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The Whole World Is Talking

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From _The Nation_, July 12, 1993. Posted in Usenet
misc.activism.progressive by one of the authors.


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                       T H E   I N T E R N E T
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                      The Whole World Is Talking
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                      KEVIN COOKE AND DAN LEHRER
 
Halfway around the world, Wam Kat files daily reports on life in
Zagreb, Croatia. "I just stood about half an hour in the supermarket
downstairs watching a firmly built man.... He was shouting at
everybody in the shop," he wrote on May 24. "From what I could
understand, he said that when Croatia was under the Serbs (in former
Yugoslavia), the price of bread was at least half of what it is now.
Just a few days ago I heard somebody say that under the communists we
had our problems, but now under the capitalists we have our problems
too. What is the difference if you work for the communist or
capitalist elite?"
 
Kat's bulletins, which he calls "Zagreb Diary" don't appear in
Yugoslav papers or on television. They exist in cyberspace. Kat types
them on his own computer in Zagreb and sends them by modem to an
electronic bulletin board in Germany. From there, his stories are
relayed to computers around the world via the global mega-information
stream called the Internet.
 
"Electronic mail is the only link between me and the outside world"
says Kat, writing by e-mail. The Croatian government owns all the
major media in the country and is prosecuting a group of journalists
for treason.  Kat is only one of the millions of people participating
in this community without walls. During other recent cataclysms, the
Internet provided an instant, unfiltered link to the world.
 
"In Russia, during the coup attempt, people were providing live
reports on Russian Internet about what was really going on. They were
widely circulated on the Net ' says Mitchell Kapor, founder of Lotus
Development Corporation and now chairman of the Electronic Frontier
Foundation, a group advocating "electronic civil liberties" primarily
freedom of speech and privacy. "During Tiananmen Square, students were
getting the news out and were fundraising through Internet," adds Tom
Mandel, a futurist with SRI International, a Silicon Valley-based
consulting firm. "There were a bunch of us hungrily reading
newsgroups, stuff we weren't getting from reporters." (Newsgroups are
open discussion groups where people can post their views.)  But the
Net is changing more than just the flow of information; it's changing
the way we relate to one another. The advent of global networking is
fragmenting and re-sorting society into what one author calls "virtual
communities." Instead of being bound by location, groups of people can
now meet in cyberspace, the noncorporeal world existing between two
linked computers. There they can look for colleagues, friends, romance
or sex. John Hoag, communications coordinator for BARRNet, the Bay
Area Regional Research Network, who began computer networking in 1986,
says, "I met more people on-line inside a month than I met in the past
ten years."
 
Have modem, will travel.
 
The Internet is the most powerful computer network on the planet
simply because it's the biggest. It encompasses 1.3 million computers
with Internet addresses that are used by up to 30 million people in
more than forty countries. The number of computers linked to the
Internet has doubled every year between 1988 and 1992; this year the
rate of increase slowed slightly to 80 percent. To reach it, one needs
only a computer, modem and password. Dan Van Belleghem, who helps
connect organizations to the Internet for the National Science
Foundation, says, "Nobody has ever dropped off the network. Once they
get on they get hooked. It's like selling drugs."  While Internet
experts deride the term "information superhighway" as an empty
soundbite, the concept works as an analogy to understand how the
Internet functions. Think of it as a massive road system, complete
with freeways, feeders and local routes. At every intersection sits a
computer, which has to be passed through to get to the next computer
until you've reached your destination. Any computer on the Internet
system can connect with any other computer through the road system.
And if the route to your destination is closed, you will automatically
take a detour to get there.
 
The difference between the Internet and the Interstate is that you can
go to Finland as quickly as you can go down the block. Once there, you
can remotely manipulate the computer to do anything your own can do.
You can retrieve a file from it in the blink of an eye.
 
Today, users can talk to one another, send e-mail back and forth, join
arcane discussion Groups, tap into libraries in universities from
Berkeley to Bern and exchange almost any sort of data, including
pictures, sound and text. Recently, a cult movie called Wax was
broadcast to Internet sites all around the country. While it was black
and white and only two frames per second, it was an important first
step toward the computer equivalent of cable broadcasting. Also, a
radio program is already broadcast weekly on the Net, complete with
technology news and a "Geek of the Week" segment.
 
But it's not all smooth sailing on the sea of information. On most
computers, the Internet is hard to use. The arcane commands that run
it make little sense to many average users, who can find themselves
lost in cyberspace without a map. "The Internet today is still for
computer weenies," says Kapor. "But the problem will take care of
itself," he adds, because easier to use software tools will appear as
the Net grows.
 
To make matters more confusing, because the Internet is a network of
networks, no one group or person is in charge. Kapor describes it as
"anarchy." Mandel says, "It's all very ad hoc." And R.U. Sirius,
editor in chief of the cyberpunk magazine Mondo 2000, says, "It's
definitely out of control."
 
Ironically, the anarchy began in the bowels of the Defense Department.
Back in 1969, the Pentagon's Advanced Research Projects Agency created
ARPANET, a computer networking project, to transmit packets of
military data securely and efficiently around the world. In 1984, the
National Science Foundation began building five supercomputers around
the country for conducting scientific research. When Defense
Department researchers wanted access to the supercomputers as well,
the N.S.F. linked them up with ARPANET. The popularity of computer
access, especially to collaborate on-line, has steadily expanded ever
since.
 
"It was just a bunch of computer scientists talking to one another,"
says Van Belleghem. "Then educators and people involved in research or
administration all wanted to talk to one another, get files, get to
libraries on the network. It's been opening up and getting more open
every year."
 
Over the past decade, tens of thousands of nonmilitary networks have
been connected to the Internet's electronic web, including the Library
of Congress, most U.S. universities and libraries, and private
companies from General Electric to the Bank of Bermuda.
 
Of course, not all the sites are publicly accessible. Most private
sites require special passwords for entry, which only registered users
and an occasional hacker can get. However, the amount of information
available to the on-line public is staggering. "Getting information
off the Internet is like taking a drink from a fire hydrant," says
Kapor.
 
Everything from the complete works of Shakespeare to the number of
sodas in a Coke machine at Carnegie-Mellon University is accessible.
The primary use of the Net is for communication, however. "Half the
traffic on the Internet is e-mail at this point," says Mandel. The
number of topics on the newsgroups can be daunting.
 
There are more than 2,500 different subjects, ranging from one for
fans of The Simpsons, to classified and personal ads, to Bay Area
politics.  There are also, naturally, many groups dedicated to
different computer systems and languages, as computer scientists and
hackers are still the main users of the Internet. One researcher at
Cornell who studied the way scientists use the newsgroups discovered
that real research isn't furthered much by reading them. Bruce
Lewenstein, assistant professor of communication and science and
technology studies, found that during the cold fusion controversy,
newsgroups did little to aid scientists assessing the phenomenon. In
fact, most of the newsgroup postings constituted what he calls
"irrelevant chatter."  Indeed, in a two-week period in April, the two
most active posters were sending erotic images. The White House came
in third, with transcripts of press briefings, speeches and press
releases.
 
******************************************************************
    the direct access to information the Internet provides is
    "inherently politically subversive."  These Internet activists
    want to make sure that this power stays with individuals. Right
    now a debate is raging in Washington on how to transform the
    Internet [...]
******************************************************************
 
But some people are using newsgroups to disseminate information from a
different perspective.  Harel Barzilai, a Cornell graduate student in
math, has created a group for progressive activists, and he claims
that 23,000 people read his postings regularly. His group
("misc.activism.progressive" in Internetspeak) posts articles from
leftist magazines and alternative campus publications, as well as
action bulletins on issues of concern. "You're not going to find
anything to the left of the Democratic Party on TV or in newspapers,"
he says. "And for those of us who have access to the Internet, it's
free to use it and post information. This is our chance to be heard."
 
Like many Netheads, Barzilai thinks of the Internet as a new
communication model, allowing for unfiltered, many-to-many publishing,
rather than the traditional hierarchical one-to-many approach. "This
is a situation where money, or capital, does not have a monopoly on
access," he says.
 
R.U. Sirius agrees. "The role of capital as an editor is being
removed," he says. Sirius, like many, feels a sense of liberation on
the Net. "The metaphor of the highway fits," he says. "Like Jack
Kerouac's On the Road, from a tight little community out onto the wide
open road. Everybody's out there; it's not a small elite system."
 
Howard Rheingold, whose book The Virtual Community is being published
in October by Addison-Wesley, says, "If you have a computer, you have
the power to broadcast. It gives the power to individuals that used to
be only that of the privileged few." And, he adds, the direct access
to information the Internet provides is "inherently politically
subversive."  These Internet activists want to make sure that this
power stays with individuals. Right now a debate is raging in
Washington on how to transform the Internet into a faster, bigger
network, called NREN, the National Research and Education Network.
Funding for NREN began with then-Senator Al Gore in 1991. This year,
Congressman Rick Boucher is sponsoring legislation to add on to Gore's
brainchild, providing $1.5 billion in funding to hook libraries,
schools and medical facilities to new high- speed computers.
Telecommunications and computer companies, including NYNEX and Cray
Research, have lined up in favor and a Clinton Administration
spokesperson has said that the President is prepared to sign the
legislation, which is expected to pass through both houses of Congress
this summer.
 
But one of the main aims of Boucher's bill has alarmed many longtime
Net users. It also encourages the NREN computers to use private
networks, instead of publicly subsidized ones. Boucher, chairman of
the House Science Subcommittee, has suggested that the government
should turn over all areas of the Internet to private corporations
whenever possible.
 
He says, "The Internet has grown without a clear plan or organization.
There's no government for the Internet. One of the great challenges is
to establish some means of providing order and giving markers along
the way."
 
By itself, the first move toward privatization means little. Another
Boucher-sponsored bill would grant antitrust exemptions for telephone
companies, allowing a single company to own both phone and cable
lines.  Boucher thinks this will provide the financial incentive for
the private sector to upgrade the communications links between the
Internet and private homes. But critics fear that the end result could
be the expansion of local cable and telephone monopolies into
monopolies controlling all electronic access into the home.
 
By giving the private sector unregulated and monopolistic control over
the Net's electronic connections, the government would in effect allow
megacorporations like AT&T and Time Warner, who own the cable lines
and manage what flows through them, to call the shots in the future.
They could determine how much anyone, from a single individual to a
university, will have to pay for access. Some phone companies, for
example, are already discussing charging users either by the amount of
time they log on to the Internet or by the amount of data they send
over it--despite the fact that their network operating costs are fixed
no matter how many people use it or how much data flows through it.
Changing the funding structure means the eventual extinction of the
small, mom-and-pop computer networks, which could find themselves
victims of predictable market forces. And that means that isolated
users and cash-strapped colleges could be cut off from their virtual
communities.
 
Not everyone predicts such a scenario, however. John Hoag from BARRNet
thinks virtual communities will survive even if commercial interests
dominate the data superhighway. "The Internet culture has its roots so
deep, I don't think it's going to disappear," he says. Even if a local
monopoly restricts access to the Net, "the culture will exist around
it."  And users have reacted fiercely to Boucher's proposals, with
e-mail flying from Berkeley to Bangladesh. The specter of censorship,
as on commercial systems like Prodigy, where system administrators
routinely delete "objectionable" messages, looms. "Communities,
whether virtual or physical, should be self-determining, rather than
determined by megacorporations," adds the Electronic Frontier
Foundation's Kapor. "The users of the Net should determine its uses
and content." In a worst-case scenario, Rheingold says, corporations
would not only monitor what's on the Internet, they would monitor you.
If, as some predict, the information superhighway becomes primarily a
conduit for watching movies, banking at home and shopping, the same
computers that we use to lessen the burden of our daily errands could
also be used by the corporations that provide those services to
destroy our personal privacy. The Net could be used by marketing
wizards--the same ones who flood us with annoying junk mail--to keep
tabs on us all in Orwellian fashion, automatically recording our
interests and habits.
 
Hackers have already developed a few defenses, which could be the
seeds for preserving the right to free communication. Free software to
encode all electronic transmissions is now widely available, with
codes that even the fastest supercomputers would have a tough time
cracking. This means that nobody but the person you send something
to--whether an e-mail note or a piece of software--can read it.
 
And anonymity is also possible--networks have been set up in such
disparate places as Helsinki and San Diego to enable completely
anonymous speech. The Finnish operator declared that he will never
allow anyone to find out the true names of his users without a court
order.
 
Internet activists are also not happy with the Clinton
Administration's effort to impose a standard encoding scheme for data,
whether e-mail or a movie, that only the government can break. "The
machinery of oppression has weak spots," Rheingold says, noting the
spread of encryption techniques that even the National Security Agency
may not be able to crack. "But the powers that be in the N.S.A. have
convinced Clinton that they have to close the doors before all the
cows get out."  Whether it's the government or private corporations,
what everyone wants is control of a new form of communication, one
that currently cannot be controlled. Given the stakes and the power of
the interests now seeking to shape and profit from this new
technology, the end result may not be a happy one for the average
citizen-user. "The key questions of access, pricing, censorship and
redress of grievances will be answered in practice, in law, in
executive order or legislative action, over the next five years,"
Rheingold writes, "and will thus determine the political and economic
structure of the Net for decades to come."
 
But for the time being, the activities of people like Wam Kat seem to
prove an old hacker adage: "All information wants to be free."
 
 ---
 
Kevin Cooke and Dan Lehrer are students at the Graduate School of
Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley. Although they
claim they are not computer weenies, they can be reached by e-mail
at [email protected] and [email protected]
Tim Ziegler also contributed to this article.
 
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Kevin Cooke                                   Numbers: (510) 548-4732 (H)
UCB School of Journalism                      (510) 643-6699 x.8 (v-mail)
[email protected]
[email protected]                       Insert witticism here...
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