Tuesday, October 31, 2000

The Taming of the Web

While many native Netizens are crying ‘Don’t fence me in,’
the Wild Wild Web is fast becoming a relic of a fabled past

By Douglas McDaniel

It’s a range war, a street fight, the season of conflict, the Net’s counter-cultural O.K. Corral. Each day, the diverse members of the global Web community slug it out like overactive children on an unsupervised playground. The issues flare up daily: privacy this, security that, threats to free speech, to decency, to copyright law and intellectual property claims, threats to tax e-commerce, threats of all kinds of legislation to regulate the Web, threats of wild-eyed Libertarian rhetoric promising to keep that from happening, threats to every brick-and-mortar truth that we once cherished to be trustworthy, orderly, efficient or real. And lawsuits, yes, lots and lots of lawsuits.

What’s more, the revolution in communications innovation has led a segment of the Net nation to curse across this anarchic, stormy digital sea with a capital “C,” as in the request to “Control this, please!” Upon seeing this in print or online or hearing it from our reeling leaders, the other part of the equation, the more experienced, Net-savvy geeks, immediately plea, “Don’t fence me in!”

Indeed, the Web-related news crosses our eyes like a video game called “History Repeats,” if only because the contestants resonate with such haunting familiarity. The terrain is populated with pioneers, with homesteaders, with cybersquatters, with megalomaniac innovators that we compare to either the robber barons of yesteryear, or, the persecuted visionaries of wannabe e-topia. We have restless natives, chattels of free and easy prostitution, unlocked “back doors” in operating system software for marauding outlaws, code-slinging ne’er do wells, a devious bogey folk all politely pointed out to us by reformed “hackavists,” who paint themselves as benevolent civil servants because they claim to the wear white----as opposed to black----10-gallon hats.

Just what is it about this evergreen myth about the Old West that many find so relevant, so hip, so instructive, so seductive? In the past, the image of the cowboy has sold everything from cars to cigarettes to movie tickets to presidents, and now it’s being used on the Web. But does it ring true, help the cause of liberty that it’s supposed to mythologize? If it’s a falsehood, is holding on to an oversimplification damaging to the very same virtues it’s supposed to espouse?

And if the Web is global, how does this Wild, Wild West fantasy play in London, Bejing or Bahrain … or even middle America, which abhors anarchy, smarty pants libertinism, doesn’t know a Harvard philosopher geek’s think tank from a hole-in-the-wall Web site offering electronic lotto, and never will?

Let us count the many, many ways that the metaphor can be applied as an aid to understanding the Web as a once-wild place that’s passing before our eyes, and how its center----due to the unique “nature” of the Web----cannot hold …

A Beaconing Bonanza
The e-commerce trading posts are well attuned to the power of myth.

For example, a radio commercial for Wells-Fargo connects the dots from the early days of the Pony Express and the stage coaches that linked the frontier’s far-flung outposts, and then brings us up to date on how their pioneer legacy continues by offering home loans online.

Certainly, the television commercials promoting the Internet sound like “repurposed” Horace Greeley, extorting, this time, “Go Web, young man.” But many potential consumers believe it’s still a jungle out there.

“I think consumer still feels like it’s a ‘Wild West ‘scene,” says Noah Eckhouse, CEO of TrailBreaker.com, a URL with a convenient westward twang that reviews and recommends shopping sites for consumers. “There are still some perilous trails,” he says, “sites that are shaky in terms of their navigability, pursuit of quality and breadth of service.”

Meanwhile, the emergent Internet institutions are making promises to the regular guy “settler” to hang in there, because help is on the way.
“Over the next few years, we’re going to be ‘settling’ cyberspace, making it more hospitable to normal folks,” announced the online brochure for PC Forum 2000, a conference of luminaries and e-business leaders that Wired has described as “The Sundance Film Festival of the Internet.” Speakers at the event last spring included Microsoft president and CEO Steve Ballmer; Richard Bressler, chairman of Time-Warner Digital Media; and Kevin O’Connor, chairman and CEO of DoubleClick.

It sounded like a pretty contentious bunch. For example, in the same meeting halls were competitors for Microsoft’s slice of the Internet pie, people such as Eric Schmidt, chairman and CEO of Novell, or enemies of the Gates’ estate such as Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig, a key expert for the U.S. government’s side in its anti-trust case against Microsoft.

Also present was another outright thorn in the side of America-the-Database, Jason Catlett, president of Junkbusters.com, a consumer privacy watchdog. The group has been particularly watchful of DoubleClick, which recently backed off from a controversial plan for harvesting personal data on Net user habits without getting prior permission. Having the FTC investigate the matter didn’t hurt.

For a consumer out in the wild, the weapon of choice is no longer the Colt .45 or Winchester rifle, Catlett says. Instead, it’s anonymizing security and encryption software. “To maintain your privacy on the Wild Web,” he says, “you have to have a lot of very complicated weaponry.”

Calling in the Cavalry
Crossing the new frontier, homesteaders want protection from porn sites, hate sites, stalkers, from manipulators working the strings like programming puppeteers.
While the “normal folk” settlers on the frontier cry for safety from insidious raids and invasions of privacy by nefarious operators big and small, U.S. government officials raise (maybe even promote) concerns about how denial of service assaults and a drop in consumer confidence over the Web can stall the booming economy. In March, law enforcement agencies told a joint congressional panel that new sweeping powers were needed to locate and prosecute the black-hatted hackers, as well as to investigate this new field of crime in general.

Anonymity is public enemy No. 1, Eric Holder, deputy attorney general, told the panel, adding that the Clinton administration was discussing the introduction of “legal tools to locate, identify, and prosecute cyber criminals.”

Any response to this prospect depends on an individual’s tolerance level for government interference, and what they think Marshall McLuhan was thinking when he wrote, “Men on frontiers, whether of time or space, abandon their previous identities. Neighborhood gives identity. Frontiers snatch it away.”

If lawmakers define their models for confinement and control in the benevolent terms of prudence, justice and public safety, Civil libertarians, with nearly fundamentalist faith in the anonymous browser on the wide-open frontier, blanch with abject paranoia.

“You must be careful to ensure,” James Dempsey, staff counsel for the Center for Democracy and Technology, told the congressional panel, “that the recent Internet attacks do not serve as justification for legislation or other government mandates that will be harmful to civil liberties and the positive aspects of the openness and relative anonymity of the Internet.”

Indeed, it doesn’t soothe such concerns when the administration and congressional leaders, preaching privacy to the masses, are constantly looking for new opportunities to invade it. For example, signed to law by Congress in 1994, the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) required the telecommunications industry to design systems that comply with FBI technical guidelines to facilitate electronic surveillance.

The Clinton administration’s intent on Internet regulation is as wild and wooly to navigate as anything the Web can offer. At times, there appears to be laissez faire approach: self-regulatory conduct is encouraged, as is public education on “cyberethics,” and voluntary cooperation between law enforcement and private industry. He even appointed a “privacy czar” to help sort it all out.

A year ago, President Clinton appointed Peter Swire as privacy sheriff (Chief Counselor for Privacy) to look after the Web settlers. But even as Clinton announced in his State of the Union address in January that “first and foremost, we have to safeguard our citizens’ privacy,” CBS’ “60 Minutes” was investigating the National Security Agency’s designed and operated (in cooperation with Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom) global surveillance network, Echelon, which monitors international phone calls, faxes and e-mail transmissions. A February report commissioned by the European Parliament accused the United States of using Echelon for commercial espionage. The NSA denies that it listens in on U.S. citizens (which would in fact be illegal), and the State Department will not comment on Echelon’s existence.
“The current administration has seemed to be pretty dangerous on privacy issues,” says Wayne Madsen, a senior fellow at the Electronic Privacy Information Center . “They haven’t sponsored any privacy legislation, but they have sponsored an awful lot of surveillance-oriented executive orders.”

The greatest danger to the Web as it exists today, he says, is the federal government’s effort to create partnerships with private industry, and then turn those relationships into “sources of intelligence.” As that occurs, he says, the Web morphs from a “free kiosk” of information for the consumer into an opportunity to monitor the Web user: You may be watching the Web, but it’s really watching you; and the only thing to really fear is fear itself.

“All of the hoopla about these denial of service attacks is going to have a chilling effect,” he says. “The government wants to create a more secure Web when they, in fact, don’t have an effective program for their own security.”

An example of the “program” includes a recent call from the president for a kind of Peace Corps of young computer geeks to help the government in its efforts to “protect” the Web from hackers. Which to Madsen, sounds less like the Wild West (except maybe the posse), and more like other dark chapters from the more recent century.

“The government has this agenda to monitor the Web,” he says, “but may be unintentionally or intentionally creating a network of cyberstazi agents.”

But one has to wonder if the public, in general, might be willing to invite the King’s troops into their homes. Polls show that privacy is the top concern of Internet users. A BusinessWeek and Harris Interactive poll found the majority of households believe the government “should pass laws now for how personal information can be collected and used on the Internet.” As more personal data is slung across the Net, along with reports of privacy blunders by Web giants like DoubleClick and RealNetworks, such concerns are unlikely to diminish soon.

Web sites routinely track, store, share and sell database profiles about your on-line habits. Direct marketers argue that the practice is a harmless but vital part of competing in the new economy. Privacy advocates such as Junkbusters say the practice is eerily invasive and that companies should allow consumers to decide if and what kinds of personal data is collected.

Under pressure from consumers and ignoring arguments that the industry should be allowed to police itself, lawmakers are gearing up to quell the unchecked flood of personal information online. Some 82 privacy bills are under consideration in 24 states along, with approximately 500 bills that relate to privacy both on and off-line, according to the Internet Alliance , an industry group.

In addition, the Federal Trade Commission has assembled an advisory group on Internet privacy and there’s talk on Capitol
Hill of creating a Congressionally mandated commission to study the issue.

At least 15 privacy bills were floating around Congress this spring and more are expected to be introduced. One of the more controversial plans would require sites to ask users beforehand if they can “harvest” information. Another would require them to post opt-out boxes in a conspicuous place on the site.

Industry groups say privacy issues are best solved by market forces----not politicians----and that government interference will harm electronic commerce. But will sites properly police themselves and will technological curatives such as “anonymizing” software tackle the problem?

Whatever the answer, lawmakers are sure asking a lot of the same questions consumers are asking.

Call some place paradise …
To the old-timers and free-speech advocates, the threats of e-commerce far outweigh any invasive possibilities raised by the Feds, NSA spooks or whole brigades of hackers. To this group, the birth of the World Wide Web is as fondly romanticized as the birth of the Republic itself. Ah, those bygone days of egalitarianism, fraternity and liberty, to the promise of the New Jerusalem … Onward to the wild frontier, the virgin country, the uncharted expanse, served hot with an espresso at the cyber cafĂ©.

But then came, so the elitist fable goes, Netscape and Internet Explorer, and every man and woman became an online Lewis and Clark. Suddenly, the chat room is full of Okkies. So free-thinker’s paradise is trampled, apparently, in the mad, mad rush to turn the enlightenment salon into a cash cow.

And who can argue? That’s what mankind does with space, after all, be it outer, inner, cyber or dirt-real. Property lines are plotted, fences are posted, whole glittering dot-cities of commerce rise on the prairie. Then somebody builds a better search engine, and there’s a gold rush, followed by another great migration.

Before you know it, virtual ghost towns and other old links clutter each Boolean search page, all of the wild meat is either trapped or on display at the Yahoo.com city zoo, and the once-fertile field of opportunity seems overcrowded. So-called “psychological space” seems to have been appropriated by Mammon himself. The end result is a medium that’s increasingly safe, sanitized and navigable. But it’s also as mundane as the rest of Mall America on every bleak, bland, pointless day of week.

“I wish we hadn’t moved so far away from our frontier roots,” says attorney Mark Boulding, of the American Bar Association’s Cyberspace Law Committee. “Instead of open range, we now have a collection of gated communities.”

Nov. 14, Part II of “The Taming of the Web”: Manifest Destinies


“Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread.”
---- Edward Abbey, novelist