It was nearly a century ago
that historian Frederick Jackson Turner regretfully announced
the closing of the America's geographical frontier. Yet the idea of the
frontier, as he'd probably be happy to know, has remained very much alive
-- inspired in our era primarily by new technological revolutions.
Indeed, the newest and vastest of our technological
frontiers, the Internet, given the name cyberspace by novelist
William Gibson, is a realm that brings to mind for many the wilderness
Turner celebrated. Like Turner's frontier, "the meeting point between
savagery and civilization," cyberspace is filled with a strange mix
of pioneers, visionaries, utopians, inventors, explorers, prospectors,
speculators, crackpots, flesh-peddlers, and outlaws.
Ironically enough, even though the Net is a creation
of the government (the Defense Department, to be exact) the settlers of
cyberspace, like many pioneers before them, are animated by a rampant
hostility toward governmental intervention in their newfound (virtual)
land. In the words of one of the most influential of the digerati,
author John Perry Barlow, "Governments derive their just powers from
the consent of the governed. You (The Federal Government) have neither
solicited nor received ours. We did not invite you, nor do you know our
world. Cyberspace does not lie within your borders. It is an act of nature
and it grows itself."
That "Don't Tread on Me" spirit is more than
mere rhetoric. When in 1995 Congress passed the ill-fated Communications
Decency Act (later struck down by the Supreme Court), which, in the name
of protecting children against indecency, would have made it a crime for
an adult to send a text file of the works of Chaucer to a high-school
senior, the move quickly spawned an opposition that has been called the
largest free-speech movement in a generation.
Lawrence Lessig, W'83, Constitutional scholar
and Harvard University law professor, long-time Internet enthusiast, and
nationally regarded expert in law and information technology, was a vigorous
supporter of the anti-CDA movement, speaking out publicly against the
law. In addition, the 37-year-old Lessig, who has been called "one
of the most brilliant legal minds of his generation" by The Washington
Post, says he "abhors" most of the attempts by the government
so far to regulate the Net. When it comes to thinking about policies for
the future of the new medium, however, Lessig believes the "naive
libertarianism" of his compatriots is all wet.
"The real danger to freedom on the Net," he
insists, "is not so much government regulation, as it is ignorance
about how power, private power, as well as public" actually is exercised
in this new medium. "People, in their single-minded obsession with
government, are ignoring the ways in which the Net is already being regulated"
by the laws of the market and by what Lessig calls the "architecture
or code" of software, which truly shapes social existence on the
Net, often without accountability to Constitutional values.
As an example of how seemingly innocuous privately designed
"code" has the potential to be far more tyrannical than public
law, Lessig offers Platform for Internet Content Selection (PICS), a tool
for filtering objectionable content on the Web that is being touted by
many activists and civil-liberties groups as a "private, market-oriented"
alternative to government regulation of Net speech.
"PICS is presented as a harmless tool allowing
parents to filter Net material to protect their children from things they
don't want them to see," says Lessig. "In reality, though, it's
much more, and much more diabolical, than that. PICS is not a mere filtering
technology, it's a labeling standard which allows filtering to be imposed
on any level of the distribution chain, whether it's a home, a library,
a company, an Internet service provider (ISP) or a state, for any kind
of content." From a free-speech point of view, Lessig believes, an
architecture like PICS, hidden from public accountability, can be far
more dangerous than direct government regulation. Yet through their knee-jerk
belief in the superiority of "private" solutions to government
intervention, Lessig complains, many Net activists continue to miss the
To clear up these blindspots, Lessig has been tireless
over the past two years in addressing both arcane and practical issues
of Net governance wherever he can, engaging in dialogue and debate with
all different factions, from "Hands Off the Net" libertarians
to Internet industry heavyweights to legislators. According to David Post,
professor of law at Temple University and co-chair of the Cyberspace Law
Institute, "Larry holds a unique position in cyberspace law. He's
one of the few people around who's respected both in scholarly legal circles
and among the wider public outside the field. I think he's been invaluable
in focusing public attention on legal issues at stake on the Net."
November/December Contents | Gazette
Copyright 1998 The Pennsylvania
Gazette Last modified 10/28/98