Written on December 10th, December 14th, and December 20th, 1995.
More than a few people have predicted "The Death Of The Internet" in one form or another. I've seen such claims made many years ago, when the mass media was still struggling with the concept of word processing and desktop publishing, and Al Gore was monkeying around in Congress. And predictions continue to pop up reguarly. The reasons have ranged from the discovery of pornography and/or erotic material on the 'net to conspiracy theories about the goverment to total mis-comprehension on the nature of the hardware and software. And of course, all of the predictions have proven completely wrong. So far. It really isn't possible for the Internet to die or be shut down or in some fashion made to not exist. Even if every computer in the USA simultaneously blew up, every coaxial cable connection turned to molten slag, the Internet would still exist. No laws or regulations can shut it down. Because the Internet is nothing more than collection of seperate entitites, communicating based on a common set of standards and protocols. This doesn't mean that bad things can't happen to the Internet, though. And while the entire Internet can't be shut down, it's not at all inconceivable that portions could be. Right now, legislation is being enacted in the US that will severely restrict the ability for US-based sites to carry a diverse range of information. This legislation, in its varying forms, basically boils down to the idea that because there is naughty material on the 'net, children might access this material. Because this can happen, the goverment apparently feels it necessary to prevent it from being a possibility. The US goverment will fail, of course. There are too many different sites on the net, and it is now very easy for any individual person to set-up their own node. There aren't enough law enforcement resources to nationally enforce the impending legislation. And the USA goverment only has authority over US-based sites. It's trivial for somone such as Playboy or Penthouse to just move their Interner resources onto a provider site outisde of the USA and continue to make their material available. But the laws will have extremely negative effects, on multiple levels. First, of course, is the detriment done to the Constitutional right to Free Speech. Effectively, the goverment is saying "You can't say or do anything, or produce anything that in anyway is indecent and could be accessed by a minor" in regards to the Internet. So while I could publish a book that's had graphic descriptions of sex and gore and this book could be put on the shelves of every national bookstore chain in the US as well as quite a few grocery stores (perhaps penned under the name Stephen King even), if I posted a message to a Usenet newsgroup carried only by a small local system where that message contained a single obscenity, I would have violated Federal law. And of course, there's the harmful effect on commercial business. The The Internet Service Provider industry is quite young, and is one of the fastest growing markets there is, period. But with these new laws, these ISP's would be forced to start censoring their users, many of which would lose interest in the 'net and stop using ISP's. A bad blow to a new and promising business field. And of course, companies specializing in Internet products (such as Netscape, Lycos, etc.) would be hurt indirectly, as they depend on the great wealth of the net's information content to make their products viable. A decrease in profits means, among other things, a decrease in a taxes for the goverment. But of course, no one ever said that the US goverment never bites its own hand. Sadly, the US goverment isn't the only threat to the Internet. The above-mentioned commercial sector is probably the fastest growing threat to the future of the Internet. While the Goverment is ignorant and simple-minded and merely wishes to restrict the contents of the Internet, the business world is far more interested in exploiting the Internet for profit. History clearly shows that unlimited exploitation of any resource eventually either depletes the resource, or so damages the environment that the resource becomes worthless or unobtainable. Many businesses use the Internet in their daily work, as a means to communicate with others, to transfer data, or do research. Such usage of the Internet's resources is not really a problem. But many business entities (ranging from big corporations to individual so-called entreperneurs) are more interested in making money by exploiting the Internet directly. This includes "selling" Internet access at insanely inflated prices with severe mis-representation of what the users get, spamming Usenet newsgroups with advertisements (that may or may not be legitimate), and the ever-popular Pyramid Scam where one is led to believe one will become the world's richest man by sending money to other people. These practices, along with other less common ones, have been ballooning ever since public awareness of the Internet increased. And because there is no specific regulation on Internet commerce, too often there is not any legal recourse except in civil courts. This generally amounts to "I don't like what this entity said/did and I want them to give me money/stop doing it/apologize". In other words, the sort of squabbling usually engaged in by children. Not all businesses are irresponsible in their use of the Internet. Most of the big companies (Apple, IBM, Digital, and even non-computer companies) know that they can make more by using the Internet as a tool and a resource than as a gimick. But independants and the smaller, more reckless businesses are too excited about this WhizzBang New Thing and how to use it to take the time to learn about proper Usenet etiquitte, how not to abuse Internet resources, etc. Sadly, I feel that in the end the only real solution will be goverment regulation. The US Federal goverment can't do anything about access outside of US borders, but it certainly can have a major impact here, and can indirectly influence other nations. Eventually, we will have legislation regulating commerce on the net, outlawing extremely abusive behavior, and probably controlling content. The most unfortunate thing about this eventuallity is that it would not be necessary if the Internet community could work cohesively to maintain an Internet Peace. But the very feelings about freedom of expression and the anarchistic nature of the net seem to prevent this possibility from ever really happening.
Copyright 1995,1996 by Jeff Carl Mercer. All rights reserved.
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