Democratic dream slips down the digital divide

Anarchy to Power
October 12, 2001

Wendy Grossman's witty and upbeat style of writing belies the sadness of her message. As she foresaw in her 1997 book, net.wars , the old internet culture is losing the war against government regulation and commercial power.

John Perry Barlow's declaration that cyberspace should be its own sovereign state, which always seemed a bit optimistic, now sounds absurd. Online freedom of speech has collided with planet-side libel laws. Privacy is so absent that the science-fiction writer David Brin urges us to relax and enjoy our inevitable visibility.

Laws and digital technologies allow publishers, record companies and movie producers to lock up their intellectual property in frustrating ways and charge us for it many times over. As Stewart Brand said, information wants to be free. But he added less famously that information also wants to be expensive. It is the ultimate low-cost, high-value product.

A few firms control much of the net's technology and infrastructure. The consolidation of power continues: since this book was published, the courts have agreed not to break up Microsoft. Open government never materialised. The United States government refused to put published information about chemical plant hazards online, on the grounds that it would be useful to terrorists. Now, of course, the shutters will really come down.

Even the "new economy" has been a disappointment. John Doerr called Silicon Valley's new-found riches "the largest legal creation of wealth in history". But Grossman says: "It would be more accurate to call it redistribution." Money flowed from naive investors into the pockets of venture capitalists and financiers. There it stopped.

The world's poor, and women, are still not getting their share of the net's benefits. "The great dream of the net in the early days was that it could act as a leveller to promote democracy, equalise opportunity and end divisions of rich and poor." Dream it was: there is evidence, from the US Department of Commerce and others, that the digital divide is widening. Could it have been otherwise? Defenders of the old internet culture often hint that it would all have been OK if business and government had understood the net better. Many examples of the latter's stupidity have found their way into this book.

An idiocy that Grossman (an American living in London) finds embarrassing is the behaviour of US politicians who think they can legislate away online indecency and make American firms exempt from European data protection laws. US law does not apply to websites outside the country, and there is not much the US government can do to stop its citizens viewing net porn from Europe or the Caribbean. On the other hand, the French government can very easily crack down on a US company's French subsidiary, if it has tried to evade local data protection laws by sending personal data over the net for processing in the US.

So why do Americans act as though the internet belongs to them? A whole chapter is devoted to proving that they do not, technically, own it. But the argument is somewhat undermined by the next chapter on the struggles for control of the Domain Naming System. The ultimate power to dish out valuable dot-com addresses is, and has always been, in American hands. In the 1980s they were in the hands of the late Jon Postel, a hero as clever and magnanimous as the old internet culture could wish for. In the 1990s the US government "privatised" the internet and contracted out the DNS to Network Solutions, a company which, true to its lights, ran the show ruthlessly for profit. From an ethical point of view this was a dramatic change, but from a geopolitical point of view, it just meant that the DNS was now run by a different lot of Americans.

After describing a series of misguided lawsuits (if you consider the Recording Industry Association of America's case against Napster misguided), Grossman comments: "What's especially frustrating about this is that the old net culture could help these companies." If only. Hardnosed businesses trying to be cool are the most annoying of all, and no one is fooled for a minute.

The chapter entitled "Selling community" amply illustrates this. On Usenet, the Well, even on the unashamedly commercial Compuserve, communities developed spontaneously. But once businesses seized on "community" as a way of hanging onto customers, the concept was debased. From about 1997 "every website that aspired to any sort of staying power sprouted a 'community' link to encourage users to bond with each other". The ungrateful public ignored most of these blandishments and the fad died.

Grossman's friend, the science-fiction writer Geoff Ryman, observed in 1998: "They will raze the old net culture if it's good for business." And it is happening. Business and government are taking the internet on their own terms. For the most part they show little curiosity about the values that prevailed when the net was an elite club for academics and researchers.

There is one place where the old internet culture not only survives but is lively enough to frighten Microsoft. The free software movement and the closely related open-source movement are posing a real challenge to the proprietary software industry. The free Linux operating system has more than 20 million users, who chose it in preference to the Microsoft alternative and continue to praise its reliability and performance. A lot of hopes are invested in Linux and open-source, and some powerful interests would like to see it go away. If they can find a way of making it illegal it is not impossible that they will. Free software is not theft - even Bill Gates knows the difference. But it could be classified as dumping or unfair competition. This is one to watch. The battle between open-source and proprietary software is not just a matter of letting the market decide between two business models. It is the old internet culture's last desperate struggle to hold the moral high ground.

Tony Durham is on the staff of The THES .

Anarchy to Power: The Net Comes of Age

Author - Wendy M. Grossman
ISBN - 0 8147 3141 4
Publisher - New York University Press
Price - £17.50
Pages - 222

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