It is easy to make fun of the Internet's current culture of free-lunch libertarianism. Its leaders don't want to be taxed, regulated, or trammeled in any way--meanwhile taking for granted that they can run to the sheriff when threatened by copyright pirates or local toughs like Microsoft. But the question of Net regulation has become more genuinely interesting than many people would have foreseen. In its pose of resistance to the State, the Net has evolved informal solutions to problems that, unsolved, might have invited regulation.
Elsewhere in this issue, Paul Starr talks about the economically "inexplicable" behavior of people who spend time and money putting information online [see "The Electronic Commons," page 30], ultimately for no reason other than the hope that someone else will look at it. In Hyde Park this desire to be heard just becomes a nuisance, but the limitless capacity of the Net has allowed the creation of a new sphere of public discussion we would never have anticipated from rational self-interest models of behavior.
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In similarly surprising and resilient ways, the Net has for now steered its unregulated self around potentially serious difficulties:
News. In theory, the Net supplies a printing press to every nut, bigot, and rumor-monger. But without censorship or any formal ratings system, the established news media and individual citizens have found ways to decide which Net sources to listen to. Only flat-earthers can now deny that we are better informed, as individuals and as a culture, with the Net than we were before.
Trust. When anyone can hide behind the Net's anonymity, and no one's bona fides can be known, extra information could become sheer cacophony, with no way to judge which of the numerous listings, reviews, or tip sheets to believe. But a brisk market has sprung up in "collaborative filtering" systems, which point people toward advice likely to deserve their trust.
Search. With Net content doubling every three months, people looking for information might drown in it--or find only what big commercial providers decide to put in reach. In fact, search-engine technology has evolved with amazing speed and subtlety. While the Net, like the universe, is zooming outward faster than any tool that could explore it, you are far more likely to find what you're looking for, fast, on the Net than you are anyplace else information is stored (including your own computer's hard disk).
Standards. There are two potential nightmare scenarios for Net standards: the "Windows" nightmare, in which a single company owns the technical standard for the entire industry, and the "cell phone" nightmare, in which competing standards lead to incompatible, shoddy service. But the Net's self-governing bodies, notably the World Wide Web Consortium, have managed to establish broadly accepted standards no single company owns. They have done so with government blessing but no government enforcement.
Revenue. The Net's novel business model, in which print operations give away their content for free and music companies don't wage serious war against free downloading, might have gutted the for-pay branches of those industries so quickly that regulation was called for. Different copyright laws will eventually be necessary, but common sense adjustments--and the print world's gamble that someday it can sell online ads--have slowed the damage enough to let the Net model emerge.
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It is worth recognizing the areas where the Net has avoided regulation, to be clearer about the conflicts that informal agreements just cannot solve. Here are the big three:
Privacy. There is a strong economic incentive for companies to sell or exploit data the Net allows them to collect: who we are, what we buy, what medicines we need. The offsetting market forces are feeble and slow--consumers can't really tell what's going on or distinguish responsible from reckless companies. Laws spelling out what can and can't be used are the only hope.
Access. This is conceptually simple. Like running water, electric supply, and phone service, modern computer connections should be considered a public utility. The market will naturally serve most eligible customers; regulation and policy should ensure service to the rest, as was the case with all previous utilities. We needn't bother with talk about a "digital divide," a largely bogus concept. (Adjusted for income, minorities are as likely to use the Net as whites. The real "divide" involves jobs in the tech industry.) Instead we can think of high-speed Net connections as this era's water pipes.
Taxation. Alan Keyes's moment of maximum lucidity came in a South Carolina debate, when he mocked the Bush-McCain pretense that because companies call themselves "dot-com," they should magically be spared the tax burden borne by neighbors running "normal" businesses. There is no logical case, nor any infant-industry claim, for considering Net companies too modern for old concepts like tax. But there is no chance of the industry deciding how to tax itself.
Other questions will soon emerge--for example, and weirdly, whether there is still a public role in funding basic high-tech research, like the discoveries that led to ARPANET and thence to the Internet, since the venture capital now inundating Net companies is mainly for marketing experiments with time horizons of a few months or years. But the Net has intriguingly scrambled the issue of what can be solved by private ingenuity and what will require collective action. ¤