Information poisoning

By Caleb Carr

Published January 10, 2001 6:00PM (EST)

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Carr's article advocating regulation of the Internet is not just wrong, it's far, far wrong. I will put it simply.

First, given a choice between government regulation and corporate, which one do you think has a greater chance of getting it very wrong -- badly enough to stifle the Internet and free speech in general? Is his memory so short that he has forgotten the Alien and Sedition Acts of World War I? Or the break-ins and harassment that Vietnam-era dissenters had to face? The list of government tramplings on free speech is so long that it should be a fair warning to him. This one should be automatic for him -- he's an author.

Second, show us why the Internet is different from a book or a magazine. The author writes it, I read it; that should make both of them totally immune from any sort of regulation. You don't need a license to print books -- why should you need a license to communicate over the Internet? Or is the coming of the Internet just an excuse to regulate more than the Internet?

Third, we have plenty of corporate attempts to stifle individuality and free speech now; they are not working very well, and I'm not worried about the state of communications in the USA. It's people like Carr who worry me.

-- Jim Rivera

As the federal Internet monitor for all online journals beginning with the letter S, I hereby notify you that I have applied to the director of FITAA (Federal Internet Truth and Accuracy Administration) for legal and injunctive relief against Salon for publishing an article titled "Information Poisoning" by one Caleb Carr.

Pursuant to statute, this article was reviewed for truth and accuracy and found to be in violation of the law in numerous respects, to wit:

1. Carr states that the Internet is "making people dumber" and that "people assume what they read on the Net is true." He does not cite, even in passing, any facts, studies or surveys that support these assertions, which I find to be untrue, inaccurate, misleading and in violation of law.

2. Carr states that the Internet provides people with "massive amounts of information" but does not teach them "how to assemble those bits of information into integrated bodies of knowledge." Although these statements are technically true, I find that they are reasonably likely to mislead the public into believing that it is the responsibility of the Internet, rather than of educational institutions, to teach how knowledge may be extracted from information. Such misleading statements are proscribed by the consumer protection portions of the statute.

3. Carr argues that the Internet therefore encourages preoccupation with "material appetites" and undermines civil society. As above, the author offers no facts in support of these claims, which are belied by substantial evidence of material appetitiveness predating the Internet and by the flourishing of civil society in the United States today. Accordingly, I again find these statements to be false and misleading, in violation of federal law.

4. In addition, the article did not contain the required limitation coding necessary to prevent it from being read by unlicensed and/or underage Internet users, again in violation of law.

Be advised that in reviewing this matter and its disposition, the director of FITAA may take into account the prompt and good-faith action of Salon in removing the above-referenced article from its server.

Hereof fail not.

-- James F. Trumm

Carr's proposals will turn people into what he appears to fear most, "machines." People do not need an external agency to tell them whether a piece of information is true or not. Unlike machines, humans have the ability to determine the validity and accuracy of pieces of information on their own (through a variety of methods).

As for corporate control, perhaps Carr should actually try surfing the Web.

-- Nadeeem Riaz

So much of what the Internet contains is untrue and socially damaging! Therefore, we must regulate it for the good of the people -- for they are not capable of discerning falsehood from truth; nor can they properly discern between socially progressive values and their own narrow interests. No, it's not Red China (though we don't blame you for thinking so), but the future as brought to you by Caleb Carr!

And who, you ask, will determine truth? Who will decide what is socially redeeming? The government, of course! Sure, the government may have fed plutonium to school kids, deceived black males about their syphilis treatments, sank us into Vietnam and bungled a recent election -- but fear not, it's still perfectly competent to decide what you can and cannot read online. Carr assures us of this, and we, as dutiful citizens, ought to transcend our own narrow interests and believe him.

After all, it's a choice between government and corporate control, isn't it? That's it, says Carr, and we shouldn't let the uncountable majority of independently operated and individually controlled Web sites contradict his inescapable truth. Thank you for realizing what is best for your fellow man; I salute your determination not to let facts interfere with your bold vision.

Once Carr's regime of licensing and verification is in place, we can at last begin cracking down on the rumor-mongers and liars who deceive the public and slander our well-meaning government. Like the editors of Salon, for example.

-- Joshua Trevino

In his article Carr worries about the increasing power of corporations. While I share his concern, his argument for government regulation of Internet content seems highly dubious.

Carr's reference to the role of the FCC in regulating content on television is ironic, as for the most part television presents a more sanitized and corporate-controlled environment than the unregulated print or online domains. In fact it was this magazine that discovered that the government (leveraging on these rules) used its power to hinder honest communication about drugs on television. There is no reason to believe similar violations would not occur if the Internet was regulated. In fact if content was regulated for truthfulness we should expect the government to suppress the "false" scientific and social information disagreeing with its claims.

Secondly there is a general trend that a higher cost of expression increases corporate power. When most communication was by word of mouth or speech the influence of corporations was low compared to that of friends and society at large, but with the advent of television and mass distribution print media, only corporations and very rich individuals could communicate with enough people to significantly affect society. The Internet, with its broad distribution and low publication cost, is finally allowing private citizens the same powers as major corporations. Any attempt to regulate the veracity of online content will necessarily increase this publishing cost (through either red tape or the risk of a fine) and thereby discourage individual citizens from offering their own alternative content.

-- Peter Gerdes

Although I agree with many of the basic tenets Carr posits, I find it somewhat ignorant of him to suggest that a regulatory body for the entire Internet be established. Such an idea is impractical, unabashedly Ameri-centric and directed at the wrong problem.

Any attempt at regulating the Internet will fail, for many reasons. First, of course, is that the Internet is so expansive, consisting of so many individual pages, that any government body trying to regulate it would have to be huge. There are millions of individual sites, and probably billions of individual pages, graphics and sound files. Even with citizen participation to help weed out the bad pages, this would still be an impossible task. By contrast, there are, at most, just thousands of radio and television stations. Clearly, keeping an eye on those is a bit easier than the Internet; this is why they are regulated and the Web is not.

Maybe, to simplify this task, the government body could skip some sites? Perhaps a teenager's home page that is important only to a small group of friends doesn't need government oversight. Only the bigger Web sites need be checked. Of course, some hate or child pornography sites might have the same low profile and hit count. How does one determine the difference? It's too difficult to draw this sort of line.

Also, the Internet -- and I cannot emphasize this enough -- is not synonymous with the World Wide Web. In addition to the Web, which we are all familiar with, there is e-mail, IRC and Usenet. IRC, basically a large, unmonitored chat service, has all sorts of illegal activities taking place on it (the sale of stolen credit card numbers and trading in various forms of pornography being the most typical). Usenet, too, is too large for one body to govern it; that's why various newsgroups have their own guiding principles.

Second, despite the beliefs of many individuals (and the Chinese government), the Internet does not exist within one country. The World Wide Web is just that: worldwide. The United States would have no say on a site that was, say, set up in Britain (.uk), France (.fr) or New Zealand (.nz). Even if one limited the power of the body to just .us, .com, .net and .org, problems would still come up. Many sites on those domains are from other countries, and those companies probably would not agree to have another country mandate what appeared on their site.

There are other, better ways to stop the future Carr describes in his book from occurring. If one wants to stop the increasing corporate control, lobby the FTC against approving megamergers like AOL Time Warner and News Corp.'s purchase of television stations from Chris-Craft Industries. To prevent children from turning into "databases of minutiae," teach them in school how to link these pieces of information together. And while you're at it, teach them better reasoning skills so that they can determine the difference between fiction and truth.

The beauty of the Internet is that it is so unregulated that anyone with an idea and computer access can post his views to the world. Regulation, whether government or corporate, would take that away. That would be a very dystopian future indeed.

-- Nick Gorski

I've worked in the information economy (computers and more recently Internet technologies) for almost 20 years now and I find nothing in Carr's essay that I care to disagree with. Like Carr, I do not see the Internet as any kind of magic silver bullet solution to any vexing social problem. It is just a technology and a medium. There is almost nothing special about Internet technologies and media that warrants treating them differently under the law from other inventions and forms of communications. (The one exception I can think of is that the Internet renders conventional geopolitical borders almost meaningless -- almost. We can still control most access to most of our communication infrastructure -- if we choose to do so.) We can choose to leave the Internet unregulated and in so doing let private, for-profit corporations regulate it their way. If we do, we can expect Internet versions of unsafe tires à la Firestone, bankrupt public utilities &agrave la PG&E and savings and loan debacles à la Silverado. If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, the street lighting is provided by corporate fiduciary responsibility.

-- Jim Martino

I agree with Carr in most respects. I am an engineer working in the telecommunications industry and I am exposed to a lot of new technology. I can see the effect it has on those around me and the public in general.

However, I feel that Carr has fallen into the trap that most Americans seem to: He appears to think that the U.S. has a monopoly on the Internet. The world is a much larger place than that, I assure you.

For government regulation to have any chance at working, it has to be a unanimously agreed upon international system. And that, I'm afraid, is as likely to fall apart as any other international agreement.

Organizations like Interpol work well enough because traditionally criminals have had to physically move around, and there are relatively few attractive targets. On the Internet, I can hack a system just as easily from the other side of the world as I can from the building next door. I don't have to work from a country that has agreed to an international treaty.

-- Simon Green

By Salon Staff

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