The University Record, September 18, 2000

Cyberspace environmentalists want to ward off political, for-profit agendas

By Jay Jackson
School of Information

Lawrence Lessig, professor of law at Stanford University, told his audience that maintaining an Internet environment without corporate or government control is as important as preserving the ozone layer. Photos by Paul Jaronski, U-M Photo Services
Environmentalists in the physical world often see lawyers as adversaries, but they might feel a kinship with Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig when he calls for impassioned guardians of cyberspace to rise and defend their “atmosphere.”

Long before environmentalism became popular, scientists warned of the compounding effects of pollution, pesticides and other threats to the planet’s health. Now, Lessig says, promoters of cyberspace as a world, where innovation is the lifeblood, are warning that the Internet is threatened by people with for-profit and political agendas.

“We must show the world links that they don’t yet see; we must get people to see links they don’t yet get. We must get them to understand connections that they now miss,” Lessig says, quoting Jamie Boyle, an environmentalist and Duke law professor. Primary threats to the Internet, he says, come from those who want to control content and others who, by imposing various technical standards, could discourage innovation and competition.

Lessig made his remarks Sept. 8 before a Michigan Union audience of approximately 450 guests as the lecturer of the inaugural John Seely Brown Symposium on Technology and Society. The School of Information, with the support of the President’s Information Revolution Commission, sponsored the two-day symposium. The symposium is named for Brown, a Michigan alumnus, vice president and chief scientist of Xerox Corp. and director of the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center.

Lessig warned that these dangers come from those who don’t recognize detrimental links between one action and another. Just as environmentalists of the physical world had to sell the idea that common household spray cans could lead to the depletion of the ozone layer, cyberspace environmentalists must convince the public that seemingly small, separate controls over the Internet eventually will link together.

To understand why protecting cyberspace is worthy, Lessig said, you must understand its uniqueness.

One view of why the Internet has flourished, Lessig says, goes like this: “This was a place where the government wasn’t. It was a place where free enterprise could reign and free markets could control, and in this place without government, the Internet was born, flourishing and exploding as a direct consequence of the absence of any system of control.”

A nice summarization, he said, but one that lacks proper perspective.

“The absence of control was the absence of control over innovation, over where we want to go,” he said. “That absence came from certain architectures—in part technical and in part legal—that constructed an ecology in which innovation occurred. These architectures created the environment of the early Internet, in which innovation and creativity happened because that particular control was disabled.”

Lessig, a leading authority on law and cyberspace, served as special master to Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson in the U.S. v. Microsoft Corp. trial. His experience in the Microsoft case was evident as he spoke of the dangers of monopolies that would squeeze out Internet entrepreneurs.

Lessig said the dangers that cyberspace environmentalists need to rise against are those that threaten to impose corporate control over the next-generation Internet. “These architectures are now changing in a way that will undermine the environment that created the innovation of the original Internet,” he said. “We as environmentalists should understand this environment to understand this change.”

A fundamental principle that cyberspace environmentalists wish to protect is the concept of the Internet as a distributed network, with users deciding content rather than network owners. “This principle, called the end-to-end argument, guides network designers in placing intelligence in the network at the ends and keeping the network itself simple. Simple networks, smart applications,” Lessig said.

“What end-to-end meant was that the network was not in a position to discriminate,” the professor explained. “It was not capable of deciding what kinds of applications should run or what forms of content should be permitted. The network was ‘stupid.’ It processed packets blindly. It could no more decide which packets were competitors’ than the post office could decide which letters criticized it.”

Information Prof. Douglas E. Van Houweling agrees with Lessig that there are pressures on the next-generation Internet. Van Houweling is president and CEO of the University Consortium for Advanced Internet Development, which is heading the project commonly called Internet2.

“The issue revolves around the word ‘control,’” Van Houweling said. “I expect that businesses of all types will attempt to secure their niche and thereby control a segment of the Internet world. The challenge they will face comes from the dynamic nature of Internet innovation, the Internet’s low barriers to entry, its global nature and the values associated with the Internet and its participants.

“I see no slowing of the pace of innovation,” he added, “although established players do their best to resist threatening change through the use of political and legal processes. I doubt their resistance will have a lasting effect because there is no means of enforcing the resulting rulings across the global network.”

While dominant service providers have attempted to impede the entry of new providers, Van Houweling says there is little evidence that they have been successful. “The rapid build-out of additional capacity has allowed new entrants to find the connectivity they require. The rate of Internet growth in many nations now exceeds the growth rate in the United States, and markets in Europe and Japan will be a larger and larger portion of the overall Internet market. U.S. entrepreneurs will aggressively pursue those markets and will resist U.S.-based regulatory regimes that restrict their ability to serve them. The ‘soul’ of the Internet continues to be open.”

Internet2 is committed to maintaining a technical foundation for an open Internet as Internet technology continues to advance, Van Houweling pointed out. “While we must continue to work for and advocate paths that maintain the Internet as an open environment, and while we do face challenges, I am optimistic, partly because of Professor Lessig’s clarion call to arms.”

Lessig noted that free expression was fundamental to the Internet’s development.

“Innovation functions best when power can be questioned without consequence, when new ideas don’t need to apologize, when a better idea can prevail just because it’s better, when a new idea can appear on the platform and the platform will incorporate it, if that’s what people want.”

Unless Internet users become cyberspace environmentalists, he warned, their atmosphere may quickly cloud over.