Monday, November 07, 2005

The Logic of Social Control

James Boyle has an op/ed piece in the Financial Times discussing why the powers that be would never have let the web develop if they'd had any idea what was possible with the Internet.

Why is the web amazing? Because of what people have built on it. Some might remember when the most exciting sites on the web had pictures of coffee pots in universities far away. (“See,” one would proudly say to a neophyte, “the pot is empty and we can see that from here! This changes everything!”) But now? When is the last time you looked in an encyclopedia? When is the last time that your curiosity – what is the collective noun for larks? Is Gerald Ford alive? Why is the sky blue? – remained unsatisfied for more than a moment? (An “exaltation”, yes and look it up for yourself.) Much of that information is provided by volunteers who delight in sharing their knowledge. Consider the range of culture, science and literature – from the Public Library of Science and Wikipedia, to Project Gutenberg and the National Map. The web does not bring us to the point where all can have access to, and can add to, the culture and knowledge of the world. We cannot ensure global literacy let alone global connectedness. But it brings us closer....

Why might we not create the web today? The web became hugely popular too quickly to control. The lawyers and policymakers and copyright holders were not there at the time of its conception.

What would they have said, had they been? What would a web designed by the World Intellectual Property Organisation or the Disney Corporation have looked like? It would have looked more like pay-television, or Minitel, the French computer network. Beforehand, the logic of control always makes sense. “Allow anyone to connect to the network? Anyone to decide what content to put up? That is a recipe for piracy and pornography.”

And of course it is. But it is also much, much more. The lawyers have learnt their lesson now. The regulation of technological development proceeds apace. When the next disruptive communications technology – the next worldwide web – is thought up, the lawyers and the logic of control will be much more evident. That is not a happy thought.

[James Boyle] is professor of law at Duke Law School, a co-founder of the Centre for the Study of the Public Domain and a board member of Creative Commons |Link| (emphasis added)

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