Understanding the Internet and GovernmentsSubmitted by ajze on Sat, 02/27/2010 - 06:28
This essay was originally posted as a response to this thread:
I felt that it was important enough to have it's own thread
I work in IT. From experience, I know that few people truly understand how and why the Internet works.
Most politicians know that the Internet exists. Many of them know that there are a lot of campaign donations in enforcing copyright laws. Many know that the Internet can be used to commit crimes, and stopping crime gets votes. Recently, many have heard that the Internet is a great tool for campaigning. Some of them have even used the Internet a few times. I guarantee you that not even Ron Paul could explain how and why the Internet works.
People who use the Internet regularly know that it is an invaluable resource that allows access to an unfathomable amount of information. Almost no one knows why or how it works.
The Internet is based on a few simple principles:
1. Open Standards and interoperability
2. Private property
3. Private contracts
4. Value is derived from maximizing communication
These four ingredients are all that is necessary to make the Internet work.
The cornerstone of the Internet is open standards. These standards were designed and agreed on by the people and companies who built the Internet. They are constantly revised, updated and replaced by engineers and companies with a vested interest. These people understand that if they want their products to be useful, they need to be able to communicate with as many other products as possible. To do this they must follow the standards. If a standard doesn't exist, they write and publish one, so they can benefit when other companies follow that standard. The rule here is follow protocol (the relevant standards) or your product won't work with the rest of the world and therefore won't be as valuable as those that do.
Private property is also essential. Almost every single piece of equipment and software connected to the Internet is privately owned. Governments own some pieces relevant to their interests, but these pieces are very small and the Internet would continue to function just fine without them. Every computer, wire and program is privately owned. This means that there is someone who is responsible for it's maintenance and making sure it is working properly. These people have a vested interest in making sure their pieces continue to work.
Owning equipment and following the protocols (standards) is not enough to connect to the Internet. The third and final piece of the puzzle is private contracts. Any time a piece of information crosses an ownership boundary on the Internet, there is a contract that states, sometimes in extremely precise technical detail, the exact nature of that boundary, what the responsibilities of the two parties on either side are and what it can and cannot be used for. These contracts range in scope from the average person's agreement with their Internet access provider all the way to the agreements governing connections among the largest telecommunications companies in the world.
The final piece of the puzzle isn't really an individual piece. It's what you get when you put them all together. The Internet has value because all of the standards, equipment and contracts have one common goal. That goal is to enable anyone who connects to the network and follows the standards to be able to communicate with anyone else who does the same. By communicate, I don't just mean send messages. I mean share ANY information in ANY format those people wish to exchange. It is very fast and very reliable. It is the ultimate platform for free speech, freedom of the press (that's freedom to publish, not freedom of reporters) and freedom of assembly. There is a saying that the Internet sees censorship as damage and automatically routes around it - just like it would a broken cable or crashed computer. This is because all of the people involved at the technical level and enough of the people at the administrative level understand one thing: The Internet is ONLY valuable to the extent that it enables unhindered communications among anyone and any thing connected to it.
The only reason the Internet exists and will continue to exist is that it's value exceeds the huge investment made by companies and individuals to build and operate it. Because the Internet is based on open protocols and standards, the barrier to entry is very low. All of the equipment that makes up the Internet is considered to be commodity like - one company's equipment will work just as well as another's, for the most part. There is a huge amount of competition in the Internet world, so margins are VERY thin. In addition, every person and company on the Internet is responsible for his own security and well-being. There are no Internet Police, although some law enforcement agencies like to pretend they are. This and many other costs must be carefully balanced by all the companies who connect to the Internet.
Governments have no hope of coming anywhere close to matching the expertise and careful decision making of the tens (maybe hundreds?) of thousands of companies and over ONE BILLION individuals who comprise the Internet today. Since they first heard the word Internet, governments have been trying to get a handle on it. They do not and CAN NOT fully understand it. There is no one size fits all policy that can make the Internet more valuable than it is right now. Already, governments have significantly reduced the utility and value of the Internet by imposing regulations on it. The more they meddle, the more value they will destroy. Every single person who is a part of the Internet is working and will continue to work to find ways to route around the damage they cause. Eventually, however, governments may succeed in reducing the value of the Internet to the point that it's not worth fighting for. I don't know if they can do it, but I know we can fight against them.
Top threats to the Internet from government (in no particular order):
- Net Neutrality - This refers to an ongoing debate on how much an individual or company acting as a carrier (access provider) can restrict access to their network for PAYING CUSTOMERS. The market can (and does) effectively regulate this by avoiding carriers who are overly restrictive. The government cannot effectively make this decision, although they have in the past. Many will disagree with me on this.
- Censorship - Many governments want to restrict the content of communications on the Internet. This cannot be done reliably without significantly changing the way the Internet works, and imposing heavy regulation. In general, legitimate laws that restrict speech apply to the Internet already (slander, liable, privacy protections, sexual assault, stalking, threats, blackmail etc.) All laws are enforced after the fact. The Internet cannot hope to be any different. Many governments also seek to make things illegal on the Internet that may be legal in the physical world.
- Copyright - The right to control creative works (essentially ideas) is NOT a natural or fundamental right. It is a synthetic right granted by governments to encourage creativity for the good of everyone. The original term of copyright was 7 years with optional 7 year extension. If it were still in effect, every book, movie, song, play, television show, painting and more produced before 1996 would be public domain and, therefore, legal to publish freely on the Internet. Under current copyright law, authors enjoy exclusive rights to their ideas for their lifetime plus 70 years. It is within the power of congress to change or abolish this at their discretion and our demand. Completely enforcing copyright law on the Internet is currently impossible.
- Over 6 Mil. other laws - On the Internet, individuals and companies are responsible for complying with all the same laws they are responsible for in real life. Including Federal, State and Local law, most people are responsible for over 6 million individual laws. No one can know them all, but "fishing expeditions" are relatively easy on the Internet. Actions commonly taken by people on the Internet are illegal, even though many may not realize it. Many of these actions can be traced back to the individuals involved. There is always a danger of being prosecuted for a crime of which you were unaware. It is also common for law enforcement and courts to apply existing laws to the Internet in incorrect or counterintuitive ways, because they do not understand the Internet and there are few guidelines to follow. Preventing this means improving and encouraging secure and anonymous communications and repealing or modifying unjust and unnecessary laws.