Every 100 days the number of Internet users doubles. In February 1996, the Chinese government ratified a series of provisions to regulate access to and use of the Internet. Under the new rules, all electronic information must be routed through an official channel for monitoring. The regulations expressly forbid "engaging in activities at the expense of state security" as well as "producing, retrieving, duplicating or spreading information that may hinder public order." At roughly the same time, German prosecutors forced CompuServe to bar access for its 4.3 million subscriber's worldwide to 200 sex-related Usenet sites because of local German child pornography laws.
Two very different governments--for two very different reasons--have attempted to impose national authority over the Internet. Slowly, but surely, governments are becoming "conscious" of the Internet and its limitless possibilities. It is inevitable that governments will attempt to restrict and regulate the Internet. Yet, efforts to do so will fail because the Internet has evolved into a worldwide network beyond the control of any one government.
A perfect example was seen when Deutsche Telekom, Germany's phone company, made a decision to cut access to a Santa Cruz, California-based Web server in an attempt to censor a single neo-Nazi propaganda Web site. It is illegal to print or distribute neo-Nazi materials in Germany, but not in the United States. With the Internet, information flows freely across borders, without regard to national laws.
Efforts to censor or regulate the Internet will fail for several reasons. First, the Internet was created as a decentralized network. Damage to one node will not interrupt communications. Messages are simply routed around the damaged node. Censorship and regulations are treated as damage and are routed around.
Second, the Internet is also protected by its sheer--and growing--size. Millions of messages, millions of Web sites and thousands of news groups can't all be monitored. There is simply too much information.
The wide use of encryption technology will hinder any government's ability to control or regulate the content of the Internet. It is impossible to monitor coded and scrambled bits of information.
However, the most potent defense against regulation that the Internet has is not based on technology. It's based on money. The Internet is predicted to generate more than $1 trillion in electronic commerce each day. Any government that wants a piece of the electronic action won't impose unnecessary restrictions on the Internet. Governments, such as China, that want to reap the economic benefits of the Internet without allowing unrestricted access to information will face a big problem. How do you tell the difference between "friendly" economic information and "unfriendly" political information? It is impossible to limit one without limiting the other.
This is not to say that there is no need or way to regulate the Internet. The Internet is rapidly developing into a new and exciting global culture--complete with its own social mores and values. "Netiquette," the informal social self-regulation of the Internet, is well established. Certain behaviors are not tolerated. As the Internet evolves, so will its conception of what is socially acceptable. These decisions will not be made by individual nations, but by the individuals who use the Internet. The goal will be to balance the need for social responsibility and security with the freedom to access information.
Government involvement will be limited to the need to regulate and monitor business activities on the Internet. With large volumes of electronic cash trading hands each day, it will be in the interest of governments everywhere to have international agreements to protect against fraud and unsavory electronic business activities.
Governments around the world will continue to regulate and control the Internet based on national interests until they realize it is in their economic self-interest to take advantage of the opportunities the Internet represents. Countries serious about Internet regulation will simply have to cut their international phone lines.
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