Sharing & The Internet

The Internet is about sharing. Designed to prevent even nuclear bombs from inhibiting its never ending ebb of data, it is the most unstoppable, pervasive, and subversive medium for sharing information that the world has ever seen. From this central point we may examine three corollaries: one, that everyone should be allowed access to the Internet with a reasonable connection; two, that people should be allowed to say and hear what they want; three, that people should be allowed to either protect or openly share their intellectual property. This “Internet glasnost” brings up a host of regulatory questions, some of which have no obviously correct answer. This is further compounded by the restrictive and oftentimes wildly varying policies currently in place for traditional media, e.g., print, telephony, radio, and television, which are now all converging onto the computer simply as “data.” I do not envy the government: as we shall see here, they have their work cut out for them.

Everyone should be permitted to connect to the Internet. As a powerful equalizing force, it has social and economic potential that far exceeds that of even the telephone. In Stephen Graham’s commentary in Telecommunications Policy, he notes that telephones can keep people in touch, provide information services, contact anonymous helplines, and generally keep people wired to society1. On every one of these points, the Internet not only provides an equivalent, but goes far beyond. Email beats out the phone in letting one keep in touch cheaply, quickly, and over great distance. The Internet has millions of web pages of information. Whole newsgroups are devoted to anonymous support of sexual abuse victims and the like. And society is inexorably weaving itself into the Internet; the number of people on the Net is growing exponentially. Everywhere there are online communities forming themselves with an abounding number of Internet messageboards, mailing lists, and interactive webpages. I was first struck with the degree to which society was becoming intertwined with online reality two years ago when I wiped my face on a napkin and saw that the napkin company had printed their web address on a corner of the otherwise-white square.

We are becoming a web society. The latest news and in-depth commentary is all online far before it hits newsstands or even TV. Stories, no longer confined to a three-minute window of time on CNN or half a page of Newsweek, can now report in depth for interested readers. Numerous web services are popping up to make the online citizen’s life ever more convenient, letting her or him book plane flights, read car reviews, speculate on stocks, and order merchandise online. Last year, retail chain Egghead Electronics even went so far as to close down all of their retail stores to focus exclusively on selling electronics over the Internet. It is becoming ever more compelling for people to conduct their transactions online as business becomes, in the words of IBM, “e-business.” In Manuel Castells’ conclusion to The Rise of the Network Society, he points to the increasingly global nature of capital and its flows over the data networks 2 . If the network is to be global and all-encompassing, everyone must be on it.

Beyond sheer economic neccessity, sharing is also about global unity and personal empowerment. It allowa everyone to participate in a global democracy of sorts. The more people that are on the Internet, the more diverse and rich it will become, teeming with people, their thoughts, and their dreams. Henry Geller opines that this sharing is “of critical importance to the quality of life in the emerging information society 3.” This interconnectedness is reminiscent of Pierre Teilhard’s envisioned noosphere; a globe united in thought and acting as a single organism 4.

While the arguments for providing universal Internet service closely mirror that of providing universal telephone service, its implementation is considerably different. In the US at least, much of the wiring that could provide high-speed Internet service is in place already in the form of telephone lines and cable TV lines. However, there is no one entity that could be singled out as being responsible for providing Internet service over these lines. Forcing telephone companies to take that role would likely meet with a great deal of resistance and merely establish a regulatory monopoly. But with cable and satellite companies providing Internet access, there exists no clear “common carrier” for data. This turns out to be more of a blessing than a curse, however. The lack of a “data monopoly” has created a plethora of Internet Service Providers (ISPs), from the gargantuan America Online (AOL) to tiny 100-user bulletin board systems (BBSs) in Idaho. This vigorous competition translates into high-speed, low-price, and high-reliability connections for users. Telecom regulators saw open competition as the most efficient and rapid way to make sure that consumers could get cheap and reliable Internet connections. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 (TCA96) ordained the creation of a group to ensure universal telcom service 5, ordered a congressional proceeding to try and remove barriers to entry in the telecom market 6, and included provisions to ensure that telecom infrastructres could interconnect 7. Score one for the government doing something right.

Once people are online, they should be allowed to share, for that is the Internet excels at. Should their speech be regulated like other media? After all, since radio and television have obscenity standards, as do undesired phone calls — shouldn’t the Internet be regulated likewise? This view is flawed. Television and radio are a form of receiving, and the telephone is a form of exchange, but only the Internet allows true sharing. Intrinsic to the way information is shared on the Internet is the notion of “client-pull.” That is to say, the viewer has full choice over exactly what she or he wants to view. Unlike a turn of the radio station dial, an incoming telephone call, or changing channels on the television, an Internet user usually knows roughly what content lies behind a hyperlink on the web 8. People rarely are forced to see pages that they did not wish to see. This is an important distinction from these other, more passive media, because it means that sharing on the Internet is truly speech from a person to willing listeners. A right to free speech in this domain would seem as clearly neccessary as the right to speak in public. (If not more, for one can surely have unwilling listeners to a man standing on a soapbox!)

The US Government did not fare so well on free speech as it did on universal service. In TCA96, Congress included a section on “Obscenity and Decency” known as The Communications Decency Act (CDA) that made it illegal to transmit a broad range of material concerning “sexual or excretory activities or organs” “in a manner available to a person under 18 years of age.” 9 The language was sufficiently vague as to potentially restrict the Bible, which contains scenes of violent rape, the works of Freud, which describes sexual and excretory activities in arguably offensive terms, and many other classic works. Internet citizens widely opposed this restriction on free speech, many turning their web pages black in protest. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) brought a suit against Attorney-General Janet Reno to prevent enforcement of the bill 10. The ACLU won, and the CDA was declared unconstitutional. So while Congress made a bad decision regarding free speech on the Internet, the Department of Justice thankfully saw the light. The DOJ’s decision is fascinating to read as it details the basic functioning of the entire Internet in plain terms and lays out the very basis for free speech on the Internet, concluding:

…the Internet may fairly be regarded as a never-ending worldwide conversation. The Government may not, through the CDA, interrupt that conversation. As the most participatory form of mass speech yet developed, the Internet deserves the highest protection from governmental intrusion. 11

The government, with a little bit of coersion, supports free sharing over the Internet.

People like to share things. If one tells something exciting to a person, it is a natural reaction for that person to want to share it with other people. The “exciting thing” is called a meme, and the study of this style of spreading information is called memetics 12. The Internet amplifies an individual’s ability to spread a meme. As an example, I recently saw a very cute portable audio player that will be coming out next year. I could have just told a few friends, but instead I did a review and put it on the Internet. In the last five hours, over 1500 people have read the review and will likely share it with their friends. Because of the amplification that the Internet provides for sharing information, a piece of information must either be completely shareable or completely unshareable. It’s very difficult to have limited sharing in a world full of people who are empowered to share and love doing it.

This presents a big challenge for regulators who are equipped with laws from a time when sharing was more difficult. Libraries for instance, are legal because no copy of a book is made in the process of people checking out books and returning them. But that very same library would be illegal on the Internet; the technology used to make reading the document on your computer possible makes a local copy in your computer’s memory and on the computer’s display. The very notion of sharing something with other people in cyberspace implies copying, rendering traditional notions of copyright obsolete 13. Sharing is clearly better than not sharing, since everyone benefits. Ideally, everyone would share everything. This “information wants to be free” mentality is a product of the facility for sharing inherent in the network. It is a form of digital socialism already popularly embraced on the Internet through the OpenSource movement and the free availability of the vast majority of Internet content.

However, established companies are not comfortable with this mentality of open sharing. It frightens them and they are quick to label it “piracy.” For the book publishers, record labels, and proprietary software developers, the Internet is a nightmare. They profit off of demand for information exceeding supply. The government’s stance on the matter has been a reasonable one: let those who want to share, share, and let those who want to protect their data, protect it. While the issue was not addressed in TCA96, Congress’ proposed ratification of the World Intellectual Property Organization’s (WIPO) extremely strict rules on copyright 14 was turned into law less than two months ago with the signing of the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA) 15. The bill strives to simultaneously permit all reasonable forms of fair use while at the same time keeping people from sharing ideas that the idea’s creator did not want shared. It is interesting to also note that there are legal motions protecting sharing as well. The GNU General Public License, under which a large percentage of OpenSource software is given away, is humously self-labelled as “copyleft” and makes it illegal to take open software, modify it, and not give away the source code; the idea being that if everyone uses GNU software, it will be illegal to not share 16.

The Internet succeeds as enabling people to share. In doing so, it is creating a compelling social and economic framework where everyone is empowered to partcipate. As the most open form of free speech yet in existance, it must not only be protected from censorship, but we must also make sure that everyone can participate in it; otherwise, we risk not creating an online democracy, but an online technocracy. The US government, particularly the Department of Justice, has been atypically swift in understanding the importance of the Internet and in recognizing its mistakes. Regulators have so far managed well the issues of online access, sharing, and integrity, thanks largely to the efforts of such independant groups as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the ACLU. Given continued vigilance on all sides to ensure fairness and justice, one cannot help but be optomistic about a future of sharing.

1 Graham, Stephen, James Cornford, and Simon Marvin. “The socio-economic benefits of a universal telephone network. A demand-side view of universal service.”Telecommunications Policy. Vol. 20, No. 1, Jan/Feb 1996, pp5,6.

2 Castells, Manuel. “The Rise of the Network Society.” The Information Age: Economy, Society, and Culture. Vol. 1. p472.

3 Geller, Henry. “Reforming the U.S. Telecommunications Policymaking Process.” The New Information Infrastructure: Strategies for U.S. Policy. William Drake, Ed. (New York: Twentieth Century Fund Press), 1995. p116.

4 Kreisberg, Jennifer Cobb. “A Globe, Clothing Itself with a Brain.” Wired Magazine. Issue 3.06. June 1995. []

5 47 USC 254(a)    (also 104th Congress, S.652, sec. 254(a))

6 47 USC 257(a)

7 47 USC 251(a)

8 As testified by the Government witness Howard Schmidt, Director of the Air Force Office of Special Investigation during the ACLU v. Reno trial. This was noted in section 88 of the ACLU v. Reno Supreme Court decision. (CIVIL ACTION No. 96-963)

9 47 USC 223     (also 1996 Congress S.652, Title V, Subtitle A)

10 ACLU v. Reno – complaint. On ACLU’s website at

11 Found (among other places) on ACLU’s website at

12 Henson, Keith. “Memetics.” Whole Earth Review No. 57. pp50-55.
see also for a good introdution to memes and memetics.

13 Pool, Ithiel de Sola. “Technologies of Freedom.” (Belknap: Cambridge, MA), 1983. p214.

14 105th Congress HR 2281

15 Presedential Remarks at the Signing of HR 2281. Available through the Digital Future Coalition’s website at

16 The GNU General Public License. Available on GNU’s web page at