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Re: The Disappearance of Public Space on the Net
Jason Wehling on Fri, 12 Jan 96 09:08 MET


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Re: The Disappearance of Public Space on the Net


On Thu, 11 Jan 1996, Jack Jansen wrote:

[snip...]

> While the commercialism may be a Bad Thing, I see little reason to
> worry about control: in Holland, for example, there are two companies
> with international infrastructure, and attempts by one of them to
> exercise control over their part of the net would probably lead other
> national providers to setup their own international links in a short
> time.
> 
> Look at how fast Compuserve reverted their decision to ban the
> sex-related newsgroups for an example of how hard a time providers
> have if they try to exercise control over content...

Well, first I'd like to say that I do not claim to be even close to an 
expert on this stuff. I made some comments -- well -- fishing for what I 
have found to be elusive truths about the physical structure of the Net 
in the U.S.

What is the structure? Well it appears to be evolving into a system that 
is even more decentralized than in the past (again, speaking exclusively 
of the U.S. section). Is this good. Well it appears to be in that regard 
only. Is it becoming privatized? I think it's obvious that the answer is 
yes. 

So what does this mean in regards to control? Well I'm not totally sure 
we can make clear judgements yet. I think Compuserve is a good example to 
look at. From the reports, I gather that a government offical in a 
German state asked for the removal of certain newsgroups and Compuserve 
laid down without a second thought. Of course this has been reversed, but 
I see something more sinister there. Did Compuserve have the ability or 
the right to censor? I think the unfortunate answer is yes. Basically 
they were convinced, for whatever reason, not to exercise this ability 
and right. What I mean by "not pretty" is that this "right" and "ability" 
even exist.

You also give the example of Holland. But what about a country like Poland 
-- with just one internet provider? What kind of rights do netizens have 
if they happen to live in Poland? Not much is the unfortunate reality. 
Basically the coumpany (I can't remember it's name off hand) can charge 
whatever it likes for access.

I think two issues in regards to the continuing privatization of the Net 
are paramount: 1) pricing and cost for access and 2) drawing clear 
distintions between providers of content and providers of access (or 
conduit).

I think the monopolization (or more likely, the 
oligopolization) of the physical mechanics of the Net can (and most 
likely will) lead to increasing costs for access. Now of course the exact 
opposite arguement is made. Basically most will say that increasing 
cometition leads to lower prices. But looking at history, I'd say it's 
safe to maintain that this "free market" doesn't last for long. Look at 
any industry. It is true, that in virgin industries (like the internet) a 
large number of companies usually vie for market share. But it doesn't 
take long before a market levels off and in consolidated into a smaller 
number of firms that wield enormous percentages of the market. Look at 
petroleum, automobilies, steel, timber, whatever -- the stories are very 
similar. 

So we have a myriad of companies involved in the Net now. But what about 
in five years? Ten years? I think it will look much different in the near 
future. 

This is of course a biased position on privatization -- these are my 
opinions and fears. But I think the issue of content versus conduit is 
much more obvious. What is Compuserve -- a provider of access or a 
provider of content? The courts have ruled that Prodigy (not much 
different than Compuserve) is a privder of content. This means that they 
are essentially a publisher. And as a publisher, they can say whatever 
they like -- but also have the right to censor anything they like as well.

On the other hand, a provider of access, like the telephone company, 
can't censor content -- at least according to U.S. courts. What is 
Compuserve? What is Delphi? There are a ton of companies out there 
providing access, with no classification (yet) as to whether they have 
the right to censor.

Now I would imagine that most companies that provide access do not 
provide content as well -- right now. So the nifty saying that the Net 
recognizes censorship as damage and routes around it still holds true. 
But again, as privatization increases -- so too does the number of 
institutions that operate on a for-profit basis. Content is very 
profitable. Just look at the phenomenal growth of companies like America 
Online. What about a (likely) future where a majority of companies that 
provide access also provide and control content? I think this is very scary 
and unfortunately a very real possibility.

Now again, I'll step back from my comments and ask others what they think 
about this? Please tell me that I'm paranoid and that there are strong 
mechanisms to stop this from happening. Unfortunately, to-date, I've been 
able to find nothing to contradict my fears.

Curious and humbly,
___________________________________________________________________________ 
"We are convinced that freedom without Socialism is privilege 
and injustice, and that Socialism without freedom             Jason Wehling 
is slavery and brutality."                        Email: <jason {AT} ee.pdx.edu> 
-- Mikhail Bakunin.                     Home: http://www.ee.pdx.edu/~jason/ 
___________________________________________________________________________