, and the private sector to create guidelines for the proper use of consumer information, to ensure public access to the infrastructure, and to promote the involvement of private business in developing and deploying the NII.

Privacy and the National Information Infrastructure

Every attempt is being made to make sure that consumers' rights to privacy are protected. The IITF has released a report concerning the NII and the guiding principles for the provision and use of personal information. This report suggests the pathways of development the NII may take as it grows. Currently, there are very few precedents to follow concerning privacy and the NII and even fewer regulations. This has been of special concern to consumers who are eager to get connected. The IITF is working to ensure that measures are undertaken to protect the integrity of information upon the NII, the provision of notification and prior consent by those whose information may be utilized, and methods of redress for those who have been injured by improper disclosure of their personal information.

Business Transactions Upon the National Information Infrastructure

Just like most business relationships, those conducted through the information superhighway have to be approached with caution. Those who have typically operated fraud schemes now have a new forum for conducting such scams. Consumers can protect themselves by exercising the same caution online that they would in any other advertising encounter. The consumer has the right to expect the same standards of service and quality from businesses that operate upon the NII. Presently, businesses are expected to self-regulate the relationships they conduct online with consumers. However, less scrupulous businesses still exist and are taking advantage of the booming market online. Consumers should be aware that companies may market their computer usage information much in the same way telemarketing companies purchase lists of prospective clients. These challenges facing the consumer are being addressed by the IITF and Congress as they work towards creation of regulation concerning fraud and information access in the world of cyberspace.

Global Implications

As more and more people discover the amazing possibilities of the NII to bring together resources, the next step is to expand and explore global networks possibilities. Just as we Americans continue to get connected at a feverish pace, nations around the world share our enthusiasm and yearn to find new and exciting ways to conduct business and personal relationships over the Global Information Infrastructure. The possibilities are unlimited as students, consumers, and practically anyone with access from all walks of life learn to come together in a positive atmosphere to exchange ideas, goods, and services.

For more information on NTIA grants and getting connected, contact:

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