Losing Control

The Internet greatly reduces the costs of creating, sharing, and finding information. This shift holds great promise, but it’s not an unmitigated blessing. We find four examples of this change, and the tensions it creates, today:

  1. Jay Rosen reflects on changes in journalism since the Web became a popular news medium. The benefit: traditional gatekeepers (editors, reporters, even advertisers) don’t dictate what is, and is not, news. The challenge: fights over truth and accuracy. Which leads us to story #2:
  2. The New York Times reports on Wikipedia’s challenges in managing fights over what content should comprise the encyclopedia’s entries on certain topics (apparently including human rights in China and Christina Aguilera – though I was able to edit Aguilera’s entry earlier today, in a true leap forward for human knowledge). Wikipedia is, in some ways, an attempt to reify the “marketplace of ideas” prized by European Enlightenment thinkers such as John Milton and John Stuart Mills – truth competes with falsehood and, ultimately, triumphs. The problems are twofold: first, falsehood’s adherents may be determined to keep editing an entry. Second, as my colleague and boss John Palfrey noted, truth itself may be disputed – was Alexander Hamilton born in 1757 or 1755? How should Wikipedia deal with the controversies over the entry for President George W. Bush?
  3. We may worry about how networked computers, cheap storage, and powerful processors – in short, easy data mining – make so much more information available to the Bush administration than to those in Hamilton’s time. My former employer, IBM, is proposing the use of encryption as a step to mitigate privacy worries about data aggregation and analysis. (The Berkman Center, with the expert aid of my colleagues and friends John Clippinger, Mary Rundle, Urs Gasser, Lewis Hyde, Jonathan Zittrain, and Bill McGeveran among others, is running a conference today and tomorrow on identity questions – it’s Webcast!)
  4. Finally, Israel (following in the wake of other countries such as South Korea, Thailand, and India) has started to worry over Google Earth’s photos of some of its military installations (though apparently the engine doesn’t include photos of the Negev nuclear facility). The fear seems to be less that these photos are available than that they’re available so readily and cheaply. (Is it relevant that Google Earth has shifted its policy to one that treats Israel the same as, say, Grand Cayman? Or should the company be mindful that Israel faces greater threats than Cayman, hurricanes aside?)

These questions – and many others about the Internet, its regulability, and its needs for regulation – revolve around the twin poles of the Net’s potential for sharing knowledge and the threats that arise from doing so. In a future post I’ll talk about why I think this binary position is inapposite and unhelpful, but it’s powerful, prevalent, and probably pernicious. (Enough alliteration!) Thoughts welcomed in the comments.

3 Responses to “Losing Control”

  1. I’m not sure exactly what you mean by “binary position”, unless you think people are implicitly asked to give a thumbs up/down on information mobility.

    I’ve got my own flag to wave about internet regulation, but since I’m not sure exactly what you mean, I’m not sure whether it agrees with your position.

    Anyhow, the problem I see with most (if not all) attempts to date to regulate the internet is that information qua information is so new that almost nobody — especially not in circles with the power to make decisions about it — has any idea how to deal with it.

    Historically, information has been very tightly bound to media, with high costs of copying acting as a potential well (for those who studied a bit of physics along with computers). Regulation of information could be accomplished by regulation of media; if you want to get music you have to get a medium, and the medium is a physical, tangible thing that can be dealt with under the law like any other physical, tangible commodity.

    Information recently has become unmoored, however. The costs of copying are infinitesimal, and most people don’t even realize how many copies simply must be made given the nature of computers. Even to play a music file on a computer implicitly copies the information from a storage medium to an active memory medium.

    Current law dealing with information and intellectual property is mired in the outdated view that information can be dealt with just like any other tangible property, or attempts to return to that state by lashing information back to media (the old saying about nailing Jell-O to a tree is particularly appropriate). What is needed is

    (a) a coherent philosophy of information qua information.
    (b) an economics of information based upon that philosophy.
    (c) a body of information law based on that economics.

    These questions you post about regulation of information on the internet are simply unanswerable in anything but an ad hoc fashion until a concerted effort is made to understand information as separate from media.

  2. Hi John – I’m largely with you. What I meant by “binary” is that most reporting and thinking and policymaking about the Net tends towards one of two positions: the Internet is a wonderful global soapbox that will give everyone an equal voice and destroy the Chinese Communist Party, or the Internet is a scary, threatening place full of sex offenders, worms, viruses, terrorists, pet thieves, and so forth. I’d agree that this has much to do with the relative novelty of the medium, and with its increasing ubiquity in the developed world.

    You’re certainly right that law, especially IP law, is floundering to adjust to a world where reproduction and distribution costs decrease to near-zero. Legislation such as the DMCA is an effort to use law to bolster code to try to re-write physics: if legal prohibitions plus DRM can boost the cost of copying again, we won’t need to shift our model. I think this methodology is doomed to failure, in the same way King Canute was with the tides.

    We are largely in uncharted territory regarding points A and C. I spend a lot of time thinking about C; I’m not smart enough for A, sadly, but I try to follow those who are. There has been some work on B – from Coase to Kenneth Arrow to Edwin Mansfield – but we certainly need more. I suspect that developments in A and B will be naturally reinforcing, and that it will take some time for these more scholarly innovations to find their way into information law itself.

  3. [...] But the permanence of networked information has costs, too, which (like the benefits) are only beginning to be explored. Members of the generation just behind mine, who have grown up reflexively creating and posting information online, are learning that digital is forever — if you’re a job applicant (or even a camp counselor), anything that has ever been written by (or about) you online is, at least potentially, still there. (Back in my day, we used goofy aliases to hide our online identities; but I gather that practice has been fading.) Once information is online, it turns out, it may becomes quite hard ever to get it back offline again — the Wayback Machine preserves old web pages; Google Groups archives Usenet posts; and it’s only a matter of time before somebody comes up with the magic bullet that automatically archives IRC and IM conversations and makes them searchable. Even your deleted e-mails aren’t necessarily gone; they may still exist on backup tapes where law enforcement authorities can get them. The durability of digital content raises problems that touch on both informational security and individual privacy. [...]