W e b w o r d

Vol. 2, No. 5: SEPTEMBER-OCTOBER 1998


The Internet as an Alien Invasion

Charles Petrie

Stanford Center for Design Research


The Internet poses big problems for established institutions. It's as though someone had nurtured an alien child who's now causing trouble for everyone because the old Earth rules don't apply.


This was brought home to me as a participant in Saudi Arabia's Internet conference this June. There is no URL for this conference because Saudi Arabia is not yet officially on the Internet. They are struggling with how to connect and still preserve their unique cultural and political institutions.

The Saudi's aren't the only ones coming up with tortured solutions belatedly. The Internet poses a problem of some kind for every government in the world. Many existing laws don't quite fit, and who can predict what the Internet cum alien child will look like when it grows up? Although the Internet will soon be regarded by governments everywhere as critical infrastructure - the latest permutation of railroads, telegraph and phone lines - this critical infrastructure is mutating fast.


Many of today's problems center on control of information. Pornography laws are one example. Even the supposed bastion of free speech and free markets, the USA, keeps trying to control content by fiat instead of allowing the market for filters to take care of the problem. The German government actually has Web crawlers looking for banned sites. When found, the owners are notified that they must put into place procedures that effectively shut them down. The Internet is really bothering the established powers.

So far, though, attempts to regulate the Internet simply haven't worked. The pornographers simply change sites. And German legislators who are their country's Internet experts, both liberal and conservative, publicly advocate making it illegal to have a link to a banned site, displaying a striking lack of technical sophistication.

It isn't just pornography that's a problem for governments. Many countries try to restrict what the USA calls "free speech." In Germany, one cannot advocate certain positions about politics or history. The Saudis, like many countries in the world, want to monitor even the news for disagreeable political content. However, anyone familiar with the Internet knows just how impossible this is to accomplish in this new medium.


And this is just the tip of the iceberg. In the USA, many laws differ from state to state. Take, then, the case of Internet gambling. The government would like to prosecute in cases where the gambling server was in a state where gambling was legal and the user was in a state where it was illegal. We can all look forward to some fascinating trials given this general principle. But there are lots of examples in other domains.

Governments meet in Geneva to draft universal copyright laws, but have to cope with the troublesome fact that reading papers on the Internet involves copying the document to the local computer on each reading. On the agenda over the next couple of years are a plethora of issues in the areas of trademark enforcement, taxation, customs, and cryptography. And if e-cash ever catches on, I'm sure currency will move to the top of the list.

How about Internet telephony? Every large long-distance telephone company in the world right now is flailing about trying to figure out what services to provide in order to survive. This is especially a problem for government monopolies. Internet Telephony is now outlawed in Hungary and the Czech Republic.


It's becoming increasingly clear that the old productivity models don't work for computers.1,2 Many of us have earned a living for years in industry, not by directly producing a product but by restructuring and redistributing information. Exactly how to put a value on this activity has been unclear - except maybe by looking at our paychecks. Now, what is the value of being connected to the Internet? Economists are playing catch-up, and they were already way behind.

Everyone is. Every company is struggling to figure out what it means to have a presence on the Web. Eric Serson, IBM Global Services, Amazon, and Dell have led the way, and everyone else is trying to think two steps ahead about how to make fast virtual strategic alliances on the Net. No one will be left out. You had better be thinking at least about Internet shopping, even if you only sell groceries. Or education. Or stocks or newspapers or cars.

When I wrote my first column back in 1996, in preparation for our first issue, some people still wondered if the commercial Internet would be a passing phenomenon. It was a mutant child, and no one knew if it would survive. Now it's a raging teenager, and no one knows what to do about it. This is kind of fun.

At least the Internet came too late for anyone to claim that it was reverse-engineered from the Roswell crash.


1. T. Lewis, "Why the Economy is So Good," Computer, Vol. 31, No. 5, May 1998, pp. 110-112. Also available at http://computer.org/computer/co1998/r5toc.htm.
2. E. Brynjolfsson and L.M. Hitt, "Beyond the Productivity Paradox." CACM, Vol 41, No. 8, Aug. 1998. Also available at http://www.acm.org/pubs/articles/journals/cacm/1998-41-8/p49-brynjolfsson/p49-brynjolfsson.pdf.

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