The Internet: Heavily Regulated by No One in Particular

Tom W. Bell
v. 9/18/97

Media pundits often portray the Internet as a digital war zone, ungoverned and unsafe. In fact, regulation pervades the Internet. Rules created the Internet, sustain it, and--thanks to commercial and social innovation--continually grow it. No politician or bureaucrat deserves the credit for these rules, however. Rather, the Internet owes its astonishing success to spontaneously generated self-regulation.

The Internet, by its very nature, represents a great spontaneous order of evolved rules and voluntary participation. No one single institution controls the Internet. Instead, like a language, it has emerged as a customary and chosen mode of communication. Like the market, another spontaneous order, the Internet results from human action but not human command.

Central authorities cannot know the various preferences and local expertise that participants in a spontaneous order bring to it. In part and in whole, the choices of free people defy prediction. Through our countless separate acts and agreements, we created such wonders as language, the market, and the Internet. Together, unbidden, we likewise keep them up-to-date and well-regulated.

A Private History of the Internet

Contrary to many accounts, the Internet does not owe its origins to big government money. Granted, the Pentagon funded RAND researcher Paul Baran's 1964 paper on decentralized, packet-switching networks. But earlier, in 1961, MIT researcher Leonard Kleinrock had described such Internet-like networks. And in 1962, MIT researcher J.C.R. Licklider described the social interactions that a packet-switching network would enable. In essence, the Pentagon paid a private firm to rediscover work already published by private academics.

Private parties also deserve primary credit for the Internet's vital hardware and software. Academic researchers were testing wide-area computer networks as far back as 1965. Only much later, through DARPA's ARPANET project, did the Pentagon start throwing money at the problem. In 1969, it had a private firm, Bolt Beranek and Newman (BBN), install at UCLA the first node of ARPANET. The Pentagon paid the bills; non-government parties supplied the expertise, genius, and sweat.

Private researchers and academics eventually grew the Internet around and out of ARPANET. First, however, they had to junk ARPANET's communication protocol for something more open and robust. Bob Kahn launched the project at the private BBN, in 1972. In 1973 he teamed up with Vint Cerf, of the private Stanford University, to complete it. Their TCP/IP protocol let anyone with a computer and a modem join the Internet, and has become the network's mother tongue.

Still other private parties have shaped Internet culture. Various scholars, hobbyists, and academics hooked up the BITnet, USEnet, and FIDOnet networks that gave Internet speech its vigorously democratic flavor. At the private University of Southern California, Paul Mockapetris created the domain name system that gives the Internet its addresses--and its real estate. Millions of immigrants have become "netizens" of newsgroups, email lists, and web pages, shaping a diverse and vital Internet culture.

Statist Irregulation

Just as politicians and bureaucrats did not create the Internet, they cannot effectively regulate it. Thus far, their blundering attempts to control the 'net have done little more than create chaos--and raise hackles. To call such interference "regulation" would commit a double-plus Orwellianism. In truth, political meddling "irregulates" the Internet's spontaneous order.

A jungle of conventions, agreements, and experiments flourishes on the Internet. This spontaneous order naturally confounds politicians and bureaucrats. They cannot codify and control the living Internet, yet they cannot capture it without wiping out whole ecologies of consent.

Consider how the Clinton administration's desperate assault on private encryption has chilled free speech, blocked software exports, and stunted digital commerce. Until the Supreme Court found it unconstitutional, the Communications Decency Act of 1996 similarly threatened to clear-cut, pulp, and pave over Internet culture. Such brute tactics may disrupt the Internet, but fortunately they appear unlikely to break it.

Pursuing an alternative strategy, the Clinton administration has set a sweet, sticky trap: offering $100 million a year in funding for the Next Generation Internet Initiative. This tax-funded information superhighway, the latest in pork-barrel technology, threatens to deliver upgraded versions of speed limits, checkpoints, and drivers' licenses. After all, the State that pays for the pipeline will want to call the tune.

Politicians eager to help the Internet would do better to merely ensure that common law remedies and constitutional rights continue to apply online. Courts have shown themselves quite capable of fitting these traditional doctrines to the Internet's novel facts. Like civil society at large, the Internet will benefit most from a simple but solid framework of property, contract, and tort law. Given this foundation, private cooperation can provide all of the regulation that a spontaneous order needs. is Not an Option.

The self-regulating Internet has hardly achieved perfection. In fact, new problems crop up constantly. But volunteers and entrepreneurs continually generate new solutions, while simultaneously increasing bandwidth, improving content, and deflating access costs.

Of course we would like for the Internet to improve more quickly. Want implies impatience. The next time that you drum your fingers waiting for a slow web page to load, though, ask yourself, "Would I have had any access to this resource five years ago? And could the FCC, IRS, or USPS have created it more quickly?" One waxes skeptical. To update the old maxim, is not an option.

The World Wide Web, the latest and greatest of the Internet's wonders, hardly existed in 1992. That it does now demonstrates the power not of politics, but of free minds, mouths, and hands. The Internet's growth and vitality will continue to call for vast amounts of spontaneously generated self-regulation--and rather little of the statist sort.

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(C) 1997-99 Tom W. Bell. All rights reserved. Fully attributed noncommercial use of this document permitted if accompanied by this paragraph.

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