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Is Big Business Destroying the Internet?

By: NMK Created on: September 23rd, 2003
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In NMK's 2002 Christmas lecture, Bill Thompson addressed issues around the governance and regulation of the Internet.

Steve Warby reports on NMK's Christmas Lecture 2002 by journalist, commentator and new media pioneer Bill Thompson.

This could have been NMKs shortest lecture, ever. "The answer is yes. Lets go to the bar," was Bills opening comment on the question, "Is Big Business Killing the Internet?" Though, as you would expect from such a provocative commentator and new media pioneer, much more was to come.

Bill has been involved with the Internet since 1986, "when you could read all of USENET each day", and has been involved in many online firsts, including the worlds first live Webcast from the ICA. So it was fitting for him to be back in front of a packed house to predict the Internets next phase: its extinction as we know it.

According to Bill, business is killing the historical Internet, the network built on TCP/IP protocols, but has every right to. Rather than re-iterate the commonly heard view that the Internet sprang from humble academic origins, Bill said the Internet ran out of steam in 1990, used only by a few thousand academics with little or no vision of its potential as 'the information superhighway'. It was only when big business discovered its commercial potential after the development of the Mosaic browser in 1993 that the "net as we know it today" began to take off.

The same "technically illiterate, stupid and greedy" venture capitalists that paid for the Internet we have today therefore have every right to kill it off, Bill said. Why the talk of doom? Because of the "massive internal contradictions" of the Internet, which unless reformed, could lead to its destruction.

Copyright encapsulates these contradictions, according to Bill. The Internet embodies core liberal values it is hard to censor, fundamentally resistant to monopoly, and is basically an open channel, where anyone can build whatever they want. Often, the rewards for building in such an essentially non-commercial space are intangible, like community respect and social capital.

However, these core liberal values have increasingly come under threat from companies and governments around the world seeking to take away the 'open Internet' and exert control of copyright. A key threat is the development of 'trusted systems' which will only enable the use of software with signed code to be used. Trusted systems will impair the development of commercially unauthorised software development and seek to limit the 'hacker ethic' of the Internet.

Trusted systems represent the enclosing of the Internets public space, and Bill argued that unless such commercially-driven developments are challenged, the Internet as we know it will die.

Our response to this should be to start thinking about how we exert democratic control over the network. We need an "appropriately regulated" Internet, properly incorporated into existing political systems of control. The regulated network (someone in the audience suggested naming it the "regunet") is not about an online police state, but entrusting the network to democratically elected governments rather than corporations. These governments may be imperfect and introduce ill-advised regulations and controls, but we can use our strength as citizens to fight for good laws the only alternative is to give up control to the corporations.

A Regulated Network would provide safe areas for children and mainstream users, and be more protected against spam and viruses, Bill said. He used the analogy of public libraries when his children are surfing the Internet, he needs to watch they are not exposed to pornography. This is not an issue in public libraries, because offensive material is not allowed in publicly regulated spaces.

But the regulated network would also need areas outside its control. Any place also needs "seedy dives, rooms you can hire by the hour"; places to escape to, and the Regunet would be no different. Bill spoke of a Linux network overlaying the regulated network, a place for hackers and geeks to congregate and swap code. Whether this was thought useful or necessary by governments and corporations or not, hackers would find a way to circumvent either trusted systems or regulated networks.

The question though, is not what to do about hackers and geeks they would sort themselves out. The point is that the historical Internet is dead, and a new network is coming. Unless we entrust the new network to regulation by democratically accountable governments, we will be left with a corporately controlled, enclosed network of trusted systems and signed code.

Bills challenge left many in the audience with questions. Why should we trust governments any more than corporations? Dont governments increasingly entrust public services to private companies anyway? Do governments really understand the Internet? What if citizens are actually a lot more illiberal than thought doesnt that make vesting more power in governments dangerous?

Bill argued that we can trust and exert more influence over democratically elected, publicly accountable governments than we can corporations. Governments may be imperfect, but ultimately act in the public interest, and when they do not, mechanisms exist to regulate their power. Corporations, on the other hand, act purely in their own interests. Given that regulation by one or the other is inevitable, only regulation by government can deliver a network that serves the interests of the many, rather than the few.

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