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Representing the people

By Scott Bradner

How can real people be represented in the technology regulatory
decision-making process or, in fact, should they be?

Much of the telecommunications world, as with just about all other
endeavors, exists in an environment of competition constrained by
regulations. There are regulations about what level of electromagnetic
radiation signals on telephone wires can emit, what height buildings
are permitted to be in various locations, how employees must be
compensated for their work and how many cable TV companies can
offer service in a town.

Soon there will be still more regulations covering the number of
Internet top-level domains, Internet-based commerce and, in many
countries, Internet content.

These regulations are made by various governmental boards
following legislative actions of one degree of clarity or another.
Where in this process is the voice of the individual heard? Some claim
can be made that because elected officials were involved in the
original legislation, there is such a path, but few would claim that
there is any such input in the governmental boards.

Historically, the more local the regulatory board, the more likely it is
to be dominated by business interests. The perfect example of this is
state and local utility commissions. The Baby Bells are suing to get
the FCC out of the business of establishing the rules by which these
regional monopolies can compete in the long- distance telephone

They are not doing this because of any desire to have the input of us
telephone users impact the rules. They are doing it because the state
utility commissions are seen as far more friendly to the aims of the
phone companies than is the FCC.

One of the reasons that any regulatory body has a tendency to favor
commercial interests rather than end users is the level of technical
expertise required. Frequently, the only people with the expertise are
people from the very businesses that will be subject to the regulations.

The issue of getting more nonbusiness input to these rule-setting
processes has been around for quite a while and is not limited to the
upcoming rules for the Internet. However, a number of people are
starting to worry quite a bit about the issue in the aftermath of the
Clinton administration's Green Paper. The reasoning is that the
Internet is for the people, so the people on the Net should have a say
in the rules. It should be noted that there is a very high percentage of
libertarians and other people on the Net who do not trust governments
to represent their interests on the Internet.

But just saying that users should have input begs the question of how
and when. It does not seem to be logical to have 50 million Internet
users vote to approve a new top-level domain name. I have quite a bit
of sympathy for the concept, but I have seen enough eloquent
demonstrations of low clue density on Internet mailing lists to dread
having the future of the Internet dependent on the reasoned opinions
of retired fireplug painters and hormonally augmented teenagers.

Disclaimer: Harvard is not the average end user so its views might be
quite different from mine