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The Internet Grows Up

Aug 24, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 47 • By DAVID FRUM
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Does anybody, here in 1998, still believe that on-line chat is the most important use of the Internet? Sad to say, the answer is yes -- and not any old anybody, but Michael Godwin, a lawyer at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco think tank devoted to on-line issues.

For most computer-literate people, the Internet is a device for communicating rapidly and cheaply, finding information, and -- increasingly -- buying and selling. But for a die-hard band of early users, the Internet is not a thing like a phone or a TV, but a place like a bar or a coffee shop. And in his newly published Cyber Rights: Defending Free Speech in the Digital Age, Godwin speaks for these old-timers.

"The Net is not merely a hobby or a game (or, worse, an addiction), but instead an opportunity to meet a very real need -- the desire for community," Godwin explains. And he cites as evidence that the need is real and that the Internet can fill it the experience of a handful of chat groups: The Well on the West Coast, for example, and Echo in New York. "If all cyber-space gives you is an e-mail address . . . you've been cheated. What most of us will want in the future, I think, is a place where we're known and accepted on the basis of what Martin Luther King Jr. called 'the content of our character.'"

Actually, what most of us want is a cheap and convenient way to send letters and buy books and compact discs. Only for a handful of really odd people does the Internet represent an escape from the loneliness of the modern condition. There's nothing wrong with that, of course: Really odd people are entitled to their obsessions, just like the rest of us. But what is wrong is when they begin to insist that the rules that govern the Internet should be written to suit themselves alone.

Over the next few years, American courts and legislatures will have to decide a series of important questions about the regulation of the Internet, and Godwin's book is a brief for the interests of his fellow hobbyists. The Internet, for instance, makes it easy to appropriate and distribute intellectual property. That's ominous for the creators of intellectual property. It's equally ominous for users of intellectual property: If the next edition of Microsoft Windows can be effortlessly pirated and distributed, Microsoft will take a lot less trouble to produce it -- to the loss of those of us who would have been willing to pay for it. Godwin looks at this with insouciance: "The greatest interest at stake is not that of the copyright holders or that of the database companies -- it's the interest in a free and open society of ensuring that everyone has access to the facts, regardless of their economic backgrounds."

Godwin approaches libel law in the same spirit. One of the wonderful things about the Internet is that it permits a knowledgeable person with a few thousand dollars to become nationally known -- as Matt Drudge has recently done. But the Internet has also given such individuals a power to damage reputations once possessed only by the largest media enterprises. This would not seem to warrant tilting American libel law even further in its already remarkably pro-defendant direction.

And yet, that's just what Godwin does argue. Libel law exists, he says, because a defamed person has no other way to repair his reputation. "But surely the Net, which has the power to empower everyone to answer injurious false statements, can change all that." Suppose, however, that you are defamed by an AP story posted to the Yahoo Web site. You can, of course, create a Web site of your own in reply. But what kind of solution is that? Your site will never attract the traffic of the Yahoo! site, and the defamation will go unanswered and unpunished. Godwin can't see this because of his hobbyist's blinkers: When he thinks of libel on the Internet, he thinks not of a defamatory remark on a Web site, but of a chat-group "flame" -- a nasty remark that will be seen only by the people in a discussion group and can be answered by a posting to the same group.

Godwin's views are important primarily because the rules of the Internet are being laid down before most Americans have more than a glancing involvement with it. This is a situation in which small, interested factions have an influence far greater than their numbers warrant. Think, for example, of the difficulties that Web sites have in charging money for their services: The fanatical objection of the Internet cultists to paying for anything -- an objection originating in the hippy-utopian culture of the Web's first days -- has helped to shape the expectations of tens of millions of Americans about what is fair and reasonable on-line business practice.