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Ye Olde Internet Inn
A Paradise Lost?

Sabine Helmers, Jeanette Hofmann , 96

  In a paper presented at the soft society conference held at Humboldt University between 28.10. and 3.11.96 we talked about the good old days of the Internet and the heritage of the first nation in cyberspace, which now during the translation of the Internet from a researcher's idyll into a mass medium for everyone and all kinds of uses is put to the test... But were the golden days of the Internet all golden? Wasn't it an elitarian exclusive society? Similar to Greek democracy?

The Internet used to be an researchers' idyll. The neat "global village". The "good old days" of the Internet. Just listen to what sentimental pioneers used to say about those golden days. A computer elite of friendly Tekkies who developed the Internet technology and services like mailing lists, news groups, MUDs or Internet Relay Chat. They did it in a consensual way, self organized in a decentrally structured network. They didnt need bureaucracies, hierarchies or big administrations to decide how the itechnical, social or political organisation of the early Internet in the 1970s and 80s should develop. They believed in technology, in technological solutions for every occuring problem, and that there is an optimal solution to every problem. "If something needs voting upon, it can't be right".

What the First Nation in Cyberspace did not foresee is what would happen when millions of people, the so called "real world" - which consists of those strange people who work from 9 to 5, who wear neck and tie, who don't even love computers - , would become mysteriously attracted to their neat "global village" and enter in such incredible numbers.

The success, the exponential growth of the Internet since the early 1990s causes several problems. There are not enough IP adresses to cover all address demands in the near future. There will be not enough dot-com domain names available for business adresses. Unwanted advertisements spamming the news groups are spoiling the quality of the news information system. CUseemee chatter and heavy mouse click traffic on the WWW are causing disturbing net lags.

In the 1990s, all of a sudden, governments began to realize that there is already an existing Information Superhighway System - but without proper traffic rules imposed and controlled by them. Governments are now working on new laws for the just discovered data highways. Perhaps the Chinese government wishes to introduce driving licenses for the Internet? In order to get a license, Chinese applicants have to pass the censorship administration.

The traditional traffic rules of Internet are the rules of Netiquette. A basic rule is "Never disturb the flow of information!". Another rule of netiquette is "help yourself". This rule is an expression of the decentralized organisation. Another item of netiquette is: "Every user has the right to say anything and to ignore anything". Thus, in today's Internet, naughty people are free to spread naughty things like child pornography or political magazines. And governments cannot prevent their citizen from receiving such information.

All that governments can do is to _try_ to control the global flow of data when it passes their territory. China tries. Singapore tries. And this summer, also the German federal prosecutor tried to remove the political magazine "Radikal" from the German state's territory. The USA tried to impose "electronic decency": Proper communication instead of swearing, - and American standards of decency instead of all the naughty things that we see today on the Internet.

But so far, all these attempts to intervene and control have not proved to be very successful. The heritage of the early Internet developers is a network structure which makes centralized control impossible. Basically, the Internet is designed to transport data, not to select data of a certain content. What is possible and practicable are decentralized solutions if one doesnt want to get specific contents on one's screen. The first simple solution is in accordance with the right of ignoring data and consists of "Just don't look at things that you don't want to see." Another technical decentral solution for example could be the installation of childproof WWW browsers on your computer in order to prevent your children from surfing to sites with child pornography.

On the one hand, the decentralized architecture of the Internet protects it against intervention from outside. Attempts at censorship can easily be circumvented. On the other hand, this decentralized organization also presents a challenge to the Internet community: How can the Internet architecture ever be changed if there exists no form of central control and power? Or, to illustrate this point further, how can the urgently needed larger address space become established if every administrator of about 12 million host computers needs to agree upon it?

Official international standard setting bodies like ISO solve such problems in a classical way: representation and voting. Each member country sends a delegate who represents national interests. Such formal procedures, however, don't work for the Internet community. Neither are there any legal bodies with formal rights, nor representatives or binding votes. Everybody who wants to participate in the development of new standards is invited to do so. Meetings and mailing lists are open for all who want to attend. Everyone represents only her- or himself. Decisions are achieved by "rough consensus". So far, this transparent and inclusive procedure has been accepted as a legitimate way of dealing with questions and problems relevant for all Internet users. However, the Internet's capacity of self-organization becomes challenged - not least by its success. The more people attend the developers' meetings and subscribe to their relevant mailing lists, the more difficult it becomes to maintain the traditional open attitude towards newcomers. This is especially true for the integration of "newbies" unaware of the Internet's technological history and its specific social constitution.

Another challenge concerns legal and political interventions in the Internet. The transformation of the Internet to a mass medium is beginning to affect economic and political interests. For example, who cared about domain names two years ago? For a few bucks, everybody could buy any name. Domain names like Stanford, MTV or MacDonalds were given to those who came first. In the meantime, however, companies start law suits against each other to protect their names also on the Internet. Thus, life in cyberspace becomes legally relevant. Trade Mark Ownerships and copyright matters become new topics of net life.

The same is true for political aspects. National governments have begun to worry about the free flow of information. This not only concerns the publication of forbidden documents or pictures. Another bone of contention refers to to the supply of software - especially programs for data encryption. While according to the national law of many countries the export of encryption technology is prohibited, the global architecture of the Internet knows no national borders. Every program or document offered publically in one country can also be downloaded from anywhere else. Because of its global structure, national law does not really apply on the Internet.

As far as the further technical development of the Internet is concerned, traditional methods have been opposed to for quite some time by international standardization boards. They often criticize the results of Internet technology development as being "too simple", "immature" or "favouring firms". The conventional standard organisations of the real world tried to provide an alternative to the Internet standard - for example the x25 or x400 protocol group. The size and range of the Internet today make competing initiatives such as this look somehow ridiculous. Looking at it from today's level of development and achieved global dimension, something like that is just bound to fail.

The free flow of information and the free speach online that we observe on the Internet today have a good chance of survival in the future because they are built into the structure of this network. But this is not the only element of the "global village heritage" which is challenged during the transformation of the neat research network to an "everyday" network open to anyone and any use. Also the traditional methods of self-regulation are put to the test.

The tradition of self-regulation in a research network which made both technical and communicative experiments on an advanced technology platform possible, led to the development of the Internet as we know it today. This development was based on initiative, competence and self-responsibility regarding one idea: the flow of data.

Everyone on the Internet can show their initiative, self-responsibility and social competence. A high level of technical competence, however, is something that cannot be expected of everyone. Internet insiders are the only ones who understand what is being negotiated in RFCs and discussed during developers' meetings. Independent representatives of consumers' rights such as the German Stiftung Warentest are still missing from this area. Today, life on the network is made easier by the mere click of a mouse button, "brownie"-like agent programmes and self- installing software.

The Internet is the most successful open network to date. This success is especially due to its being open to development. Open to technical, communicational, informational and social experiments. Open to play with new ideas and see what happens.

Measures of regulation, bureaucratic administration and control, which are actually established or considered necessary to transform the Net to make it suitable for mass use, constitute a violation of this openness and its dynamics.

Regulations that are enforced by external stipulations and laws may either fail to have real effects or may cause damage to the system - but some of them will perhaps show positive results. Besides any of those positive results, which could be achieved by external regulations, there will certainly be changes, which many people who have learned to appreciate the decentral, self-organized dynamic Internet architecture would consider downright negative. The possible price to pay for mass use could be a slowing-down and restriction of its innovativeness. Wouldn't a bureaucratic Internet be rather boring compared to the lively, flexible, dynamic Internet of the "good old days"?

What will the Internet look like at the end of its transformation phase? Everything nice and clean and shiny? Full communication decency - along American legal guidelines? Or Chinese guidelines? Every technical Internet standard proved "ok" by national and international standard organizations? Instead of "Request for Comment"-discussions and "rough consensus" long years of formal procedures by the slow working machinery of those standard orga- nisations? High security standards apply and the netizens can safely buy goods with their credit cards via the net? Every user action can be traced back to its origin and evil hackers will no longer have a chance to hide behind fake user identities? Cyber Angels on patrol on every corner, fighting for a safe and clean Internet neighborhood? Their under-cover agents spy upon Internet communications in public places and report any offences to what those upholders of moral standards find appropriate? No more dark corners? No dangerous security glitches?

Would this be the future network which has been promised as the datahighway system for the information society? A brave new world??

If all concerned would be satisfied with this possible future, fine. But we strongly doubt that such a vision of a global communication infrastructure will be generally approved. The internet pioneers already are moaning about the Internet's colonization by the real world. They complain that the golden days are over. Instead of just lamenting or withdrawing from the scene though, one can keep an eye on new possibilities and potentials for improvements which may result of the current Internet transformation.

The Olde Internet Inn may have been the neat meeting place with friendly techie atmosphere as they used to say. But is was restricted to certain members. A sometimes arrogant insiderism kept people with less technical competence out of their cosy Pub. Poor users had to rely on their cranky sysop's kindliness. The RFC-discussions and meetings which excluded those unable to follow the techie's technical discussions on Internet technology and its development.

Internet's oral history knows a lot of legends about cultural heroes and cultural truths. They used to say things like "On the internet, no one knows that you are a dog". Communication on the Net brings equality to all users - even the dogs have equal rights and chances and they communicate just like any other netizen. Every netizen is free to participate in the development of the next generation of the internet protocol.

Yes, the old internet _was_ participatory and democratic. - But democratic in an exclusive way rather like ancient Greek democracy. The traditional Internet community of netizens was similar to the Greek community system which included only their citizens, the "Politai", and excluded all foreigners and slaves from civil rights.

Any future information society should be participatory and democratic. Perhaps we could try to transform the former Greek community of the old Internet into a more open organization which does not operate with labels like "slave" and "foreigner" or "luser", "newbie" and "real world people". In this respect, the present call for regulation offers a chance for more democratic participation for _all_ netizens - techies as well as non-techies.


home page about us documents miscellaneous sitemap
home page about us documents miscellaneous sitemap

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