Saving Our Freedom During the Changes to Come

by Andy Oram
February 1995

Those of us who work regularly on the Internet know how precious our world of ideas is. We deeply value the generosity of the contributors, the excitement of being exposed to different world views, and the sheer fun of logging in to something unexpected each day. But the openness and diversity of the Internet is starting to be challenged.

I don’t want to be alarmist. Right now, things couldn’t be going better. Statistics on Internet usage are growing like crazy, while the quality gets higher as more and more people learn how to put up Web pages and other public sites. But expansion can also lead to unfriendly encounters.

Some forces want to grab the audience that digital telecommunications makes available and monopolize the medium’s content. Other forces want the commercial advantages of electronic networking without the public dialogue. Economics also play a role; the pricing structure of the Internet will probably change over the next few years. So if we want the information superhighway of the future to realize its potential, we have to reach out to the public and let them experience the benefits of the electronic networking.

Sources of Conflict

Who could be afraid of the Internet? Who could be opposed to an exchange of ideas, and a place that gives everybody equal time?

One place where opposition might arise is large businesses. Take a recent controversy: the Pentium chip’s floating-point error. Many commentators, including the Wall Street Journal, have claimed that Intel was pushed into accepting exchanges of Pentium chips by the grass-roots criticisms circulating on the Net. Some business executives are going to feel threatened by that. Wouldn’t they rest easier if all the information we got came through Rupert Murdoch?

Other potential spoil-sports include national governments. They all recognize the importance of electronic communications in advancing their economies. (The People’s Republic of China, for instance, has recently taken steps to bring Internet access there.) But as large groups of people gain the chance to express themselves, some governments are going to display ambivalence. The ease with which news and opinions cross borders will make the situation even touchier. Right now the U.S. Senate is considering a bill called the Communications Decency Act, which would cripple the Internet by making monitoring and censorship mandatory. And other questionable actions have occurred. For instance, police in the U.S. and Italy have shut down BBSes using accusations that they distributed pornography, computer viruses, or copyrighted software.

Go via the Web to the Stop the Communications Decency Act home page

When we come to the media, there’s no denying that some people don’t like the Internet. Many newspapers and magazines worry that all their readers will be siphoned away to services that can post articles instantaneously, cheaply, and worldwide using electronic media. As an editor at a book publishing company, I can understand their concern. But I can also offer reassurances. The ability to filter information and present it attractively will always be valued; the solution should be to start moving operations onto the Net (as O’Reilly Media is doing, and many newspapers and magazines too). But it’s all too easy for paralysis to hit the traditional publishers and make them react with fear instead of a sense of opportunity.

Finally, of course, come the people who just like to control what other people say and hear. Anti-pornography activists fall in that category. So do people who hate to see their favorite institutions criticized.

Meanwhile, the increasing bandwidth used by graphics and multimedia are straining the way people use the Internet. Some researchers are suggesting that providers start charging users for each byte transferred. If that happens, you’ll be a lot less tempted to click on the links at the bottom of this article and see what’s there. Caution may replace curiosity.

A Fledgling Challenge

Even though the Internet is one of my favorite institutions, I don’t mind seeing it criticized. But it’s important to speak up and correct false impressions.

Several of the trends I mentioned in the previous section came together early in January of this year in an op-ed piece written by Martha S. Siegel and published by the San Francisco Chronicle (they have a very fine Web site, so clearly they’ve learned to make good on the Internet). Its thrust was that the Internet should be reined in.

Go via the Web to “Anarchy, Chaos on the Internet Must End” by Martha S. Siegel

Go via the Web to The Gate, the San Francisco Chronicle home page

The author is part of the Canter and Siegel law firm that angered Internet users last year by posting an ad to thousands of news groups offering services to immigrants who wanted green cards (permanent residency permits). This was clearly a dangerous precedent: What if every lawyer in the world decided to bombard the newsgroups this way?

Canter and Siegel’s action generated a lot of negative feedback. (As the laws of statistics would have it, they also got some clients.) Some of the response to them was certainly defamatory and puerile, but in aggregate it made an important point: Internet users will not tolerate the waste of network bandwidth and of their own time on unsolicited, irrelevant material.

The fury of the Internet left a lasting hurt, and now Siegel is lashing back. Much of her article is given over to anger and sweeping insults of Internet users. (“The most powerful communication medium ever invented is being left to the equivalent of mob rule.”) The article is riddled with calls for “firm direction,” “safety,” and “order.” She wants somebody to “run” the Internet.

Be careful, Ms. Siegel! When you ask for control, the results are often different from what you expect. What if the “recognized governments” that take over cyberspace assume an anti-immigrant stance, and decide to ban all aid to people seeking residency permits?

Protecting What We Have

There is no guarantee that Internet access will always be the way it is today. Pricing changes may make it harder for the average user to explore. And most users of electronic networks will never see the medium we are using now. Current technologies will be replaced by direct connections into people’s homes (video dialtone or cable TV). And if these are run like today’s cable TV, most users will get only what their providers want to broadcast.

Those of us who value freedom and self-expression should take some steps now. The best way to preserve the benefits we have is to extend them to an ever-wider audience. In other words, if we want public support for our Internet community, we have to get more of the public on to the Internet. In that spirit, I’d like to suggest some ways that each of us could help.

The Internet is an unprecedented opportunity for people to be heard and to work together. Let’s share it, and make it even more valuable in the process.

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