Covert Government
Control Of Cyberspace-
The Coming Showdown
By Simson L. Garfinkel
From Anita Sands <>
Who'll rule cyberspace? New book explores the coming showdown between programmers and regulators
Two kinds of code regulate the Internet, Harvard Law School professor Lawrence Lessig writes in his first book, ''Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace.'' Thefirst is embodied in computer programs. This is the actual code that creates Webbrowsers, Web servers, e-mail systems, and the rest of the Internet infrastructure. Lessig calls this ''West Coast Code,'' because it is written primarily on the West Coast of the United States in such places as Silicon Valley and Redmond, Wash. The second code, says Lessig, is one made up by lawmakers and regulators in countries where the Internet's computers reside. Not surprisingly, Lessig calls this ''East Coast Code,'' since much of the drafting takes place in Washington, D.C. Lessig's distinction between East and West is sure to ruffle feathers at MIT and Bell Labs, two great East Coast institutions that have been at the forefront of Lessig's so-called West Coast Code revolution. Nevertheless, the idea of dividing regulation into that which is accomplished by computer programs and that which is accomplished by law is a useful tool for those thinking about the nature of today's Internet and possible futures. although the Internet is weakly regulated today, Lessig argues, it is sure to be well-regulated in the future. The primary reason for this push is electronic commerce. Many businesses rightly see the Internet as the ultimate tool for selling products, reaching new customers, and cutting the cost of distribution and support.
But they also see the Internet as a threat - a place where customers can distribute stolen trade secrets, download pirated software, and even post attacks on corporations. Their reaction to these perceptions, says Lessig, will be to gradually remake cyberspace into a place more friendly to selling things and less friendly to individuals trying to act on their own. There are plenty of examples that support Lessig's thesis. One is the creeping use of unique personal identifiers, or serial numbers, on the Internet. Intel put a unique Processor Serial Number into each Pentium III microprocessor; Microsoft puts a unique Globally Unique Identifier into every document created by Microsoft Word; and Real Networks puts a GUID into its Real Audio Jukebox program. All these were designed to make it easier to track computers and people on the Internet. They produce accountability and destroy anonymity.
There are other, more subtle ways corporations are regulating the future of our information space. Consider America Online, which tens of millions of Americans use to access the Internet. America Online is a world with particular rules. These rules aren't handed down by God or Congress. Instead, they are created by AOL's programmers. One rule in the world of AOL has to do with public assembly. AOL's president, Steve Case, can send an e-mail message to every AOL subscriber. But all others on the AOL system are denied this right. On other Internet chat services dozens or hundreds of people can interact at the same time. But AOL's chat rooms are limited to fewer than 30 people. AOL likes to think of itself as an electronic town, but it's different than most towns, because none of the citizens can vote.
And it's a town where members will find it very hard to organize to effect social change. All this wouldn't matter so much if the Internet were not already an important part of our economy, and likely to become more so. The future of the Internet is the future of our world. If we make the Internet a highly regulated space where anonymity is an illusion and voting is nonexistent, this can't help but have an impact on the future of our real-space world. With this in mind, Lessig says it's time for East Coast Code to start exerting more control over West Coast Code. Decisions are being made that affect the future of the Internet and, by extension, the future of the world. Do we want these decisions being made by programmers and product managers, or by an open, political process?
Lessig's argument is sure to stir controversy. These days the computer industry's predominant request to government is laissez-faire. And indeed, says Lessig, the initial attempts of the US government to regulate cyberspace haven't been too successful. The Communications Decency Act of 1996 was attacked by technologists and civil libertarians and ultimately struck down by the US Supreme Court.
Most recently, the Clinton administration asked the Internet's Engineering Task Force to build provisions for wiretapping into the very TCP/IP protocols - the West Coast Code - that drive the Internet. So far the IETF has refused, arguing such perversions of its code will make the Internet less secure, and ultimately won't do much to help law enforcement.
But Lessig reminds us that the alternative to no regulation by government is, instead, regulation by corporations. 'We stand on the edge of an era that demands we make fundamental choices about what life in this space, and therefore life in real-space, will be like,'' he writes. ''These choices will be made; there is no nature here to discover. And when they are made, the values we hold sacred will either influence our choices or be ignored.'' Lessig doesn't think government today is up to the task. But he hopes it may one day take its rightful place.
Lessig's bias is obviously liberal, not libertarian. But even if you disagree with his politics, there are still a lot of stories and history that make this book an easy recommendation. ''Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace'' does a fabulous job pulling together the most important issues facing the Internet, from wiretapping and intellectual property protection to the battle between Microsoft and Linux. And with a wonderfully conversational style, the book is understandable by both nonlawyers and nonprogrammers - an impressive feat by itself.
Technology columnist Simson Garfinkel can be reached at chat.


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