The Book Club

Common Ground

There’s this really awful experience that some teachers know–not great teachers, but ordinary teachers, or at least teachers who have not taught well. It is the experience of reading an exam from a student who just didn’t get it. There are hundreds of tricks to pass the blame–the student didn’t study; the student just isn’t bright; the student must have had a bad day, etc. But in the end, such a teacher can’t escape the feeling that the fault is in the teacher. Had the teacher–had I–done a better job in explaining it, then this student would have gotten it.

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And so it is with Richard’s latest reply. I don’t have the excuse of a slow student–trust me on that. And obviously before reviewing a book, a scholar such as Richard would have read it. So to see his latest filled with mistakes can only say something about the teacher.

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The picture that animates Richard’s third reply is “side by side” networks. This mirrors his picture of before, of many different sites at the ends of the wires, so to speak, some commercial, some not. With both pictures, the moral is the same–neither the network on the side, nor the commercial sites at the ends, will effect the value of the commons. The original Internet is that commons; the rise of commerce won’t diminish it.

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But the story I told in my book–I thought ad infinitum, but apparently not enough–was of changes that would affect the commons. Changes that would change the experience of the Net that we know right now. Changes that would make it less protective of free speech, changes that would make it more invasive of privacy, changes that would make it more susceptible to regulation, changes that would interfere with the free flow of ideas.

So take the example of regulation. It was commonplace at the start of the Internet revolution for people to celebrate the fact that life there could not be regulated. But in my book, I told the story about an increasingly “certificate-rich” Internet–meaning an Internet where people more and more frequently carried (“voluntarily”) digital IDs. In one version of that story, these IDs collect all sorts of facts about people. And in that version, these IDs are designed to be checked automatically by servers as you pass along the information highway. And thus, in that version, quite invisibly, the network is now able to identify all sorts of facts about you–whether you are an American, whether you are over 18, where you live, etc. And then, as a byproduct of this change, it becomes possible once again for local government to begin to impose regulation on people on the Net, by forcing local servers to condition access based on the features of who people are. It becomes possible, that is, to zone the net, and to re-empower government control over behavior on the Net.

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Now, the argument is a bit complex. And no doubt one could disagree with it. But it is hard for me to see how one could read that argument, and then talk about “gated communities” or “side by side” networks. The argument is about the commons, not the ends; it is about the control that is enabled for those in the Internet we know now; and it is about the control that gets enabled because of the emergence of one kind of architecture of identity. It is about a control over the commons, not a control in gated communities.

Or consider another argument at the core of the book, this one about free speech. When the concern about kids and “porn” became pressing, many said a perfect solution would be code that helped filter content on the Net. And a group of very talented architects came up with an architecture to facilitate this filtering. They called it the Platform for Internet Content Selection, or PICS. Using PICS, individual sites could rate their material, but more important, third parties could rate the material of others. PICS was valuable because it was “neutral.” The Christian Right could have its ratings; the ACLU its ratings as well. Individuals would then select the rating system they want, and then their PICS-enabled browser (as both Netscape and Internet Explorer are just now) would filter content according to this rating.

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Sounds just great. Until one notices another feature of this architecture–not only is it neutral horizontally (anyone can rate the Net), but it is also neutral vertically (the filters can be imposed at any place in the distribution chain–at the school, at the ISP, at the corporation, or conceivably, the nation). And more significant, this vertical filter would not announce itself as a filter. It could block access invisibly. So that this technology inspired to help Americans deal with the problems of “porn” would now become a technology that would lower the cost of censorship generally. And so the feature of the original Internet that people celebrated most firmly–that it embedded, architecturally, a First Amendment–would, under this plan, flip. The technology would enable just the sort of speech control the First Amendment bans.

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Now again, this is not a straightforward argument. One can disagree with it, as many have. Mike Godwin and Paul Resnick have written strong and persuasive articles against my position. And I have seen how earlier parts of my argument were wrong.

But I don’t understand how one would believe that this change that I am describing is only about gated communities, or a side-by-side network. I don’t understand how one would read this argument and not get that it is about the effect these changes will have on the commons.

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Or finally, take privacy again. Once again, Richard has a rosy story. There’s nothing to worry about in this best-of-all-possible-worlds:

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“Let Netscape track me so long as they disclose what they are doing. But I think they would lose market share if they did not allow users to disable the system with a click of the mouse, which I take it, they do.”

First let’s clear up a confusion. The question isn’t Netscape’s tracking, it is the tracking of servers that we’re describing. And second, in fact, there is no obligation to disclose anything. Sites have their “privacy policies” (has anyone ever read one of them?), but the interesting question is about sites sharing data. You give your name to one site, but choose not to give your name to another, yet unbeknownst to you, the sites are allied, and using a common cookie identification, they can share what you didn’t want shared.

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“Let them disclose,” Richard says. But why would they, absent an obligation to do so? Because again, by hypothesis, consumers don’t know the data is being shared. So they don’t know enough to punish the sharer, by reducing its market share.

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But of course, Richard says, Netscape will allow users to turn cookies off. But Richard, have you ever tried to turn cookies off and then surf the Net? Sure, both Netscape and Microsoft have given you that “option,” but the option individuals are given is not, as you predict, a technology that “allows choices to be heavily individuated.” The option is a crude one–all off, or all on, or clumsily choose at each site.

There are more efficient technologies, that wouldn’t bother you at each turn with the cookie question–you’ll recall I describe at least one in my book. But as I ask there, why would one expect the market voluntarily to adopt these technologies? For to build in a technology that allows choices to be heavily individuated is to build in a technology that increases the costs of getting data. But in Internet space, data is gold. Under the existing architecture, commercial sites get it for free. What is the mechanism that one would imagine whereby these sites adopt technologies to give up what they now get for free?

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Once again, mine is a hard argument to make. Reasonable people have disagreed with the particulars I recommend. But I don’t see how one can see this as a problem about gated communities. Once again, it is a change that affects life in the commons.

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In all these cases, the changes I am describing are changes to the core experience of life on the Net. And the question we should ask is how these changes will affect what we find valuable in the Net. The point is not against libertarians. Indeed, one could imagine a libertarian critique of emerging architectures on the Net just as one could imagine a libertarian critique of new laws for the Net. I’m not arguing about the values you should have; I’m trying to point to a newly salient threat to whatever values you might have–the regulations of code.

Trying, but not succeeding, not even with one of my brightest students. So we part ways here. You and Dr. Pangloss, me and the reality that what I thought was a fairly obvious point, I have obviously failed to convey.

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