Multinational Monitor

MAR 2002
VOL 23 No. 3


The Enforcers: The Hague Convention and the Threat to Internet Freedoms and Consumer Protection
by Charlie Cray

E-Commerce Eludes the Tax-Man: The Click-and-Mortar Artificial Advantage in the New Economy
by Sarah Anderson

The Business of the Watchers: Privacy Protections Recede as the Purveyors of Digital Security Technologies Capitalize on September 11
by Wayne Madsen


Controlling the 'Net: How Vested Interests Are Enclosing the CyberCommons and Undermining Internet Freedom
an interview with
Lawrence Lessig



Behind the Lines

Keeping the On-Line Commons Open

The Front
Hi-Tech Trashing of Asia - Corporate Crime Sentencing

The Lawrence Summers Memorial Award

Names In the News



Keeping the On-Line Commons Open

The evolving technologies of the Internet were not just bestowed on the world. They were created with public support. The technologies and culture were vectored in a direction of openness, sharing of information, support for follow-on innovation and collaborative activities. The Internet’s history puts the lie to much of what passes for conventional wisdom regarding economic growth and technological development.

But powerful private actors are now seeking to impose a paradigm on the Internet which imperils its fundamental values and threatens to deprive it of much of its promise.

Credit for birth of the Intenet goes primarily not to the Nasdaq or venture capitalists, but to the public sector. It was the U.S. government that provided funding to the research scientists at universities and elsewhere who developed the concepts that became core elements of the Internet.

Those scientists developed protocols for operating the Internet that facilitated rapid sharing of information. They made the system stronger and more stable by decentralizing control; users could send and receive information from anyone who was part of the network, without passing through a gatekeeper who could exercise control (or who might bring the entire system down if suffering from malfunction).

A self-conscious noncommercial and nonproprietary culture evolved among many programmers, who made freeware and shareware widely available.

The most important product of this culture is, depending on your point of view, either GNU/Linux — an operating system that is a competitor to Microsoft’s Windows — or the concept of the “copyleft” license. GNU/Linux has developed into the most potent threat to Microsoft’s Windows monopoly. While it remains difficult to use in many consumer applications, Linux is an equal competitor in the server market — even though Linux is the product of a collective development effort and is owned by no one.

GNU/Linux is based on a copyleft licensing system, which specifies not only that all of the GNU/Linux code is open — that is, completely viewable to, and copyable by, anyone — but that anyone who makes an addition or otherwise modifies the underlying code must make their code available according to the same copyleft license. The licensing arrangement thus requires that all subsequent revisions of the licensed product will be freely available.

In such a system, no one can claim ownership of the product, or pieces of the product. Programmers operating in such a system are motivated by something other than money and the lure of super-profits. There are still ways to make money in such a system (especially through providing services and tailoring products to meet particular users’ needs), but there is no possibility of leveraging monopoly profits. The

GNU/Linux product has demonstrated that developers working in its nonproprietary framework can find sufficient incentive in the excitement of participating in a collaborative project, the prestige of contributing key elements to the product and the commitment to making a better and more functional product. Much of conventional economics predicts such an outcome to be impossible. But the reality of GNU/Linux is the definitive empirical rebuttal.

Unfortunately, while Linux and other exciting innovations including the Internet itself show the power of incentives other than profit, there is no denying that the potential of monopoly profits is also a major incentive to action.

And so it should come as little surprise that monopolists and would-be monopolists now threaten the Internet.

Microsoft has sought to leverage the power from its Windows operating system, and now from its browser, not only to eliminate competitors, but to change the consumer environment for using a desktop computer or the Internet. Microsoft wants to control what people use and where their attention is directed.

The cable companies are seeking to leverage their technological advantage — cable appears to be the best means to deliver fast Internet connections — to favor certain applications and certain content (by making favored applications more quickly available). Here the goliath is AOL Time Warner. AOL Time Warner is a major cable operator. It maintains a huge library of proprietary “content” — including magazines, movies, cartoons and music. And AOL exerts control over tens of millions of people’s access to the Internet through proprietary software. As Stanford Law Professor Lawrence Lessig details in the interview in this issue, “This vertical integration creates all the wrong incentives for keeping the platform of the network open.”

Expanded copyright protections — pushed by an aggressive copyright bar and copyright holders, such as Disney and the movie studios — are increasingly blocking Internet users’ ability to disseminate information and ideas on the web. And, they are disabling new technologies that rely on various kinds of electronic copying.

There is no silver bullet to preserve the integrity of the Internet. All of these private efforts to exert monopoly control over the Internet must be thwarted.

What is at stake is hard to describe but of enormous importance. Writes Lessig in his recent The Future of Ideas: “The promise of many-to-many communication that defined the early Internet will be replaced by a reality of many, many ways to buy things and many, many ways to select among what is offered.” This is a new technological presentation of what the U.S. consumer culture is already spectacularly adept at doing.

By contrast, the open paradigm of the early Internet offers the possibility for the enhancement of culture, the empowerment of individuals and groups to share ideas and performances (to publish and broadcast their work), and, in ways not yet foreseeable but foreshadowed by GNU/Linux, to organize more economic activity in a noncommercial, nonproprietary, collaborative and democratic fashion. This is something worth fighting for.


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