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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 that signals on telephone wires can emit, what height buildings are permitted 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 since 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 business. 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 the commercial interests rather than the end users is because of the level of technical expertise that is 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 non-business input to these rule setting processes has been around for quite a while and is not limited to the upcoming rules for the Internet but 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 should have a say in the rules. It should be noted that there are a very high percent of libertarians and other people 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 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 than mine.