Geert Lovink on Wed, 20 Nov 96 08:46 MET

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nettime: Ye Old Internet Inn - Helmers/Hofmann

Ye Olde Internet Inn - A Paradise Lost?

Sabine Helmers & Jeanette Hofmann

(Abstract: 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

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

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. 

he 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

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

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