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Question time
global village or global police station?

Ubiquity, Volume 2000 Issue August, August 1 - August 31, 2000 | BY M. Grundy 


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Question Time: Global Village or Global Police Station?

The owner of an Internet gambling site in Antigua, where gambling is legal, has been sentenced to prison in the U.S. for breaking American law by advertising in the U.S. and accepting bets from Americans. In contrast, an Internet auction site in the U.S. can arrange sales of Nazi memorabilia to someone in France, a country in which such sales are illegal, because in the U.S. the postings are protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution, which guarantees free speech.

Forming alliances to end Internet anarchy

It's probably a stretch to guess about the long-term legal impacts of the global Internet, when nobody is clear yet on the long-term economic impacts of the Internet, or indeed of globalization itself. The Internet is making globally tradable any commodities relating to information. This includes those things we think of as intellectual property (whatever that really means these days), and those things we think of as physical property, but which we can market and sell by way of images, descriptions and sounds (i.e., just about everything else). It also includes those things that we often don't think of as saleable commodities at all, like conversations, opinions, preferences and experiences. As a community we try to create laws to defend our expectations of property, liberty, protection and opportunity, but it's impossible for us to make sensible laws when we don't know how to value what we're protecting. For example, under what circumstances should our Internet laws favour anonymity, pseudonymity, or total user identification? Under what circumstances should Internet laws support new models for publishing and distributing intellectual property? Under what circumstances should they support the status quo? These are questions that every country is wrestling with as it edges onto the Information Superhighway. Doubtless, there will be many different answers.

But the Internet economy is intrinsically a global phenomenon. You can't hope to grow it like a railroad -- in well controlled steps linking key centres. It's more organic, and grows like an ecosystem -- in multiple tiers in many places all at once. Already, you can use the Internet to buy, sell or broker just about anything anywhere, with whatever level of anonymity, pseudonymity or identity you choose. You can find huge, diffuse, niche global markets for bulk commodities that previously had no value, or were never cost-effective to sell to local markets. You can trade your goods or services to scores of countries in a single transaction, without any thought to what laws might apply, and without knowing or caring who your buyers really are. You can engage in agreements (binding or not) with virtual entities that may have no legal identity anywhere, no assets to speak of, and no real country of origin. In such an environment, how do you enforce and prosecute laws? How do you penalize breaches? What cybernetic equivalent of Customs can ensure that your cultural values and economic principles are properly quarantined on my national borders?

Cyberanarchists enthusiastically preach the benefits of electronic freedoms, but history has another lesson. Those who have both the power and need to protect their interests can and will exercise that protection before anyone else gets a look-in. Double standards for economic protectionism are already rife in our global community, with history showing that those with the biggest economies and keenest interests tend to set the rules, and that those with common interests rapidly form alliances to bring order out of anarchy. It's hard to imagine that the same won't happen on the Internet, in the same haphazard order in which E-everything-else happens.

By the very nature and complexity of the Internet, it seems unlikely that the global Internet economy will ever become a legal monoculture, but it also seems clear that there is both the need and the capability to set ground rules and create large, controlled areas. It's easy to envision countries forming Internet Cartels, with agreed standards of privacy, accountability and protection -- essentially, using the same road rules for their contiguous pieces of the highway. It's also easy to imagine "off-track" places with a more "Mad Max" feel, "trailblazers" seeking paths from "safe" to "unsafe" areas, and the occasional "maverick" using pieces of "safe" road for unanticipated purposes. We see signs of this same diversity of order in other places too: in our cities, our cultures and our languages to name a few -- so perhaps the dominant force here is not the technology, but globalization itself.

-- M. Grundy

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