The following text is copyright 1996 by Network World, permission is hearby given for reproduction, as long as attribution is given and this notice is included.
Thinking local in global world.
We seem to be getting a rash of local attempts to regulate the global Internet. Everyone seems to be getting on the bandwagon, from states telling us what DNS names are OK, to national governments trying to regulate content. There is something about technology that seems to attract regulation (or taxation) attempts like bears to honey. Note that all to frequently these regulation attempts have as much positive effects on the technology in question as do a bear's effect on the bee hive.
Some of the efforts are quite silly, such as a state trying to control what user, machine and domain names are permitted to be used -- "don't you use no bad words now." Some efforts, such as the current attempt to ban the use of Internet-based telephone, are futile and give the impression of King Canute commanding the tide not come in and getting sort of wet in return. And some of the efforts are scary, such as the ban on the use of encryption in some countries.
There are dozens of other examples from the U.S. Communications Decency Act attempting to protect the world from what a 7 year old should not see, to the InterNIC's U.S. trademark-based conflict resolution processes for global domain names.
I expect that there are some of the same sorts of laws and regulations relating to telephones but it seems that a few more people understand that a California law on dirty language on telephones will have little effect on a phone call from Finland. The extension of this understanding to the Internet seems to be far beyond the abilities of our (and other) legislatures and rule makers.
A feature of the Internet, just like the telephone network, is that it crosses jurisdictional boundaries, intra-country as well as inter-country. This makes it hard for those who would attempt control. Blaming the Internet service provider for naughty pictures delivered over the net is like that Tennessee prosecutor blaming the local telephone company for the dirty pictures he downloaded from California.
As far as controlling the service providers, they have to be reachable. We have seen in the telephone world that a Tennessee prosecutor can reach out and touch a service provider in California but I don't see how that could happen between Tennessee and Japan.
A number of people are starting to think seriously about how to deal with the cross-boundary nature of the Internet. In my last column I expressed a belief that a little anarchy is a good thing but the anarchy has to be at the right level and effecting the right functions. Just as anarchy in the creation of top level domains seems more than a bit counter productive (It would take me a while to figure out a more effective way to cause the creation of yet more regulations than this type of chaos.) anarchy in rule making will not be helpful.
There are some existing international forums that are beginning to be suggested as reasonable home bases for rule making for parts of the Internet. In particular, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) - (URL http://www.itu.ch), a treaty-based organization looks like a likely candidate. I expect that the idea that some body in far-off Geneva should have any role in anything to do with the U.S. part of the Internet seems far fetched to many of the current crop of Internet service providers. But a few observations. On the Internet Geneva is not all that far away, about as far as the person in the next cube. In light of the fun that the InterNIC has been having with lawyers and domain names an international treaty organization has its attractions. If met, the increasing desire for new global top-level domains also increases the need for an international dispute resolution process. Most importantly though, this Internet thing will become more and more somthing that is brought to the customer by existing telephone companies and the telephone companies are used to dealing with organizations like the ITU.
I'm told Geneva is a nice place to visit. I'm beginning to think that I, as well as others in the Internet biz, will be finding out.
disclaimer: With sites like the one in Florence Harvard is international (I could never get them to let me do on-site LAN installation there though.) but does not defile telco regulations so the above Geneva premonitions are mine.