Fear of a Web planet

Everyone can find some reason to worry that the Internet is "out of control," but what's the alternative?

Published January 11, 2001 7:47PM (EST)

One of the fine things about the Internet is that columnists get to share the burden of their labors. In any other medium, if a publication presented its readers with an argument as self-evidently silly as Caleb Carr's call for government "regulation" (i.e. censorship) of the Internet -- as Salon's Books site did on Monday -- a dissenting columnist would have to trudge wearily through the original article's rhetoric, pointing out its logical potholes and factual lacunae. On the Net, within hours of the piece's publication, you, the Salon readership, had, in a flood of e-mail, picked the bones of this carcass clean.

Here's a brief recap: A) Why trust an inevitably political government agency to do a fair job of sorting "fact" from lies online? B) If you're going to protect the public from "flawed" information online, why stop there? Shouldn't TV, radio, movies, newspapers and Carr's own books all be similarly "regulated"? C) There's no basis for assuming that people are any more stupid about sorting out lies from truth online than they are in any other medium. D) Even if there were, the Internet is way too vast to "regulate" by prior review of content, and even if you hired enough reviewers to vet the Web, what about e-mail, chat and all the other uses of the Internet? E) Even if you instituted a mammoth Federal Internet Content Review Board, it would be powerless to regulate Net content emerging from outside U.S. borders. F) Relax, since Carr's proposals could never pass constitutional muster, at least as long as John "dancing is dangerous" Ashcroft doesn't get to name his own Supreme Court majority.

There will always be nervous paternalists -- from all ends of the political spectrum -- who fret that the public should be shielded from "bad" ideas, "flawed" information, "biased" reporting and speech that could dangerously corrode the collective moral character. Fortunately for U.S. citizens, the combination of a strong First Amendment and a fragile but enduring national consensus embracing freedom of speech has always kept such proposals safely in the realm of ideas.

As the old saw goes, I may not agree with Carr but I'll defend to the death his right to argue for censorship. The moment such an argument mutates from speech to action, I'll begin to worry and fight. That crucial distinction between ideas and behavior -- though fraught with legal tension -- remains a helpful principle in navigating the issue of Internet regulation. In general, U.S. law has been more reluctant to regulate speech or information than to regulate commerce or transactions; since the Internet is widely used for both purposes, people get confused easily.

"The Internet is so very much more than a mere entertainment or news medium: It is also a research library, a marketplace and a schoolroom," Carr writes. Well, yes, sort of. If I operate a virtual school or store on the Web I may find my school affected by regulations applying to schools or stores elsewhere. The New York Times may be used in the classroom, and it may sell advertisements, but that doesn't make it a "school" or a "store" rather than a newspaper; and the news operations of an Internet company are no less deserving of First Amendment protection simply because other people may use the same medium for other purposes.

Carr's proposal may be odious to Net users steeped in the online culture's libertarian individualism, but there's no question that it represents the extreme edge of a much wider cultural distrust of the perceived anarchy of the Internet. Many Internet-rights partisans who roll their eyes at Carr will nonetheless support and promote government regulation of the Net in the area of personal privacy. In a story with a characteristic libertarian stance complete with a Cato Institute quote, Wired News reports that Ralph Nader is now calling for a global agency to protect Internet consumers' privacy and combat fraud. No matter where you sit, you probably have reason, somewhere in your psyche, to worry about the apparent absence of any controlling authority on the Net.

I say "perceived anarchy" and "apparent absence" because in truth, though the Internet is more decentralized and anarchic than any preceding medium with similar mass availability, it is not nearly as "out of control" as its more wild-eyed prophets have envisioned, or as its more paranoid critics, à la Carr, have insisted. The Internet is the creation of human beings and -- it's almost too obvious to point out, isn't it? -- human beings remain subject to the laws of their nations.

If child pornography is against the law in the U.S., it remains against the law, online or offline. If selling "Mein Kampf" is against the law in Germany and your store wants to do business in Germany, you will have to figure out a way to stop selling it in Germany. Yahoo has recently faced a French court order to block access to pro-Nazi sites and sale of Nazi paraphernalia through its auction service -- and while Yahoo's core U.S. operations may not be subject to French law, the company has a French subsidiary that surely is.

The Internet's technical architecture may make compliance with the law harder for certain kinds of businesses, and it may sometimes make it easier for individuals to evade the law, but it neither suspends nor abrogates the law itself. What protect free speech on the Net, ultimately, are laws that protect free speech in general, and courts -- like those that struck down the Communications Decency Act -- that understand enough about the Net to extend the umbrella of those laws over it.

Given all this, what is it about the Net that instills such a widespread sense that it is out of control, for good or ill? Probably the combination of its relatively decentralized technical structure and its sheer accessibility -- its "everyone's a publisher now" mass empowerment. For every Web-publishing neophyte who finds this exhilarating, there's a Caleb Carr who finds it terrifying and shouts, "There oughta be a law!"

Any time anyone raises a concern that someone is going to "control the Net" it boils down to this: Will the person be able to stop you and me from using the Net to communicate what we want to whomever we want? Today, this means "anyone can publish a Web site and anyone with Web access can reach it" -- and the Web remains healthily "uncontrolled," despite fears that telecom giants like WorldCom or software-standards controllers like Microsoft or access providers like America Online might somehow take over. Tomorrow, it means that each new iteration of Net technology, whether it's wireless or "peer to peer" services or some other innovation, will either continue to uphold this healthy openness of access -- or not.

The moment some large company tries to Balkanize the Net is the moment we will learn whether the public's inchoate fear of Internet anarchy is greater than its enthusiasm for the grand experiment of a many-to-many informational free-for-all. Could some new, walled-off, proprietary service find tons of customers and profits? You can bet more than one company will try. But I'm willing to bet that it's precisely the openness and unpredictability of today's Net -- qualities that cause Carr to quail -- that constitute its appeal to millions of people, who would otherwise be quite content with their existing choices of media. Sure, that openness sometimes reveals disturbing aspects of our collective psyche -- crazy people, hate-filled people and people we disagree with get to spout off, too -- but it also brings us remarkable new vistas of human creativity and passion.

If you've ever published a Web site of your own -- be it an ambitious professional undertaking or a simple personal page -- you know the excitement of realizing that anyone on the planet with Net access could potentially read your contribution, even though in practice only a tiny fraction ever will. Once you've felt this, you don't want it to change. I'm guessing that Caleb Carr has never built a Web page -- because if he had, I have to believe that he would stop worrying about "information poisoning" and embrace the Internet's unprecedented exchange of human ideas, in all their glorious imperfection.

By Scott Rosenberg

Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg is director of MediaBugs.org. He is the author of "Say Everything" and Dreaming in Code and blogs at Wordyard.com.

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