Friday, May 19, 2006

Tech: Regulation: do you think the Internet should be a free-for-all?

Another day, another complaint about internet regulation.

There’s good and bad to that issue, and it shouldn’t be said that it’s either one or the other. It just reflects life.

It reflects life in that trafficking in child porn is illegal. It reflects life in that exchanging perfect copies of music peer-to-peer is a breach of copyright. And, of course, it’s no surprise that China would institute various forms of censorship in its citizens’ use of the net (what should be more noteworthy is the extent to which it has achieved its aims on that score). It’s to be expected that each country would – within their ability – try to ensure that regulation of the internet reflects the legal code of the real world. I guess there are people out there who remember the days when the internet was the wild frontier – their beast - and resent efforts to tame it.

However, it’s unsurprising that regulatory bodies are still playing catchup on the information highway. The net moves at the speed of light, while legislation moves at the speed of… legislators. That’s why, for example, we see so many song lyric sites, which are surely a breach of copyright too (not to mention the misquotes that abound). Yes, it’s like playing catch with mercury sometimes, but that doesn’t mean regulation shouldn’t, or won’t, exist. I suspect the gap between technology to spread content and technology to regulate it is probably narrowing; it’s certainly not getting wider.

Governments represent people (imperfectly, to a greater or lesser extent), Copyright organisations represent copyright holders, etc. Anyone else gets to battle out libel laws in court, as it ever was. However, I note that much of what we do on the internet is mediated, for example by ISPs, and if those mediators exert undue caution because of concern for lawsuits, then again it’s not much different from the real world.

There remain outposts of wilderness on the net, particularly countries of the former Soviet Union, where it’s harder to exert control over things like copyright and child pornography. However, I would expect these to be gradually addressed through international political and diplomatic means, as they are in the real world. The only difference is that the internet puts it all at our fingertips, so the physical barriers are few. This is something the legislators are gradually seeing the need to come to grips with.

One person’s censorship is another person’s ethical standard. The battle is fought in the political arena. On a positive note, I feel we have refined our ethical standards reasonably well over the past thirty years – for the most part. We are a more tolerant society, while maintaining standards on fundamental issues.

I don’t understand why anybody is surprised about internet regulation. Everyone has their ethical standards, no matter how low they are.

No comments: