net.wars: Defending your Net

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 28 December 2002

Bill Thompson took to the ICA a few weeks ago with a question: Is Big Business Killing the Net? Even he had to admit this was simple. Yes. Next?

Wendy M Grossman

What we should do about it is harder. Thompson seems to be carving out a niche for himself as the anti-USAnian, anti- Barlovian, European sovereigntist Net radical. He thinks Europe needs its own Net. He thinks the Web is dead . And, at the ICA, he said he a regulated Net would be a good thing.

His argument went something like this. The Net is not a separate "space" from the governmentally controlled, nationized real world. Regulation is inevitable. If we accept it and participate, we can ensure that some of our core values are embedded in whatever regulatory regime is eventually adopted. If we fight it, we'll be stuck with whatever they (corporations, governments) impose upon us. Yes, they're killing the historical Net, but that has to happen anyway. We would, he argued, be nowhere without the business investment of the last decade, because by 1990 Net development had run out of streamand we should be grateful to all those small shareholder who lost their shirts on dot-coms because they paid for it for us.

Well, but much of the money lost by small investors lost didn't go into building the Internet. It went into the pockets of venture capitalists and company founders. Surely we could have found a more equitable and efficient way of allocating the capital if building out the Internet's infrastructure was what we wanted to do. I'd imagine that more of the build-out was paid for by businesses and consumers who paid ISPs for their connections.

I also dispute Thompson's idea that Intel, IBM, and Sun will kill off today's copyright wars when they get around to flexing their muscles. The PC business may, as Cringely says, be 12 times the size of the US movie business, but I can't believe it's bigger than the worldwide movie business, the music business, and print publishing all put together. Plus, computer companies themselves depend heavily on IP protection.

It's fair enough that Thompson doesn't relish having the First Amendment forced down his throat, but he incorrectly connects it to the proliferation of junk email. The First Amendment does not in general protect commercial speech, and anyway, the flooding crap is from all over the place: Korea, Japan, the UK, and of course, Nigeria, Angola, Nigeria, West Africa, and Nigeria.

I have a lot of sympathy with people who are disgusted with the US right now - from reneging on Kyoto to imprisoning "suspected terrorists" without trial to allowing big corporate interests to dictate everything, it's not a pretty sight. But that doesn't make a European Net a logical idea. If Thompson doesn't want to live under US law, does he want to live under Chinese or Burmese law? A system that allows someone posting hate speech on a Web site in the US to be prosecuted under British law works both ways.

One of the things about the business of net.prophecy is that people often don't care whether they're right as long as they're controversial. Is Thompson one of those guys? Either way, is he right? (Bear in mind, this is someone who would rather have Flash).

Plenty of people have been predicting for years that the old Net culture would be razed in the interests of a controllable Net. Larry Lessig argues that the cable companies with their inroads into broadband in the US and their desire for content-based routing will, if they are not stopped, turn the Net into a few-to-many broadcast system with no room for P2P or any of the grass roots publishing we enjoy now. Barlow is now saying that we've got a three-year window to stop the corporations from taking control of the entire public domain of free speech.

I don't think the cause is as lost as that. But I think it can be if we stop fighting back.

With all these dooms to choose from, it seems to me the first question is: what is it exactly that we want to save? Surely we are not devoted to protecting old technology for its own sake. No one uses Gopher, FTP, or Archie if they can use the Web, and people are migrating to XML happily enough. Nor do we necessarily object to certain types of regulation. We scream fast enough if the IWF threatens to take away our favorite newsgroup, but we certainly expect the relevant authorities to help if we get ripped off online or if someone propagates viruses. We are even willing to accept that people and businesses using the Net in a particular country are subject to that country's law.

But Gibson's characterization of the Net as a place has persisted so long because it feels like a place. It is not nonsense to claim that we have different rights and mores there. Even within the physical world we have different rights in, say, the street if we are driving rather than walking. Our key act in cyberspace is not typing but the distribution and content of that typing. It is the open access to distribution that we want to save. If we think about it that way, the other battles over copyright, broadband access, routing, and centralized control all fall into coherence.

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).