Monday, 22 June 2009

Coming of Age?

These weeks mark the end of my 21st year on the Internet. I had been using BBSs before, but in 1988 I managed to get an account with a U.S. commercial service offering email, ftp, and Usenet access. To reach it from my native Italy I didn't use any form of TCP/IP directly: I used an X.25 network with my trusty 300 bps modem attached to a Commodore Amiga 500.

Of course it was a completely different world: there was no World Wide Web, however you were still able to email or even find on Usenet people like the engineers who had designed the very computer you were using to get on the Net. During those years, there were lot of people talking about Cyberpunk as a way of (real) life, or of almost forgotten concepts like TAZs, temporary autonomous zones. Untile the end of the nineties, there was a lot of debate about what really the Internet is - or was.

Reading the new edition of "Who controls the internet? - Illusions of a Borderless World?" by Jack Goldsmith and Tim Wu made me realize above all how much time has passed.

I use the Net daily, for work and leisure, and in a way it has always been also my job: but it's been ages I hadn't really heard about John Perry Barlow - mentioned in the book's first parte and his ideas of new electronic frontiers. The last decade seems to have been filled with other more vulgar stories, like the new commercial developements (and disasters) of the internet, or the many attempts at censorship in many parts of the world.

Part 1 of the book is a short description of the unlikely bunch of american visionaries and state-funded techs who managed to create what has been without a doubt the most important technological advancement of the last 25 years. According to the authors the (not very well known) ep sode of Jon Postel and his attempt at taking over the DNS root, together with the failure of the gTLD-MoU, both stopped by the Clinton Administration , were the first true sign of real government intervention in matters of Internet ...governance.

Part 2 is about other examples of this intervention. IP geo-location, something now considered as a given, was almost thought to be impossible, 15 years ago. Its developement was in part spurred by the pressure put by the French government on Yahoo about the sale of ..Nazi paraphernalia. In China (where posting the wrong message on a forum can cost you years in jail) Internet cafes are monitored to the point of having guards looking literally over other people's shoulders. China's infrastructure has been redesigned (with a lot Cisco hardware it seems) to facilitate censorship and to block access to sites and services not liked by the Government.
The history of Napster and Kazaa, two early attempts at (illegal) file sharing and the subsequent success of legal online music distribution like iTunes show of the government, or big businness, can actually regulate the Internet. They seem to make some point: a lot of times it's not absolute control that matters, but good enough control. It doesn't matter if a lot a people still download music with eMule (er.. maybe it's the wrong example) or if a lot of people twit from Iran (er.. wrong again maybe, but for different reasons ...?) if Steve Jobs stills can pay for his new liver or if Mr. A. still remains in power.

The third and final part of the book is about other 'case studies'. eBay, amazingly born as nothing more than a simple static web page, faced allegedly a lot of problems with fraudsters. Solving this situation required the intervention (or at least the menace of intervention) of law enforcement officers. More convincingly, the demise of network services like Micro$oft's Passport at the hand of the EU commission, is a perfect example of (positive) governmental intervention in the management of the Internet.

All in all, a very interesting essay, I recommend it wholeheartedly. I can't completely agree that the Internet is 'just like any other communication medium'. The potential to access and catalagote enormous amounts of information, still in great part untapped, is too big. But it is undeniable that in the last 10-15 years many things have changed, and not in the direction that the dreamers of the early nineties envisioned. And (oh my) maybe it has not been such a bad thing after all.

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