Killing The Goose : Why Internet Exploitation Hurts The 'Net

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.
This document is "fair-use friendly". Quote at will.
Please contact the author if you wish to reproduce this document in whole.

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Last Modified: October 5th, 1996
Jeff The Riffer aka Jeff Mercer / riffer@afn.org