The interplay of public and private spaces in internet access

Ana Viseu, Jane Aspinall, Andrew Clement & Tracy L. M. Kennedy

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Viseu, A. , Aspinall, J. , Clement, A. & Kennedy, T. L. M. (1). The interplay of public and private spaces in internet access. Information, Communication & Society, 9(5), 633–656.

digital divide , Internet access and use , internet policy , neighborhood ethnography , spatial hybridity

The creation of public internet access facilities is one of the principal policy instruments adopted by governments in addressing ‘digital divide’ issues. The lack of plans for ongoing funding, in North America at least, suggests that this mode is regarded mainly as transitional, with private, home-based access being perceived as superior. The assumption apparently is that as domestic internet penetration rates rise, public access facilities will no longer be needed. Central to this issue are the varied characteristics of publicly provided and privately owned access sites and their implications for non-employment internet activities. What are the relative advantages and disadvantages of these two access modes? More fundamentally, how do people conceptualize public and private spaces and how does this perception influence their online activities? Finally, why do people choose one over the other, and how do they navigate between the two? This article attempts to answer these questions by drawing on data generated within the Everyday Internet Project, a ‘neighborhood ethnography’ of internet usage. It argues that the conventional view of private and public access facilities as immiscible, fixed alternatives is inadequate. Rather than ‘pure’ types, they are better understood as offering hybrid spaces whose identity and character are fluid, perceived differently by individuals in light of the activities being performed, life experiences, infrastructure and architecture. The picture emerging from our study is one where public and private access modes intertwine with each other in a variety of ways, their combination offering significant additional value for many users. From a public policy perspective, these findings suggest that if universal access is to be achieved, there is a continuing need for publicly supported broad-spectrum facilities with integrated technical support and learning opportunities, even if domestic penetration rates approach that of the telephone.

Main finding
The rigid dichotomy of public versus private modes of internet access reflected in public policy does not fully capture internet users’ perceptions and use of these internet access spaces. Rather than private always being preferable to public modes of access, two factors stood out as influencing the choice of access mode: the cost of private access and the facilitation of learning and technical support provided by public access spaces. Four types of hybrid spaces were identified from participants’ use and perception of different internet access modes: private-in-private, public-in-private, private-in-public, and public-in-public. These characteristics of a given internet access space were influenced by the interactions between the internet activity being performed, the architecture of the space, the digital and physical infrastructure of the space, one’s life experiences, and who the space is shared with. The author argues that these findings show that rather than attempting to replace public modes of access with private ones, we should complement private access with improved public access spaces.

Description of method used in the article
The data was collected as part of the “Everyday Internet Project,” a neighborhood ethnography investigating the use of public and private internet access spaces in Toronto, Canada. Fourteen regular internet users were selected from a two-block area adjacent to a neighborhood known as “Little Portugal.” Participants were recruited and interviewed at their regular internet access sites and were interviewed twice, two or four times a month. The interviews included a one-hour discussion of participants’ online activities and a record of sites used and actions performed online. Researchers visited each apartment and house along selected streets to recruit private access internet users (home users) and approached active community centers in the study area to recruit public access users. Researchers made sure to include participants for whom internet usage lagged, such as seniors, those with low income, low education, and who spoke English as a second language.

Policy implications

Organising categories

Digital Device Engagement
Interviews Participant Observation
Physical types
Geographic locations