By Mitchell Kapor,
co-founder, Electronic Frontier Foundation.

          "As a net is made up of a series of ties, so everything in
     this world is connected by a series of ties.  If anyone thinks
     that the mesh of a net is an independent, isolated thing, he is
     mistaken.  It is called a net because it is made up of a series
     of interconnected meshes, and each mesh has its place and
     responsibility in relation to other meshes."

                                                          -- Buddha

     New communities are being built today.  You cannot see them, except
on a computer screen.  You cannot visit them, except through your
keyboard.  Their highways are wires and optical fibers; their language a
series of ones and zeroes.
     Yet these communities of cyberspace are as real and vibrant as any
you could find on a globe or in an atlas.  Those are real people on the
other sides of those monitors.  And freed from physical limitations,
these people are developing new types of cohesive and effective
communities - ones which are defined more by common interest and purpose
than by an accident of geography, ones on which what really counts is
what you say and think and feel, not how you look or talk or how old you
     The oldest of these communities is that of the scientists, which
actually predates computers.  Scientists have long seen themselves as an
international community, where ideas were more important than national
origin.  It is not surprising that the scientists were the first to adopt
the new electronic media as their principal means of day- to-day
     I look forward to a day in which everybody, not just scientists, can
enjoy similar benefits of a global community.
     But how exactly does community grow out of a computer network? It
does so because the network enables new forms of communication.
     The most obvious example of these new digital communications media
is electronic mail, but there are many others.  We should begin to think
of  mailing lists ,  newsgroups , file and document archives, etc. as
just the first generation of new forms of information and communications
media.  The digital media of computer networks, by virtue of their design
and the enabling technology upon which they ride, are fundamentally
different than the now dominant mass media of television, radio,
newspapers and magazines.  Digital communications media are inherently
capable of being more interactive, more participatory, more egalitarian,
more decentralized, and less hierarchical.
     As such, the types of social relations and communities which can be
built on these media share these characteristics.  Computer networks
encourage the active participation of individuals rather than the passive
non-participation induced by television narcosis.
     In mass media, the vast majority of participants are passive
recipients of information.  In digital communications media, the vast
majority of participants are active creators of information as well as
recipients.  This type of symmetry has previously only been found in
media like the telephone.  But while the telephone is almost entirely a
medium for private one-to-one communication, computer network
applications such as electronic  mailing lists , conferences, and
bulletin boards, serve as a medium of group or "many-to-many"
     The new forums atop computer networks are the great levelers and
reducers of organizational hierarchy.  Each user has, at least in theory,
access to every other user, and an equal chance to be heard. Some U.S.
high-tech companies, such as Microsoft and Borland, already use this to
good advantage: their CEO's -- Bill Gates and Philippe Kahn -- are
directly accessible to all employees via electronic mail.  This creates a
sense that the voice of the individual employee really matters.  More
generally, when corporate communication is facilitated by electronic
mail, decision-making processes can be far more inclusive and
     Computer networks do not require tightly centralized administrative
control.  In fact, decentralization is necessary to enable rapid growth
of the network itself.  Tight controls strangle growth.  This
decentralization promotes inclusiveness, for it lowers barriers to entry
for new parties wishing to join the network.
     Given these characteristics, networks hold tremendous potential to
enrich our collective cultural, political, and social lives and enhance
democratic values everywhere.
     And the Internet, and the  UUCP  and related networks connected to
it, represents an outstanding example of a computer network with these
qualities.  It is an open network of networks, not a single unitary
network, but an ensemble interconnected systems which operate on the
basis of multiple implementations of accepted, non-proprietary
 protocols , standards and interfaces.
    One of its important characteristics is that new networks, host
systems, and users may readily join the network -- the network is open to
    The openness (in all senses) of the Internet reflects, I believe, the
sensibilities and values of its architects.  Had the Internet somehow
been developed outside the world of research and education, it's less
likely to have had such an open architecture.  Future generations will be
indebted to this community for the wisdom of building these types of open
     Still, the fundamental qualities of the Net, such as its
decentralization, also pose problems.  How can full connectivity by
maintained in the face of an ever-expanding number of connected networks,
for example?  What of software bugs that bring down computers, or human
crackers who try to do the same?  But these problems can and will be
     Digital media can be the basis of new forms of political discourse,
in which citizens form and express their views on the important public
issues of the day. There is more than one possible vision of such
electronic democracy, however. Let's look at some examples of the
potential power, and problems, of the new digital media.
      The idea of something called an "electronic town meeting"  received
considerable attention in 1992 with Ross Perot's presidential campaign
(or, at least, its first incarnation).
     Perot's original vision, from 20 or so years ago,  was that viewers
would watch a debate on television and fill out punch cards which would
be mailed in and collated.  Now we could do it with 800 telephone numbers.
     In the current atmosphere of disaffection, alienation and cynicism,
anything that promotes greater citizen involvement seems a good idea.
People are turned off by politicians in general -- witness the original
surge of support for Perot as outsider who would go in and clean up the
mess -- and the idea of going right to the people is appealing,
     What's wrong with this picture? The individual viewer is a passive
recipient of the views of experts.  The only action taken by the citizen
is in expressing a preference for one of three pre-constructed
alternatives.  While this might be occasionally useful, it's
unsophisticated and falls far short of the real potential of electronic
democracy. We've been reduced to forming our judgments on the basis of
mass media's portrayal of the personality and character of the candidates.
     All this is in contrast to robust political debates already found on
various on-line computer systems, from CompuServe to  Usenet . Through
these new media, the issues of the day, ranging from national security in
the post-Cold War era to comparative national health care systems, are
fiercely discussed in a wide variety of bulletin boards, conferences, and
 newsgroups .
     What I see in online debate are multiple active participants, not
just experts, representing every point of view, in discussions that
unfold over extended periods of time. What this shows is that, far from
being alienated and disaffected from the political process, people like
to talk and discuss -- and take action -- if they have the opportunity to
do so.  Mass media don't permit that.  But these new media are more akin
to a gathering around the cracker barrel at the general store -- only
extended over hundreds, thousands of miles, in cyberspace, rather than in
one physical location.
     Recent years have shown the potential power of these new media. We
have also seen several of examples where talk translated into action.
     In 1987, the Federal Communications Commission proposed changing the
way certain online providers paid for access to local phone service.
Online, this quickly became known as the  modem tax  and generated a
storm of protest.  The FCC withdrew the idea, but not quickly enough: the
"modem tax" has penetrated so deeply into the crevices of the Net that it
has taken up a permanent and ghostly residence as a kind of virtual or
cognitive virus, which periodically causes a re-infection of the systems
and its users.  FCC commissioners continue to receive substantial mail on
this even though the original issue is long dead; in fact, it has
generated more mail than any other issue in the history of the FCC.
     More recently, Jim Manzi, chairman of Lotus Development Corp.,
received more than 30,000 e-mail messages when the company was getting
ready to sell a database containing records on tens of millions of
Americans.  The flood of electronic complaints about the threat to
privacy helped force the company to abandon the project. Issues of narrow
but vital interest to the online community give a hint of the organizing
power of the Net.
     In August, 1991, the managers of a Soviet computer network known as
Relcom stayed online during an abortive coup, relaying eyewitness
accounts and news of actions against the coup to the West and to the rest
of Russia.
     And many public interest non-profit organizations and special
interest groups already use bulletin boards heavily as a means of
communicating among their members and organizing political activity.
     But all is not perfect online.  The quality of discourse is often
very low.  Discussion is often trivial and boring and bereft of
persuasive reason.  Discourse often sinks to the level of "flaming," of
personal attacks, instead of substantive discussion. {" Flaming " link Chap4/FLAMES 0}. Those with
the most time to spend often wind up dominating the debate - a triumph of
quantity of time available over quality of content.
     It seems like no place for serious discussion. Information overload
is also a problem.  There is simply far too much to read to keep up with.
It is all without organization.  How can this be addressed?
     Recent innovations in the design of software used to connect people
to the Net and the process of online discussion itself reveal some hope.
     Flaming is universal, but different systems handle it in different
ways.  Both the technology and cultural norms matter.
     On  Usenet , for instance, most news reader applications support a
feature known as a "killfile," which allows an individual to screen out
postings by a particular user or on a particular subject.  It is also
sometimes referred to as "the bozo filter."  This spares the user who is
sufficiently sophisticated from further flamage, but it does nothing to
stop the problem at its source.
     Censorship would be one solution. But what else can be done without
resorting to unacceptably heavy-handed tactics of censorship?  There is a
great tradition of respect for free speech on these systems, and to
censor public postings or even ban a poster for annoying or offensive
content is properly seen as unacceptable, in my opinion.
     Some systems use cultural norms, rather than software, to deal with
flame wars.  These online communities have developed practices which
rely more on a shared, internalized sense of appropriate behavior  than
on censorship, for instance.  The  WELL  (Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link) is
a relatively small online conferencing system based in the San Francisco
Bay area.  On the WELL, individuals who get into a fight are encouraged
to move the discussion out of the public conference and into e-mail. The
encouragement is provided not only by the host of the conference, but
also by the users.  It is part of the culture, not part of the technology.
     WELL hosts are volunteers who facilitate the discussion of a
particular subject.  While they have the power to censor individual
postings, the power is very rarely used and only as a last resort, as it
has been found that dispute resolution by talking it out among the
parties is a superior method of problem solving in the long run.
     It is not an accident that the WELL has a uniquely high quality of
conversation.  Nor is it coincidental that it developed as a small and
originally isolated community (now on the Net) which gave it a chance to
develop its own norms or that key management of the system came from "The
Farm," a large, successful commune of the 1960's and 1970's led by
Stephen Gaskin.
     We still know very little about the facilitation of online
conversations.  It is a subject well worth further formal study and
     Some problems have to do with the unrefined and immature format and
structure of the discussion medium itself.  The undifferentiated stream
of new messages marching along in 80 columns of ASCII text creates a kind
of hypnotic trance.  Compare this with the typical multiplicity of type
fonts, varied layouts, images, and pictures of the printed page.
     New media take time to develop and to be shaped.  Reading text on a
terminal reminds me of looking at the Gutenberg Bible. The modern book
took a century to develop after the invention of printing with movable
type and the first Western printed books.  Aldus Manutius and the
inventions of modern typefaces, pagination, the table of contents, the
index, all of which gave the book its modern form, came later, were done
by different people, and were of a different order than the invention of
printing with movable type itself.  The new electronic media are
undergoing a similar evolution.
     Key inventions are occurring slowly, for example, development of
software tools that will allow the dissemination of audio and video
across the Net. This type of software has usually been sone so far by
volunteers who have given away the results.  It's a great thing, but it's
not sufficient, given how hard it is to develop robust software.
Innovation in the application space will also be driven by entrepreneurs
and independent software vendors at such point as they perceive a
business opportunity to create such products (it would be nice if
creators did it for art's sake but this seems unlikely).
     There are some requirements to provide incentives to attract
additional software development.  This requires a competitive free market
in network services at all levels to serve the expanding user demand for
network services. It requires a technologically mature network able to
support these services.
     And there must be a user population, current or prospective,
interested in paying for better applications -- and not just the current
base of technically sophisticated users and students, though they will
absolutely benefit.
     There are multiple classes of new application opportunities.
 e-mail  is overloaded because there aren't readily available
alternatives yet. New and different kinds of tools are needed for
collaborative work. Computer conferencing, as it evolves, may be
sufficient for discussion and debate.  But by itself, it cannot really
support collaborative work, in the sense of readily enabling a group to
make decisions efficiently, represent and track the status of its work
process.  Trying to run an organization via email  mailing list  is very
different than trying to have a discussion.
     Computer networks can only fully realize their potential as
innovative communications media in an environment which encourages free
and open expression.
     In some countries, legal principles of free speech protect freedom
of expression in traditional media such as the printed word.  But once
communication moves to new digital media and across crosses international
borders, such legal protections fall away.  As John Perry Barlow, the
co-founder of  EFF  puts it: "In Cyberspace, the First Amendment is a
local ordinance."  There is no international legal authority which
protects free expression on trans-national networks. Article 19 of the
Universal Declaration of Human Rights calls for the protection of free
expression in all media, but the declaration falls far short of being
     And if we're to take seriously the idea of the electronic online
forum, we have to deal with the access issue.  if the only people with
access to the medium are well-educated, affluent, techno-literate elite,
it won't be sufficiently inclusive to represent all points of view.
     We also need, fundamentally, a better infrastructure (the highway
system for information).  As we move from the high-speed Internet to the
even more powerful National Research and Education Network, we need to
look at how to bring the power of these new media into the homes of
everybody who might want it.  Addressing this "last mile" problem (phone
networks are now largely digitized, fiber-optic systems, except for the
mile between your home and the nearest switching station) should be a
     Computer networks will eventually become ubiquitous around the
world.  We should therefore be concerned with the impact on society that
they have, the opportunities to improve society, and the dangers that
they pose.   Fundamentally, we are optimists who believe in the potential
of networks to enhance democratic values of openness, diversity, and
     Because the medium is so new, it is important now to develop
policies at the national and international level that help achieve the
potential of computer networks for society as a whole. By the time
television was recognized as a vast wasteland it was already too late to
change. There is a rare opportunity to develop policies in advance of a
technologically and economically mature system which would be hard to

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