Don't cut out young people

ON my annual visit to Hong Kong, I noted the beginnings of a debate on the licensing of electronic bulletin board services (BBSs) by the Office of the Telecommunications Authority (OFTA).

It seems that any BBS offering the public an electronic message or mail service, regardless of the BBS's size or whether it is a commercial venture, is required to apply for and obtain a Public Non-Exclusive Telecommunications Service (PNETS) licence. In addition to the PNETS annual fee of HK$750, the licence is also subject to Hongkong Telecom charges of $69 per month, per line and usage charges of nine cents per minute. If the hundreds of small, non-commercial BBSs in Hong Kong are not exempted from PNETS licensing requirements, many will fold for lack of funds.

This would be sad for the young BBS system operators (sysops) who have already invested so much time and money in these little BBSs. But it would be sadder still for Hong Kong, as most of these BBSs serve as self-financed training grounds for Hong Kong's future hi-tech workers.

It takes a great deal of time and patience to learn how to use computers productively. These little BBS systems allow young people to learn these critical skills, in preparation for a world that will soon change dramatically, because of the free flow of scientific and technological information.

Many of these little BBSs are amateur FidoNet BBSs. They are linked to other FidoNet BBSs around the world, affording Hong Kong's young people the opportunity to exchange technical and other information with bright, like-minded youngsters around the world. It is too bad Hong Kong's older generation has such difficulty grasping the significance of such activities and the benefits they will bring to their own children and to Hong Kong in the near future. The Government should do everything in its power to encourage these activities, rather than discourage them with restrictive licensing requirements. Hongkong Telecom's long-term interests would be better served by exempting these little BBSs from their fees.

Licensing is a form of government control and while the Hong Kong Government is committed to the free flow of information, the government in Beijing is not. It would be a shame if regulations designed for apparently benign reasons now were to be used after 1997 as a tool to censor the free flow of information in and out of Hong Kong or within Hong Kong itself.

ASHLEY WRIGHT Princeton, New Jersey, US