Monday, November 12, 2001

Week of 11/12/2001

Whose Net Is It Anyway?
- by David Matthews 2

"Make men wise, and by that very operation you make them free. Civil liberty follows as a consequence of this; no usurped power can stand against the artillery of opinion." - William Godwin

For most people, the Internet is a relatively recent thing. Electronic interconnections that are less than a decade old, measured in life spans more designed for household pets than for humans. To say, for instance, that a website has been online and running for five years is an achievement equal to a store being in business for twenty years.

But the Internet itself is far from young. In fact, it has been around in one form or another for over thirty years. That’s actual years, not net-years.

For the first few decades, it was a way for the armed forces to communicate in the event of a nuclear war. It allowed the exchange of vital information to continue even if vital lines of communication were cut. Eventually, this access was extended to certain colleges and universities, and of course to the various companies developing projects for the Defense Department.

But then in 1988, the government got out of the Internet business. The Cold War was over, the Berlin Wall fell, the Soviet Union was self-destructing, and the fear of wide-spread nuclear war subsided, so there really wasn’t a need for the Internet as it existed then.

So the US Government gave up control of the Internet. A group of computer programmers called the World Wide Web Consortium got together and hammered out a common language and a protocol for this network. They developed File Transfer Protocol (FTP) and the Hyper-Text Transfer Protocol (HTTP), as well as the domain names that would be commonly used in place of the long string of numbers that identify various servers. They created the Internet that we know today.

But the problem was that even though the US Government got OUT of the Internet business, they didn’t want to STAY out. They kept on wanting to butt right back in, wanting to dictate how the Internet SHOULD be run.

First came the Communications Decency Act, government’s bullheaded modern-day version of the Alien and Sedition Act. Spearheaded by senile geriatrics and lobbied for by self-righteous anti-American organizations who claimed they were doing it for the sake of "the family", this law was not only in direct violation of the First Amendment to the US Constitution, but also contrary to the very nature of the Internet itself.

Fortunately, some sane-minded judges (or at least sane for the moment), realized what was going on and they shot down the US Government’s attempt at seizing control of the Internet for the anti-American "pro-family" groups.

But the US Government wouldn’t stop there. They kept on writing more and more laws trying to once again take control over the Internet. The bastard son of the CDA, miss-titled the "Child Online Protection Act", otherwise known as COPA or CDA 2.0, was written and signed into law just months after the US Supreme Court granted the Internet full First Amendment protections. That law is expected to be reviewed by the Supreme Court this month, and hopefully the justices will be of sound mind to once again squash this law like its anti-American predecessor.

But the anti-American, anti-freedom groups didn’t stop at the federal level. Many states soon began passing their own laws trying to regulate the Internet, often at the insistence of these groups. Fortunately, though, the courts seemed to be more aware of the issues than the dumb-ass legislators who kept on listening to the anti-freedom crowd, and they ruled that states couldn’t control Internet content either.

But others soon began to get involved, taking their lead from the US Government. The French government felt they had a right to impose their laws on Internet providers around the world. A judge there ordered the Internet portal Yahoo to block all access of Nazi memorabilia listed in their auction site, in compliance to French laws prohibiting the sale of such items. Yahoo is an American company, whose servers are located in the United States, and yet a foreign government was ordering them around. Fortunately, once again, a federal judge (in America, mind you) ruled that an American company with no physical presence in a foreign nation cannot be held by their laws.

Of course, socialist France doesn’t like that ruling. Their anti-freedom crusaders are bitching and crying that such a decision would create a "safe haven for extremists and radicals." Apparently socialist France is so wrapped up in their socialism that they don’t realize that they’ve become no different in the collectivist mentality than the Nazis themselves.

Then there are other special interest groups who have decided that they should control what goes on the net and what doesn’t. The multi-label recording industry, for instance, has already managed to shut down one file-sharing company, and are rabidly trying to shut off any other peer-to-peer services. Their rationality is as old as the Betamax video recorders they used to rally against: that any recording device will only be used for evil purposes, and therefore must be banned. It is a rationality that has been successfully challenged in court numerous times.

So the question is whose Internet is it really?

Well let’s get brutally honest here… this is OUR Internet. Not just the United States, not just France, not just the recording industry, not just Yahoo, and certainly not just the anti-freedom special interest groups who buy and sell politicians like they were baseball cards. It is OUR Internet as well. We all have a stake in it. You, me, the neighbor down the street, the elderly couple in the retirement home in Illinois, the modern-day hippies living in Berkley, the preacher living in Key West. We all have a stake in the free exchange of information that the Internet provides.

And it’s not that these anti-freedom groups don’t understand the nature of the Internet. Quite often, they do. After eight years of being in the public eye, it’s hard NOT to know the nature of the Internet. These groups are not techno-phobic. They are freedom-phobic. They’re afraid of freedom.

These groups love the idea of one unifying medium of communication. They just want to be the ones to CONTROL that medium. They are afraid, petrified even, of the idea that the average citizen can access things that are outside of their control.

It’s sort of ironic that the Recording Industry went after Sony’s Betamax, when the company turned around and tried to dictate what kind of movies would be released in the Betamax standard. Although they had a much better quality, the Betamax standard for videotapes would eventually die from obscurity when compared to the greater latitude of films produced in VHS format. A very important lesson to be learned in that regard.

One of the reasons WHY the Internet has been so successful in a relatively short span of time has been because of the vast collection of ideas that are out there. That’s something that disappears once you have groups who take it upon themselves to determine what should and should not be online. You don’t counter unfavorable speech by censoring that speech. You counter it with even MORE speech.

The Internet is, by far, the best advertisement for what freedom really is all about. Real freedom is a collective idea, but far from a collectivist one. It is about the ability of individuals to make their own decisions, not of groups dictating what those decisions will be. It is a bitter pill for these groups to swallow, but one they have better get used to, or else they will go the way of the Betamax.

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