The following text is copyright 1997 by Network World, permission is hearby given for reproduction, as long as attribution is given and this notice is included.
Ballad of a not so thin man.
A month ago Martin Bangemann gave a talk at Telecom Inter@ctive '97 in Geneva titled "A New World Order for Global Communications: The Need for an International Charter". (http://www.ispo.cec.be/infosoc/promo/speech/geneva.html) It is far from clear how important this talk actually is but it has been getting some publicity and it does represent just the sort of view that one would expect to be expressed at a traditional standards organization in Geneva. The talk is distinctly a mixed bag. Mr. Bangemann does indicate that he understands that something has changed in the telecommunications world but the reaction he proposes seems to indicate that he does not understand just how some of the change occurred.
The talk notes that "technological progress is forging ahead faster than ever before in human history. It is sweeping forward in an unpredictable fashion on a wave of powerful global communications networks and ever-increasing performance and capacity." Mr. Bangemann recognizes two facets of the changes brought about by this technological progress: a convergence of traditionally separate communications technologies (e.g. voice video and data), and the developing "irrelevance of geographical borders and distance as a result of global communications networks."
Mr. Bangemann has a problem. He comes from an environment where the answer to confusion is regulation and yet he understands that "more and more policy makers are having to accept, often against their will, that they can rarely set the rules of the game independently." But he forges ahead and proposes regulation, or more bureaucratically, an "International Charter for Global Communications." This charter "which could set the framework for establishing global interoperability through global technical standards and mutual recognition of authorizations and licenses and which establishes rules governing such areas as content, network security and encryption, and data protection."
Clearly there are areas where the Internet has not been helped by a lack of common policies. Electronic commerce would be much further along if people knew they had recourse in case of disputes and the aggressive disregarding of individual privacy by Internet-based businesses has many people quite reasonably worried. On the other hand any idea that global content rules could be established without reducing all Internet dialog to pablum is strange indeed.
But Mr. Bangemann's biggest problem is that he does not understand that it was the lack of government imposed technical standards that got the Internet to where it is today. Many governments attempted to impose technical standards a few years ago by introducing mandates for the support of the ISO protocols. It was only when these mandates were ignored that the data communications explosion happened. The flexibility to be able to experiment is the underlying strength of the 'Net - it may look like chaos to people like Mr. Bangemann, but in that chaos lies innovation. Expecting to continue the very technological progress that he praises when government appointed bureaucrats select between technical proposals is living in fantasyland.
See Bob Dylan's song of approxamatally the same title as this column for a fuller exploration of the potentials of some people understanding change.
disclaimer: Some say that Harvard causes change in others yet does not change itself, in any case the above is my own song selection.