A Brave Choice

The Chinese character for “change” is a combination of two words: danger and opportunity. Any technology that brings great change to society – such as language, the automobile, nuclear power, or the Internet – also presents danger and opportunity. Ultimately, the value of the Internet as an agent of change will be determined through its application.

In the last two centuries, factory and nuclear power technologies have both been agents of change. A dramatic increase in productivity, economic growth, and an elevated standard of living for millions of people are the results of factory technologies. Child labor and worker safety abuses, traumatic increases in pollution, and the demise of a family-oriented, rural workforce have also resulted from factory technologies. In the same manner, nuclear power has been safely applied to generate clean and efficient power. It has also been misused in the case of Chernobyl. Fortunately, no one has seen the effect of the worst possible application for nuclear power, a full-scale global war. The Internet is no different.

This is why when discussion about the Internet begins, most people fall into one of two groups: technophiles or technophobes. The unbounded optimism of the former is counterbalanced by the gloom and doom projections of the latter. The truth about the implications of the Internet probably lies somewhere in between these extremes.

The most vocal outrage about the Internet has come in response to obscenity – specifically, the danger that children will have access to pornographic material. Not surprisingly, politicians and other community leaders have identified obscenity on the Internet as a hot-button issue. Surely, they think, no one wants the children of America to be a few mouse clicks away from harmful information.

As typical products of political discourse, legislation, regulation, and confiscation are used to score political points. But legislation, regulation, and confiscation cannot eliminate the danger inherent to the Internet. When the Industrial Revolution swept across America, profound problems became apparent: Children worked excessively, factory safety codes did not exist, and labor was generally devoid of recognizable human characteristics. Despite these problems, work was not outlawed and factories were not banned. The unsafe working conditions were rectified by improving the environment, or external situation, in which the problems existed.

Reform movements of the past illustrate an important lesson. Changing the environment in which information is shared via the Internet will necessarily change the effects of the Internet. The prevention of Internet dangers, therefore, need not come at the expense of its benefits.

Sharing information requires at least two points of contact. In other media, the distribution point is where most regulation occurs. This happens in two ways. First, some content is simply not tolerated by a community and is therefore illegal. Second, and when appropriate, the means of distribution is regulated. For example, Larry Flynt’s publications can only be purchased by adults.

Similarly, effective content regulation of the Internet will require two levels. The first level of regulation limits the content itself in the same way other media do – for example, child pornography is outlawed. The second level limits access. If this regulation is desirable, a point political leaders have quickly rallied behind, the dynamic nature of the Internet requires distributed, and not centralized, regulation.

After content appears on the Internet there are two places where information may be screened from selected viewers: the path that the information travels upon and its final destination. Before politicians muddle up the Internet with their mandates, a survey of alternative screening methods should be considered. Communities of individual users, service providers, manufacturers, as well as family and other social structures exist as a favorable moderating force rather than the government. Currently in the Internet environment, a widely distributed network, the only effective alternative for “control” is to allow Internet users the choice of employing blocking devices on their own computers.

While the technophobes rail against the dangers of the Internet, technophiles proclaim its tremendous opportunities. The latter group says that the Internet will allow anyone to become a publisher. The immediate opportunities presented by this are not limited to an extension of free expression. An expansion of publishing or document creation is actually the cornerstone supporting the ability to work at home, closer to one’s family. Additionally, these core benefits will have spillover or secondary benefits. Technophiles would have you believe that everything from an increase in learning and literacy to the reduction in auto-emission pollution and divorce may result from workstations in the home.

A significant problem confronts these Pollyannaish views of the Internet’s future. The Internet is not a panacea for modern problems. An increase in desktop publishing will only add to the information glut which already threatens the utility of the Internet. An exponential growth of available information may force a greater reliance on editors and “smart agents” which sift through vast amounts of information quickly. Instead of bringing power and choice to the individual users, the Internet could create a dependence on information middlemen. Further, the data brokers of tomorrow will continue to face a problem that vexes the Internet today: verification. The issue of quality versus quantity is certain to become more important as Internet use proliferates.

Print and broadcast media have developed reliable verification methods through human interaction – an important factor for commercial exchange as well as publishing. How does an Internet user confirm that the information they access through the network is accurate, secure, and generally of high quality? In the terrestrial world this phenomena takes a great deal of time. Trust is established and must be proven time and time again. High levels of trust and verification have not yet emerged in the ether. And so, the Internet is not a source of reliable information until verification and reliability are developed. Fortunately, the power of the marketplace is quickly producing tools that aid the growth of verifiable and therefore valuable information.

Technophiles promote the power of the Internet that allows individuals to tap into information resources that were previously unavailable. For example, several years ago, my sister was diagnosed with a congenital heart defect. Had the Internet existed, my family and I might have been able to survey the available information about this life-threatening health problem. Information about genetic characteristics, treatment analysis, and cost assessments might have been found through contact with people in similar situations. Though this information would have been very important to my family, verification of the data is not yet possible with the Internet alone.

Empowering individuals with information promotes freedom, but it also requires responsibility. Consumers should be free to protect themselves, but they must realize that the worst-case scenarios developed by technophobes and the dreamy visions of technophiles do not accurately represent the Internet today. A truer representation of the Internet is probably between these competing extremes. From bomb making to banking the Internet is still a largely unrealized possibility.

Our brave choice is to recognize the world as a place where opportunity can flourish in conjunction with danger. Understanding these implications requires individuals to abandon the force-fed themes of total hope and absolute despair. If the full potential of the Internet is to be realized, and the inherent dangers avoided, individuals must be trusted to shoulder the responsibility themselves.

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