View Thread > Development and the Internet > Policy - Question 2 > Chilling Effects
The Internet is frequently cited as having developed so successfully because it was totally unregulated. Long, slow legislative and regulatory procedures are said to be antithetical to free and fast-moving technical development where only the fittest survive. Is this a fair assessment? What are the real costs to the entire nation of the technical and market failures that litter such unregulated markets? What about the non-commercial needs of citizens (privacy, consumer protection, security from crime) that might be sacrificed on the altar of innovation? Do existing laws provide sufficient protection or must new ones be created? Are there any good examples of laws that are truly "technologically neutral"?
The question requires an a priori investigation; was the Internet ever totally unregulated? In my view the Internet, has already gone through two very distinct stages, and is currently going through a third. What may be true for one of these stages is frequently not characteristic for the others.
During the first stage, in which the Internet was created, it was used primarily by people with some level of technical know how, people who wanted to exchange information, scientists, academics, and by netizens, people who liked to play with the technology. The Internet worked very well at exchanging information, as it was designed to do. At this point it was regulated by codes, technical codes governing how computers spoke to each other, this is elaborated by Prof. Lessig in Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace, and codes of conduct which governed how a people behaved on-line,. Thus placing a website on the World Wide Web necessarily implied that you permitted and expected others to link their websites to yours. These rules allowed a great deal of freedom, allowing for innovation and experimentation. At the same time the Internet relied on a number of legal rules which permitted this freedom, such as the Federal Communications Commissions rules which prevented incumbent telecommunications network operators from stipulating what devices could be linked to the telephone wires.
The Internet became vastly more popular at the same time as entrepreneurs began to find ways to make money on-line, whether through advertising, or through on-line transactions e.g. Amazon.com. The first of these entrepreneurs understood the social consensus that governed the Internet and largely abided by it. The epochal example marking the end of this consensus was when two Californian immigration attorneys sent the first spam advertising their services, claiming freedom to do so based not on the nature of the Internet but the First Amendment. The second phase was characterized by the colonization of the Internet by commercial enterprises, many of whom did not and still do not have viable business models to make money on-line. Many of these violated the social codes e.g. by sending spam. Just as many sought to take advantage of the freedom of the medium to make a quick buck, so cyber squatters registered well known trademarks as domain names but were willing to surrender them for a fee. At the same time many of these commercial enterprises sought to use law to gain competitive advantage. After some initial hesitation various regulatory bodies ranging from courts to ICANN began to respond to these issues. At this stage the market was not a free and unregulated but rather distorted by the use of legal rules whether appropriate or otherwise. For instance some companies used legal claims ranging from copyright to trespassing to try to prevent others from linking to their website, which is inimical to the original design of the World Wide Web. The Internet has not operated free from this type of distortion sufficiently to judge whether the freedom will ultimately result in self correction, or will require correction
In the third stage we are currently witnessing the mobilization of law to entrench market positions and pre-empt competition. Internationally those governments hostile to free information attempt to dam the flow of information on-line. This view is endorsed by Howard Rheingold (See Futurist Fears End of Innovation in Wired Magazine http://www.wired.com/news/politics/0,1283,58601,00.html)
Despite the rhetoric there is very little effective protection of consumers’ rights, privacy and prevention of crime. Will regulation of the Internet be used for those ends or will it become merely an instrument for enforcing the status quo?
The design of the internet is to "route around damage". Anything that stops the free flow of information across the network is considered damage and the system is designed to get the message through despite that. So far this design has been so intrinsically beneficial that it works, in most places (China being a notable example). Is the internet immune to regulation?
IMO -- it should be.
As someone who started out as an early 'Netizen,' in the first internet era so succinctly described by Andrew Rens in his post, I'd tend to agree with Ren's analysis: there has always be some degree of regulation of the internet, be it through informal or formal structures.
As the Internet is increasingly used for more commercial and governmental transactions as well as for transactions between strangers, we should pay appropriate attention to regulations against abuse and fraud. And, given the global nature of the Internet, these regulations are probably best created by international bodies, with the stipulation that those national bodies include and consult with all appropriate stakeholders.
It is important to notice that the imperative of the free flow of information which characterises the Internet often copnstitutes a trheat because in some cases it is a matter of confusion.
But as I said in one of my responses, it is important and even possible to regulate the Internet, not on the model of China, but as France and other western countries did. That is, it is possible to establish the responsability of all the stakeholders and so to prevent disorder and chaos.
The technical and not juridical regulation is not the best one. Taking the rxample of Cameroon, it is important to say that there is a dangerous shift in the regulation of the information society, because the state is now committed to technically control the information, especially as far as teledistributors are considered for now. My fear is that this works the same with the Internet. Tather, juridical regulation is the best, with proportionate and pertinent measures beeing taken.
The reflections discussed above make an interesting reading.Like any new field-Internet is an evolving field.
An interesting discussion on e-commerce can be found on the URL given below: http://www.bannerwitcoff.com/articles/ecommerce.pdf.
Some interesting work is being done on by Chilling Effect.In their own words the "organisation" "Chilling Effects aims to help you understand the protections that the First Amendment and intellectual property laws give to your online activities".http://www.chillingeffects.org/
Thanks, Karim, for your kind comment about the Chilling Effects project <www.chillingeffects.org> where we hope to study how merely sending a complaining letter may have an adverse impact on freedom of speech online.