Is Big Business Destroying the Internet?

Steve Warby reports on NMK's ChristmasLecture 2002 by journalist, commentator and new media pioneerBill Thompson.

This could have been NMK’s shortest lecture, ever. "Theanswer is yes. Let’s go to the bar," was Bill’s openingcomment on the question, "Is Big Business Killing theInternet?" Though, as you would expect from such aprovocative commentator and new media pioneer, much more was tocome.

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

According to Bill, business is killing the historicalInternet, the network built on TCP/IP protocols, but has everyright to. Rather than re-iterate the commonly heard view thatthe Internet sprang from humble academic origins, Bill said theInternet “ran out of steam” in 1990, used only by a few thousandacademics with little or no vision of its potential as 'theinformation superhighway'. It was only when big businessdiscovered its commercial potential after the development of theMosaic browser in 1993 that the "net as we know ittoday" began to take off.

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

Copyright encapsulates these contradictions, according toBill. The Internet embodies core liberal values – it is hard tocensor, fundamentally resistant to monopoly, and is basically anopen channel, where anyone can build whatever they want. Often,the rewards for building in such an essentially non-commercialspace are intangible, like community respect and socialcapital.

However, these core liberal values have increasingly comeunder threat from companies and governments around the worldseeking to take away the 'open Internet' and exertcontrol of copyright. A key threat is the development of'trusted systems' which will only enable the use ofsoftware with signed code to be used. Trusted systems willimpair the development of commercially unauthorised softwaredevelopment and seek to limit the 'hacker ethic' of theInternet.

Trusted systems represent the enclosing of the Internet’spublic space, and Bill argued that unless suchcommercially-driven developments are challenged, the Internet aswe know it will die.

Our response to this should be to start thinking about how weexert democratic control over the network. We need an"appropriately regulated" Internet, properlyincorporated into existing political systems of control. Theregulated network (someone in the audience suggested naming itthe "regunet") is not about an online police state,but entrusting the network to democratically elected governmentsrather than corporations. These governments may be imperfect andintroduce ill-advised regulations and controls, but we can useour strength as citizens to fight for good laws – the onlyalternative is to give up control to the corporations.

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

But the regulated network would also need areas outside itscontrol. Any place also needs "seedy dives, rooms you canhire by the hour"; places to escape to, and the Regunetwould be no different. Bill spoke of a Linux network overlayingthe regulated network, a place for hackers and geeks tocongregate and swap code. Whether this was thought useful ornecessary by governments and corporations or not, hackers wouldfind a way to circumvent either trusted systems or regulatednetworks.

The question though, is not what to do about hackers andgeeks – they would sort themselves out. The point is that thehistorical Internet is dead, and a new network is coming. Unlesswe entrust the new network to regulation by democraticallyaccountable governments, we will be left with a corporatelycontrolled, enclosed network of trusted systems and signedcode.

Bill’s challenge left many in the audience with questions.Why should we trust governments any more than corporations?Don’t governments increasingly entrust public services toprivate companies anyway? Do governments really understand theInternet? What if citizens are actually a lot more illiberalthan thought – doesn’t that make vesting more power ingovernments dangerous?

Bill argued that we can trust and exert more influence overdemocratically elected, publicly accountable governments than wecan corporations. Governments may be imperfect, but ultimatelyact in the public interest, and when they do not, mechanismsexist to regulate their power. Corporations, on the other hand,act purely in their own interests. Given that regulation by oneor the other is inevitable, only regulation by government candeliver a network that serves the interests of the many, ratherthan the few.

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