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The Taming of the Wild Web

Part 2 of a 2-Part Series

by Douglas McDaniel

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"Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread." ---- Edward Abbey, novelist

Memoirs graphic."Nowadays, when the binary outback has given way to the neon strip malls of the World Wide Web, the frontier metaphor resounds with the hollowness of a Will Rogers piggy bank," wrote Erik Davis in his book, Techgnosis: Myth, Magic & Mysticism in the Age of Information. "Nonetheless, the image of the digital frontier contains more truth than even its early enthusiasts may have realized ... The anxiety and longing produced by this endless struggle, which continues to characterize American consciousness, helped create the background of alienation that subtly drives so many cybernomads, and explains as well the interminable and often sentimental discussions about virtual community." [Emphasis ours. -- Ed.]

Indeed, as Davis' book frequently explores, the Web has a unique ability to create paranoia about archons running the show like "the man behind the curtain" in the "Wizard of Oz." With such robber barons (Amazon.com's Jeff Bezos, AOL's Steve Case and Microsoft's Bill Gates, for example) manipulating the strings, it causes restless natives such as free-speech advocate Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard Law professor, to view the Web as being vulnerable to the agents of control.

"Every age has its potential regulator, its threat to liberty. Our founders feared a newly empowered federal government; the Constitution is written against that fear," Lessig told Harvard magazine in January. "Ours is the age of cyberspace. It, too, has a regulator. This regulator, too, threatens liberty... This regulator is code --- the software and hardware that makes cyberspace as it is."

Every day, mergers are taking place to create the so-called "Great Convergence," in which all media --- movies, music, books, television --- comes into your home through one big fat pipe. And they who control the pipe . . . well, they make a lot of money. Or at least hope to.

In January, America Online and Time Warner proposed to marry. The merger would give AOL, with its 22 million subscribers, access to Time Warner's "pipe" --- its cable system, the nation's second-biggest after TCI. AOL would give Time Warner and its customer base of 120 million combined cable and magazine subscribers access to the Internet. And Time Warner would provide the stuff that flows through the pipe. A merged AOL-Time Warner would immediately own six of the top 15 most trafficked news and information sites on the Web, according to Media Metrix. Together, they would . . . make a lot of money. Funds, presumably, that would go to buy even more media outlets.

Short of convergence for its own means, nothing is sacred. Even the home of the so-called "open source code" movement, Andover.net, was swallowed up by another Leviathan, VA Linux. There is nothing intrinsically sinister, of course, when a corporation diversifies with synergistic wings, legs and, of course, its head screwed on straight. For example, the convergence of the Google metasearch engine with Netscape Communications Corp.'s Open Directory Project, an open-source directory managed and built by more than 20,000 volunteer content editors, can only serve the cause of truth, knowledge, and, you know, the good stuff.

Observing this virtual aquarium of big fish eating little fish, it seems there's more news out there about dot-coms getting swallowed up than about innovative new players entering the race. Media moguls like Rupert Murdoch are flirting daily with anything and everything that moves. AT&T has successfully purchase MediaOneGroup to sew up the broadband market, thus leap-frogging the industry's prior cable leader, Time Warner.

To tighten the noose as the competition for the Web pie gets tighter, the big dot-coms are cutting exclusive deals, or, blocking access to their competitor's content.

Look at auction bots, many of them meta-search engines that scan the auctions for the best price for an item. But an auction bot is only as good as the number of partnerships it can make with other auction sites. For example, BidFind is an aggregator of some 400 sites. Bidder's Edge, on the other hand, monitors 100 auction sites.

A bargain hunter must always know which sites are being linked to. There are bots that search "the bigs" only. Both iTrack and Auction Beagle go to eBay, Amazon and Yahoo, among others. Rather than promoting a wide open network that might give a fair shot for every bidder and everyone hawking their Pez dispensers online, these companies are working very hard to restrict access to their competitors.

generator21.net The World's MagazineIn response, the government has supported the view that databases are a kind of real estate, and scanning without contractual permission is trespassing. The Department of Justice earlier this year investigated allegations that eBay was blocking access to its site by several auction-monitoring bots. But then a federal court turned around and decided eBay had a right to do so, ruling that Bidder's Edge had to stop scanning eBay to compare prices with other auction sites.

While a dearth of e-commerce and infotainment outlets is hardly a problem these days, there are other ways in which the marching orders of civilizing the Web harm free access.

Yahoo!, the giant Internet portal, did not until recently include About.com sites --- with their 700 expert guides in 20 countries --- in its general index simply because, as Scott Kurnit, About.com's founder said, "It's their network." An About.com spokesperson said recently that since Kurnit complained, Yahoo! is now listing more About.com sites. But you may think that when you're searching Yahoo! you're searching the entire Web. The truth is, you're not. You're only searching that part of the Web that it is in Yahoo!'s interests to let you search.

Other changes for tighter regulation of this once wide-open environment includes the development of "Trusted Systems" by content providers on the Web to create for-pay, copyright-controlled aspects of information. Thus, the Web browser can't use his computer like a library with an amazing copy machine. Such companies as IBM, Xerox and Wave Systems "have developed software and hardware to enable the publisher to specify terms and conditions for digital works and to control how they can be used," wrote Mark Stefik, an information and technology scientist at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center.

"Distribution can be limited to people who can certify that they are members of a book club, a certain age group or citizens of a particular country," he states. Such software could protect online materials with alarms, tamper detectors and security passwords, as well as the ability to trace stolen digital works.

Imagine a world where you can get hassled, legally, for clicking on "print." Imagine getting sued by a rock band for downloading one its songs. Oh wait, that's already happened...

MP3 Wars: The Battle of Little Big Horn

Set the scene in a hallowed hall of Harvard Law School, in the Ames Courtroom in Austin Hall, a cathedral-like space inside an exquisitely aged Greco-Roman structure celebrated in ivy, pillars and solid centuries of stone. One thinks of Clarence Darrow, of the stuffy Smith-Barney guy on TV, of black caps and gowns, of impossible homework assignments to stump wannabe Supreme Court Justices, of episodes of "The Paper Chase."

Then, the lights go down. A young man at a center conference table boots up his laptop after a brief explanation to the large gathering about how "sampling is a way of re-contextualizing information."

We are told he is Deejay Spooky, and suddenly the room is filled with pounding, mechanistic hip-hop. A large screen is flooded with cartoon images. A Japanese surgeon makes a Faustian deal with a Leviathan squid in mad scientist's control room. Also present: some kind of alkaline battery being and a baby in a ski mask. The anonymous masked youth seems to be the deejay, the artist turning knobs on an illicit turntable. Then, the deejay infant dies, perhaps an overworked golden goose. Finally, the surgeon and his alkaline assistant flee the computer chamber, announcing, "We are free at last."

The open-source musician dies for our sins, or at least that's one interpretation. Another interpretation is this: Inspiration floating freely on the Internet is in danger of getting sucked up by the Big Squid.

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Then, the Harvard Hall is sober again. After explaining how his music and art consists of "found objects" and how this open-sourcery is "where the transition of cultural change takes place," the online found-sound artist, a.k.a, Paul D. Miller, is asked a whole bunch of questions about copyright law. Meet the MP3 generation, an insurgent society that one speaker at the Net music symposium described as "a marvelous utopia where every lawyer is a musician and every musician is a lawyer." And meet the likes of Deejay Spooky, an endangered species. Enjoy him while you can.

At "Signal or Noise: The Future of Music on The Net," sponsored by the Electronic Frontier Foundation last spring, the flavor of the day was conjecture and prognostication in the volatile and court-contentious field of digital music downloads. It's a topsy turvey world where, on one hand, a new media lawyer like Mark A. Fischer is proclaiming "at this time it's all about music and creativity," while at the table sitting next to him, Public Enemy's entrepenurial Chuck D. waxes pragmatically about margins, the marketplace and e-business models.

"Commerce will always be there," said Chuck D. "But this is the first time everybody is on a level playing field and saying, 'Let me in.' "

Sometimes, not often, people talked about making music. But as one long-time dean of big-time music rock music production Bob Ezrin, currently with Enigma Digital, noted, "We are so caught up in the noise that we forget about the music."

It was generally agreed that the MP3 revolution has initiated a groundswell of creativity and opportunity for the musician to directly connect to the listener and consumer, and thus avoid the economic slavery implied by signing with a major label. It was also fairly agreed that musicians and their fans had better enjoy it while they can.

That's because the recording industry is pretty focused on restoring control, and to make that happen the major labels are more likely to a hire lawyer than sign a band on MP3.com.

In this race for economic hegemony over the Web, musicians and MP3 sites such as Napster have to claw their way through a gauntlet of lawyers and legalese and outright counter-revolution. They contend with everything ranging from the Digital Music Copyright Act of 1999 to the music industry suits waged against Napster.com's software for MP3 downloads.

"It's almost an oxymoron," says Naylor Banks, an Arizona-based musician. "We get this technology, but your can't use it for this or that."

Banks, whose former band, Tired Son, was the first in his state to have a Web site in the mid-1990s, gets frustrated with how the industry Bigwigs are picking on young artists and entrepreneurial programmers. But he says that's nothing new. Some of the best songs in rock history are about record company moguls. "Meet the new boss," sang Roger Daltrey of the Who, right after the '60s counter-culture went sour. "Same as the old boss."

Think Tanks Circle the Wagons

They dig the "Wild West" metaphor at Harvard Law School, especially at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, a think tank for "building out into cyberspace," according to the Harvard Law Bulletin. An article in the summer 1999 issue of the Bulletin details the center's free-speech, free-code (software) and " 'open-content' credo," and painted the situation on the frontier this way:
"At first, the Internet was described in Wild West terms: a new frontier, untamed and unregulated, open to all. But as cyberspace, like the old West, becomes more densely settled, competing interests and disputes increase."

One of the leading lights at the center is Lawrence Lessig, a chief philosopher geek and coiner of the "open source" movement's best sound bite, "Code is law." He envisions dire consequences for the foundation of "liberty" on the Web, and bases it not so much in governmental intervention, but in the lack of it.

The Net is rendered "regulable" or "unregulable" by commercial software and hardware designers, not politicians, he says. He who owns the code, controls cyberspace. If the government fails to set up at least modest speed limits on the information superhighway, Lessig argues, then predatory or just plain ill-considered practices by various agents on the Web will destroy its original core values of innovative thought, free speech and the open exchange of ideas.

"This code presents the greatest threat to liberal or libertarian ideals, as well as their greatest promise," he states in his book, Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace (Basic Books, 1999). "We can build, or architect, or code cyberspace to protect values that we believe are fundamental, or we can build, or architect, or code cyberspace to allow those values to disappear."

A different kind of think tank based in Cambridge, Mass., Forrester Research, agrees that it would be wrong for the Web to live by self-regulation alone. According to an announcement from the usually go-go Internet bunch in February, "The stakes have become too high to leave Internet decisions outside the democratic political process ... The Internet's big bang is creating new business models, forms of property, and modes of communication. But those light-speed innovations threaten to end up like Russian capitalism if they outpace the basic legal framework necessary to keep the Net from turning ugly and limiting its own growth." [Emphasis ours. -- Ed.]

Will the wolf survive?

The basic principles of libertarianism on the Web are in danger. Even if a sense of openness is viewed as a necessity to the human spirit in the new century, the impinging fences crisscrossing the Web seem immune to the passionate and elegant prose that's reminiscent of another revolution in a galaxy far, far away.

"Yea, governments distant and near, bring your shackles and chains but expect not abeyance," e-mailed one member of the Internet digerati, Kelly Hearn, researcher for Megatrends and contributor to the technology section for the Christian Science Monitor, in a tone reminiscent of the Enlightenment Era poet William Blake. "Send your dogs to tame us, to tame this Wild Web, but wait not for their return. Verily, I say: Behold the spirit of cyberspace and undo all you have known before."

"Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of the Mind," wrote John Perry Barlow, who, as a founder for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, penned a much-noticed "Declaration of Independence in Cyberspace," in response to the effort to fight the Communications Decency Act in 1996. "On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather."

Barlow, who lives in Wyoming and is also a fellow at Harvard's Berkman center, is the Web's poster child for free speech and anarchy. His globe-trotting itinerary makes him a suitable candidate as perhaps the first man to be literally e-mailed into cyberspace. As a lyricist for the fledgling Grateful Dead, a band that begged listeners to record and produce "bootleg" recordings, he is the copyright lawyer's ultimate vision of the anti-Christ. "I am absolutely opposed to the imposition of copyright law in cyberspace," he says. "My value as a creator is to be enhanced by the auto-duplication of my work....

"Everything is being very tightly compressed, but the comparison works," he says. "We are in the middle of the Gold Rush. We are in get-rich quick status. That's why I coined the term Electronic Frontier Foundation. It seemed self-evident that this was a frontier environment."

But unlike its Sierra Club forebears, which have always been on a defensive footing ever since the days of John Muir, there's something about the Web that makes it more resilient and supportive to the EFF form of digital environmentalism. For instance, when Congress passed the Communications Decency Act, aimed at protecting minors by criminalizing "indecency" on the Internet, the EFF joined the ACLU to challenge the law, and in 1997 the Supreme Court ruled it to be unconstitutional. Thus, the Internet was declared a free speech zone.

Due to its "transjuridictional nature," Barlow says, in essence, a Netizen is world citizen, not just a member of the real-world society where they orginally logged into the Web.

The Land Beyond 'the Myth'

. In the final analysis, the "Wild West myth" should be exposed as a fraud, as an overly simplistic sound bite that's ready and waiting for a demigod's manipulation, and a potentially dangerous one at that. Especially when myth is used to compel people to move in one direction or another: for example, the demonization of hackers to justify greater powers of electronic surveillance, calls for "settlement" of the frontier that leads to monopolistic control and a "tamed" media, any advertising for "manifest destiny" as determined by AT&T, Time-Warner, Bill Gates, etc.

Each time a Net user connects to the Web they shape this history, because consumer society, as long is it has relatively inexpensive online access and is empowered to make decisions in public life, will ultimately determine which Net architecture will prevail.

You can track cookies, oh agents of Urizen, but you can't force us to keep eating them, too. Or, as William Blake wrote: "The cistern contains: the fountain overflows." What do you want your Web to be?


DOUGLAS McDANIEL is senior editor at Access Magazine and contributor to the G21. This is his second essay for MEMOIRS OF THE INFORMATION AGE. He can be reached by e-mail at elife@accessmagazine.com.

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