net.wars: e-Ostriches

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 09 September 2005

"People forgot that the new, new thing was a two-edged sword," said William Dutton, director of the Oxford Internet Institute yesterday. He was opening a conference – "Safety and Security in a Networked World" – and I guess therefore felt entitled to call the Old Net "e-ostriches" for "failing to look squarely at the dark side of the communications revolution".

Wendy M Grossman

This particular calumny always drives me nuts. Yes, the early days of the Net were marked by pioneers who thought that this green, verdant, empty field could develop into a world the American 1960s generation could call just. But those early pioneers also debated hotly if theoretically the same issues we now debate every day in practice: copyright, fraud, the balance between security and privacy, where the limits of free speech should be. Is Dutton saying that if the grown-ups had been there it all would have gone better? Well, then, where were they?

Still, the conference, which continues through tomorrow, has a noble goal (albeit one shared by many conferences before it) - assemble a multidisciplinary group of experts, understand the scale of the problem and the value conflicts inherent in it, and then issue a policy document (some months hence) that can help shape policy and practice.

There's probably never a moment you couldn't schedule a conference like this and have some horrible recent incident leading to some hare-brained new government regulatory move to point to, but right now seems particularly apt. The UK government is proposing to ban violent porn from UK-based sites (you can respond to the consultation document (PDF) with your views) following a well-publicised murder in which the perpetrator had stores of such images.

Shouldn't we ban this stuff?

As it turned out, Oxford University's Said Business School already does, as we all discovered when we tried to look up a relevant case via our laptops. Typing "porn" into Google, even when it's in the string "virtual porn case" gets you this rather sinister blocking page

Blame newly appointed OII legal professor Jonathan Zittrain. He was the one who told us to do it. (Arrest him, not me!) We had images of the Said system administrators converging on the room, tracing us. As Douglas Thomas said in passing, one thing the Internet has really shown us is "the dark side of the law", a notion probably personified by the suggestion, from the University of Illinois' Jay Kesan that "hacking back" is an appropriate strategy for businesses to take.

I'd say he was just an idiot except that in July the Association of Chief Police Officers asked the UK government for powers to do just this against "terrorist Web sites".

As Zittrain said, how you perceive the Internet has a lot to do with what you're looking for. The good side of the Internet: a generative architecture that allows experimentation. The bad side of the Internet: a generative architecture that allows anarchy. What worries Zittrain most, like many of us, is that the Internet's architecture will get locked down as the "appliance" model takes over. TiVos, Blackberries, set-top boxes, mobile phones…all of these are examples of computers we can't take apart, upgrade, or, often, program. (Some mobile phones provide an exception there, and so, I suppose, do TiVos with brave owners .

But more than that, how you perceive the Internet – and the world in general – has a lot to do with what you'll accept as "collateral damage" when you begin to think about regulation. If you really are dominated by the belief that "If it saves just one child" it's worth it, then any amount of collateral damage is acceptable. Who cares if students at the Said Business School can't look up the legal precedents in porn cases? There shouldn't be any porn anyway! Or if you're a control-mad record industry executive, let them close all the chat rooms, "proprietise" (a particularly hideous word I heard for the first time yesterday) all the Internet's protocols and software so that everything can be tracked, traced, and moderated, and so that no one ever again can create a dangerous application like Napster 1.0 and deploy it.

I can hear the Netheads already having trouble breathing, just as you would if someone were threatening to put you in jail. Especially since regulatory regimes, once they are added, never seem to be subtracted. No one has studied the content regulation in Australia to determine whether it actually works.

But, as the former LibDem MP Richard Allan [right]said, "There is a genuine demand from the public for certain social standards to be maintained in the Internet space as elsewhere."

Granted. Most of us want to be able to read our email in peace. We would like to be protected from fraud and other crimes. Probably most parents have some item of content they would prefer their children not to see, whether that's violence, pornography, or sites promoting Intelligent Design. The question of how to create an Internet which can service those desires while not being locked down into one group's particular set of perceived evils is not going to be solved in one conference. Instead, it will occupy us for probably most of this century. If the water and oil don't run out by then.

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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).