June 13, 1997

NEW KIDS TRY TO RULE INTERNET TURF

by Andy Oram
American Reporter Correspondent

CAMBRIDGE, MASS.—Running a gigantic information exchange like the Internet inevitably leads to legal questions concerning content. Ongoing controversies that have made headlines recently include the transmission of objectionable content (obscene material, hate speech, and things that just make some folks plain uncomfortable), copyright infringement (especially for software), the conflict between domain names and corporate trademarks, and the use of encryption to protect private speech (which could provide a cover for the planning of crimes).

As controversies on the Internet attract more attention, a number of organizations around the world that are accustomed to making and enforcing regulations have begun to dabble in its governance.

While conceptually the Internet operates in the ether, as a practical matter it must use physical cables and phone lines. The beginnings of wireless Internet—which use the radio spectrum to deliver data—are also evident. But both wired and wireless resources are limited and therefore traditionally regulated. In the U.S., the body responsible for these resources, the Federal Communications Commission, has recently taken an interest in the Internet, mostly because telephone companies have claimed that providers use an unfairly large share of local phone switches and should be required to pay long-distance fees.

In May 7, 1997, the FCC reported that it would change the structure of charges to provide new local revenues to phone companies (and decrease the long-distance fees) without applying fees to Internet providers. So far, the FCC has taken no action imposing regulation on the Internet, but it certainly could fall under their jurisdiction in the future.

In other countries, the activities and fee structures of telephone companies—which are just emerging from the current regime of government-owned monopolies and meeting some competition—definitely affect the cost of Internet access; because most countries levy per-minute charges for local calls, the public is less likely to dial up an Internet provider. There is some movement in these countries to lower the costs of local phone service in order to promote Internet use.

In addition to the national and local governments that are passing laws—usually ill-thought-out—to regulate the Internet, many organizations of long-standing are taking their first peeks at it. These include:

The Internet is so different from previous media that the traditional government bodies often have trouble understanding its unique culture and needs. In 1996, several legal experts founded the Internet Law and Policy Forum in the hope of providing a universally respected organization that could advise governments and their representatives. Current major activities are investigating legal problems in content restriction and finding ways to promote certificate authorities in the encryption industry. The Association for Interactive Media, opposing the IAHC with grand flourishes, has called for a new coalition named the Open Internet Congress to determine the future of Internet governance.

It looks like the rich Internet broth is going to have to suffer a while through a surfeit of cooks. Public pressure is needed to ensure that governance is technically competent and democratically representative.


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