The Nature of Electronic Networks


Electronic networks, which are webs of electronically connected computers, are a new medium for communication (see Appendix A for a description of network technology). Consider:

  • They offer new tools for interacting, coordinating action, and conducting transactions.

  • They enable new ways of accessing, distributing, and sharing and exchanging information.

  • They provide new ways of learning, working, and playing.

  • They give rise to new communities of people with shared interests and concerns, and they generate new interest areas and new concerns.

Although electronic networks share many of the properties of other communications media (e.g., postal mail, telephones, radio, and television), they provide individuals and organizations with communication tools that are faster and more efficient than postal mail, less

NOTE: In this chapter, all quoted material that is not otherwise identified originated with the individual noted, speaking at the November 1992 workshop.

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1 The Nature of Electronic Networks A NEW MEDIUM FOR COMMUNICATION Electronic networks, which are webs of electronically connected computers, are a new medium for communication (see Appendix A for a description of network technology). Consider: They offer new tools for interacting, coordinating action, and conducting transactions. They enable new ways of accessing, distributing, and sharing and exchanging information. They provide new ways of learning, working, and playing. They give rise to new communities of people with shared interests and concerns, and they generate new interest areas and new concerns. Although electronic networks share many of the properties of other communications media (e.g., postal mail, telephones, radio, and television), they provide individuals and organizations with communication tools that are faster and more efficient than postal mail, less NOTE: In this chapter, all quoted material that is not otherwise identified originated with the individual noted, speaking at the November 1992 workshop.

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controlled than radio and television, and more capable than the telephone or stand-alone fax machine of supporting large distributions. At the same time, networking (especially with networks tied to other networks) quite often involves multiple entities that may have different operating policies and procedures; in this regard, networking is unlike using more traditional media that tend to operate under more uniform and centrally formulated policy guidelines. Using electronic networks, people share experiences and activities that bind them together (Box 1.1). Although long-distance transportation systems, telephones, and broadcast media have led to the formation of many geographically dispersed communities that are defined more by shared interests than geographical location (e.g., professional societies and nationwide clubs), networks provide a medium that transcends distance and further enriches the possibilities Box 1.1 Some of What People Can Do with Networks Write an electronic message and send it through an electronic mail system. Receive and reply to an electronic message, forward copies to other people who are connected to the network, and clip out parts of the message for inclusion in a report. Browse the catalogue of a digital library and scan the contents of abstracts or full documents, and transmit selected documents to one's computer for later reading or for incorporating into other documents. Locate, download, install, and run software in network-accessible software libraries. Compose an article or newsletter and send it out to thousands of people on an electronic distribution list. Join on-line discussion groups that bring together people with shared interests, composing and reading messages that form a continuing conversation among potentially tens of thousands of "fellow travelers." "Telecommute" to work from a personal computer and engage in business with fellow co-workers, customers, and suppliers. Enroll in a program of study at a remote school, and then receive assignments, submit work, and interact with faculty through the network. Scan consumer catalogues and order goods and services. Connect to on-line entertainment centers and join other people in an electronic fantasy game.

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for global communities. The total number of network users in the world is impossible to determine, but it would not be unreasonable to expect that tens of millions of people have some direct contact with networked connections. The concept of a community whose existence is enabled by electronic networks is a useful departure point for the main topic of discussion of this report: the rights and responsibilities of the members of networked communities. Such matters inhere in how various communities of people use network technologies, and not in the particular technologies themselves, a point that is all too often lost in such discussions. The purpose of this report is to identify and address important questions related to free speech, privacy, intellectual property, and electronic vandalism as they arise in the context of networked communities; these four areas are not the only dimensions of the rights and responsibilities of network users, but they are important ones. This chapter and the next attempt to identify the characteristics of the new communications medium and of the communities that have formed around it. THE NETWORK SCENE The phenomenal increase in the number of network users in the past few years has been driven by two technologies: personal computers (introduced in the early 1980s) and networking technology (e.g., local area network technology introduced in the mid-1980s and further development of wide area network technology, including that deployed on the Internet and on various private and public data networks). In particular, Internet use has increased exponentially since 1983. By early 1994, estimates of the number of Internet users ranged from 2 million to 20 million (the upper end refers to electronic mail (e-mail) users), and by mid-1994 at least 3 million host computers were linked by the Internet.1 The Internet is of particular interest because of its openness, the diversity of its users, and its characteristic use as a vehicle for experimentation with new information and communications services. Two fundamental aspects of the Internet are decentralized: its technology and its governance. The Internet is based on packet-switching technology that transmits a message between two points by breaking the message into packets that travel independently and 1   Press release of the Internet Society, August 4, 1994. The Internet Society is the international organization for the Internet, its technologies, and applications.

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often through different routes between sender and receiver. As with telephone traffic, the path taken by data sent through the Internet is often not known in advance. The governance of the Internet is also decentralized. That is, each site on the Internet operates under its own locally formulated code of behavior or conduct, though each site communicates with other sites. This is especially relevant given that the Internet accommodates host sites of different types (academic, commercial, government) and host sites located in different regions of the country or in different countries. Since message traffic from point A to point B may traverse sites with codes of behavior or conduct that are very different from those that govern point A or point B, the retransmission of certain types of message traffic along intermediate sites may be regarded as a violation of the code of those intermediate sites. As David J. Farber, a University of Pennsylvania professor of computer and information science, put it, "I don't know what they are doing with my traffic. I don't know what laws I'm violating. … [W]e don't seem to have either international agreements or case law [that are known to the general community] that apply to the electronic communications area, and that is going to be more and more a serious problem." International implications may also differ depending on whether the network(s) in use is public or private. Future developments may make today's Internet pale by comparison. Present expansion of the Internet community has been fueled by an increasing number of computer-literate individuals. A much larger pool of potential networkers is represented by the canonical person on the street, who will resist the use of computers until they are as easy to operate as telephones or televisions. This is a market that telephone companies and cable television companies hope to tap. Start-up companies, with backing from major consumer electronics companies, are trying to bring messaging and information services to the general public, as are a number of larger, more-established companies such as the Prodigy Services Company and CompuServe. The promise is sophisticated, easy-to-use, user-friendly information services, not for 10 million people but for hundreds of millions of people.2 An important political development is the Clinton administration's 2   The issue of access to electronic resources by those in low-income, rural, and innercity areas is an important question that many commentators and analysts are addressing under the question of what "universal access" means in a networked environment. For reasons of time and resources, the steering committee chose not to address this point in detail.

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support of a comprehensive network complex referred to as the National Information Infrastructure (NII). The administration's view of the NII is sweeping and grand and promises significant benefits for all in U.S. society.3 But if the NII is indeed to contribute to the betterment of society, it behooves the nation to address issues related to the behavior of users and providers, as well as questions of the NII's extent and reach, capability, quality, timing of service availability, and cost. The broadening base of users of information services, the contemplation of new uses in inherently personal arenas (e.g., the delivery of social services), and the growth of information services for businesses and consumers have been bringing the issues of rights and responsibilities to the attention of policymakers at state and federal levels. Typically, the motivation for policy discussion is some kind of a problem: a security breach in a private or public network, the harassment of an individual via electronic mail, the controversy over whether material available over a given service is pornographic and whether access to such material can or should be controlled. Enough perceived problems and controversy have been generated that private guidelines (codes of conduct) are being developed, tried, and revised, and public guidelines (including regulations, advisories from the Office of Management and Budget, or laws) are being discussed. 3   The following quotes are taken from the administration document The National Information Infrastructure: Agenda for Action: All Americans have a stake in the construction of an advanced National Information Infrastructure (NII), a seamless web of communications networks, computers, databases, and consumer electronics that will put vast amounts of information at users' fingertips. Development of the NII can help unleash an information revolution that will change forever the way people live, work, and interact with each other: • People could live almost anywhere they wanted, without foregoing opportunities for useful and fulfilling employment, by "telecommuting" to their offices through an electronic highway. • The best schools, teachers, and courses would be available to all students, without regard to geography, distance, resources, or disability. • Services that improve the U.S. health care system and respond to other important social needs could be available on-line, without waiting in line, when and where they are needed. See Information Infrastructure Task Force, The National Information Infrastructure: Agenda for Action, Washington, D.C., 1993.

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In the Clinton administration the focal point for policy consideration in this area has been the Information Infrastructure Task Force (IITF), a cross-cutting interagency group whose role is to explore areas where policy may need to be formulated or changed and to gather inputs from within and outside the government. A major component of that task force is the Information Policy Committee, which is examining policy issues in the area of privacy, security, and intellectual property protection. Activities of that committee through mid-1994 included outreach, input gathering, deliberation (resulting in a draft of a set of privacy principles that was circulated for public comment in May 1994), the planning of a public forum to obtain input on security issues (held in July 1994), the release in July 1994 of a report on how copyright law should be updated in the age of ubiquitous electronic networks, and the planning of a conference to address how fair-use provisions of copyright law may be applied to the electronic realm. Although some of the administration activities are intended to drive proposals for legislation, the Congress itself has addressed related issues (e.g., Senator Paul Simon introduced S. 1735, the Privacy Protection Act of 1994, a bill that would establish a U.S. data protection commission to advise the U.S. government on, among other things, matters related to protecting data stored in electronic form), and telecommunications reform legislation may eventually address relevant issues. Meanwhile, these issues are also being addressed—through reports, polemics, meetings, and exploratory committees—by an assortment of private entities, including trade, professional, and advocacy groups, such as the Telecommunications Policy Roundtable, the Coalition for Networked Information, EDUCOM, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, the Internet Society, the Computer Ethics Institute, the Information Industries Association, and so on, as well as direct representation from the entertainment, cable, telephone and telecommunications, and information-providing and publishing industries.4 This large and growing set of actors on the policy stage suggests that the future may be only dimly visible today. What is clear is that the nation is on the threshold of an era in which the networking 4   Several groups have issued reports in the past year with the intention of influencing public policy and attitudes regarding the NII. See, for example, Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (CPSR), Serving the Community: A Public Interest Vision of the National Information Infrastructure, CPSR, Palo Alto, Calif., 1994; and Council on Competitiveness, Competition Policy: Unlocking the National Information Infrastructure, Washington, D.C., December 1993.

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environment will be highly open and commercial, very heterogeneous, and with rules that may look quite different from those to which ''old hands" at networking are accustomed. The ultimate social impact of electronic networks may be about as well understood today as that of the telephone in 1876. Many of those who first supported the deployment of the telephone argued that it would enable music to be brought from the performance hall to the home; many fewer imagined that it would become the center of personal and business communications. NETWORK METAPHORS Electronic networks offer new communication tools for interacting and for coordinating action. Three metaphors have emerged for characterizing the new medium and the functions it enables: cyberspace, the information superhighway, and the electronic marketplace. Each of these metaphors emphasizes a particular use of electronic networks and, in so doing, facilitates our understanding of the new medium by illuminating its salient features and the social and legal issues they raise. As with most metaphors, however, the interpretations that emerge are limiting and can be misleading—a point often overlooked by their users. Thus, this report does not systematically favor the use of one metaphor over another. Cyberspace The term "cyberspace" originated with the science fiction writer William Gibson, who characterized it as a "consensual hallucination of visually realized data achieved through plugging in to a global computer network."5 It could be experienced by making a direct, physical link between an individual's brain and the semiotic data available on a global computer network. The use of the word "space" within the term suggests that cyberspace has some similarities to physical space. Current usage focuses on this notion of electronic networks constituting a virtual place that transcends physical space and national boundaries.6 People go to cyberspace, travel on its electronic roads 5   William Gibson, Neuromancer, Ace Science Fiction, Berkeley Publishing Group, New York, 1984. Note that cyberspace need not be limited to visually realized data; simulated sounds and touch are also included. 6   Although the idea of nonphysical space may sound metaphysical, John Perry Barlow has observed that most individuals have already had some experience with cyberspace as a practical reality: cyberspace is the location of the conversation when two or more people talk on the telephone. Any money that you do not currently have in your wallet or purse or bank vault, if it exists anywhere, exists in the cyberspace of the modern electronic banking system.

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and highways, and settle into virtual communities—all from their office or home. They visit "electronic pubs" and "town squares" by participating in discussion groups on bulletin boards and "newsgroups." They join virtual communities that form around shared interests. They socialize with people all over the world. The metaphor is used to suggest a new frontier—a place that is not yet settled, where anarchy often prevails. Issues related to rights and responsibilities are often framed in the context of how to civilize or establish law and order in the new frontier. Inhabitants believe they should be free to create their own rules and laws. The metaphor also draws attention to issues relating to freedom, particularly free speech and free press, and raises issues of privacy and of search and seizure within the virtual space. A potential limitation of the cyberspace metaphor is that it may overemphasize a new virtual space at the expense of the broader and historical context in which networking technology is embedded. Other communications technologies (e.g., mail, telephones, television) enable people to transcend the limitations of space and time as well, and considerable human effort has been expended to establish rules and practices for using these technologies. The focus on a new frontier overlooks the societies that developed and deployed the new technologies and the laws, practices, and traditions these societies have already established governing behavior performed by someone within their jurisdiction. The metaphor suggests that we are engaging in some wholly new set of actions when in fact we are merely using new tools to engage in very basic human acts of communication and coordination of action. The Information Superhighway The "information superhighway" metaphor emphasizes the use of electronic networks to access and distribute information. It suggests that the primary purpose of the networks is to carry information and that that information travels over the information highway much as cars and trucks travel over physical highways. The information highway links information providers (e.g., digital libraries) to users. On/off ramps connect a high-bandwidth superhighway to

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lesser highways, and lesser highways to organizations and individuals. The metaphor is embodied in the administration's plans for the NII. The focus on information leads to the issue of who has access and whether the new technology will lead to a widening gap between information "haves" and "have nots." The metaphor also raises issues relating to intellectual property and to privacy and security (information protection). Publication and distribution of information raise issues of free speech and free press, and the possession of information raises issues related to search and seizure. A particularly controversial implication of the metaphor is that it suggests a key role for government in promoting its development: just as the government was a major force behind the construction of the federal highway system, so also will the government be a major force driving the deployment of the information superhighway. The controversy has several important aspects. The first is that it suggests a major government role in funding deployment, in spite of the fact that the administration has made it clear that its vision for the NII depends on the private sector making most of the investments for the physical infrastructure and for the services and information to be provided over that infrastructure. In the administration's view, the role of government will be to provide leadership and guidance for the NII. A second important aspect is that many proponents of the information superhighway argue for a bottom-up, grass-roots character to its development and deployment, while the construction of the interstate highway system was undertaken top-down with intimate government direction. A third aspect is that major government involvement suggests the possibility that federal, state, and local governments will be working together to provide the network of connecting streets, on-ramps, off-ramps, and the like to every community on the main "superhighway." Whether such partnerships will in fact be feasible remains to be seen, and the nature of appropriate government involvement in the National Information Infrastructure remains the subject of considerable argument and debate. Finally, a potential limitation of the metaphor is that it may overemphasize information at the expense of the use of the technology to coordinate action, to conduct transactions, and to communicate informally. For example, many of the examples offered by proponents of the information superhighway involve the transmittal of large volumes of information, information that is traditionally understood as something related to knowledge and data or something that can be learned from a book or a lecture. Many fewer examples deal with the use of the information infrastructure for coordination and the like,

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despite the models offered by many service and manufacturing enterprises in using private networks (perhaps operating over leased public lines) for these purposes.7 The Electronic Marketplace For many people, the "electronic marketplace" metaphor emphasizes the growing use of electronic networks to engage in transactions, both formally and informally, to acquire goods (often information) and services such as education. It resembles the physical marketplace and is a part of the global marketplace. Because information is an important good in the electronic marketplace, the marketplace metaphor raises the same issues as the information superhighway metaphor. However, it does so more powerfully by showing that the issues arise in the context of transactions. For example, the information superhighway metaphor suggests that it is sufficient to give everyone access to the electronic highway in order to close the gap between the information "haves" and "have nots." The marketplace metaphor shows that simple access may not make much difference if the information available through the technology must be purchased. The marketplace metaphor also shows that information privacy relates to the use of information in transactions (e.g., selling mailing lists) and not just to the information independent of its use. In addition, the marketplace metaphor raises new questions about concerns such as accountability and fraud, racketeering, and other criminal acts associated with transactions. Finally, it calls attention to the idea that while individuals may have the right to market information goods and services, the costs of selling their wares on networks may be prohibitive. The marketplace metaphor is sometimes referred to as the "electronic agora" in analogy with the public square in ancient Greece that served as the marketplace and center of civic life. This usage brings to life the community aspects of the cyberspace metaphor, but does so more powerfully by including the transactions that take place within those communities. The use of the marketplace metaphor is likely to increase as more 7   See, for example, Computer Science and Telecommunications Board, National Research Council, Information Technology in the Service Society: A Twenty-First Century Lever, National Academy Press, Washington, D.C., 1994; Computer Science and Telecommunications Board, National Research Council, Information Technology and Manufacturing: An Agenda for Research, National Academy Press, Washington, D.C., forthcoming.

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goods and services become available over networks and methods of making and receiving electronic payments securely are implemented. This metaphor emphasizes the actions that people take using the new communications medium, and not just the inert information that flows through the networks or the communities that form around common interests. Rights and responsibilities relate to actions and define which actions are encouraged, allowed, discouraged, or forbidden. However, despite its strengths, the metaphor also has potential limitations. One is that it is easily interpreted to emphasize commercial transactions at the expense of noncommercial interactions. Thus, not-for-profit ventures and activities (e.g., education, government) may feel less than comfortable with it. A second is that with its economic connotations, it suggests that a kind of laissez-faire philosophy governs operations in the electronic marketplace, when the extent and nature of government regulation are policy issues that have not yet been settled (and are unlikely to be settled for a long time to come). A third is that some commentators use "electronic marketplace" with closer attention to its political origins and in the same sense that the term "marketplace of ideas" is used—as a description of an arena in which ideas and/or information are freely circulated to all without regard to size or political power, are exposed to public scrutiny or use, and survive or disappear according to their quality and value.