Magazine article Computers in Libraries

Opinion Piece: Universal Electronic Access

Magazine article Computers in Libraries

Opinion Piece: Universal Electronic Access

Article excerpt

It is an auspicious time to begin a conversation about the Internet as a social space and to examine the issues on the horizon. That is what the organization I belong to, the Society for Electronic Access (SEA), is convened to do. I am here today to talk to you about SEA -- about who we are, what we do, and why you should care.

This has been a big year for the Internet. There has been an explosion of public consciousness, with articles appearing in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Village Voice, Time, Newsweek, The New Yorker, The Washington Post, Forbes, Atlantic Monthly, and US News and World Report in the last two months alone. There has also been an explosion of new services. A year ago, New York City was blessed with not one but two providers of public Internet access. There are now seven, with more on the way. There has been an explosion of new users. More people have been connected to the Internet in the last two years than in the previous twenty.

Netiquette -- the Law

With all this activity, something else is coming into this world of ours, something which can't be altered with an RFC and won't respond to Netiquette -- the law. What we are seeing on the internet is nothing less than the transformation of a computer network into a civil society, which will have rules and regulations, and punishments, in addition to the customs and traditions it has always had.

The law is inherently retrograde. Whenever a legal issue comes up, the first question asked is "Has anything like this happened before?" When you're dealing with the net, the answer is generally "No." Here we are guaranteed a clash of cultures. Our legal system is based on precedent. The Internet is an unprecedented development in human history. In the absence of precedent, the law looks for the most similar examples, for a metaphor for the problem.

So the issue is what do we think of actions in this new frontier? Take crackers who log onto other systems, even if only just to look around -- are they trespassing? Breaking and entering? Should they be punished more severely because their crimes are difficult to detect? Should they be punished less severely because their crimes do not threaten life and limb?

Articulating a Vision of the Future

These decisions will be made by precedent, and what happens in the next two or three years will be with us for the next twenty or thirty at least. This is where organizations like the SEA come in. The most important and complex task SEA has set out for itself is to be a forum for articulating a vision of the future, and to act in the interests of electronic citizens in creating this future, by advising, by educating, by channeling resources. So what does the future hold?

I wish I knew what was going to happen in the next five years in the telecommunications industry. Not that I would tell you; I'd go off and make a million dollars as a consultant. But I don't know what will happen, although I try to console myself over this sad fact by reminding myself that nobody else knows either.

What I do know is that the issues of the next few years will revolve around the areas where the net deprives us of our convenient metaphors, our convenient ways of understanding things. I would like to talk about the areas where the net evades convenient understanding, areas where there is no easy metaphor for describing what goes on there in terms of what goes on in the physical world.

Electronic "Universal Solvent"

The net is a kind of electronic "Universal Solvent." It has a habit of dissolving areas of the physical world that we think of as being quite distinct, like speech versus action, here versus there, talking versus writing, public versus private. The way we choose to think of these distinctions will affect how new users perceive them, and how the law perceives them; the nebulous conversations we have today will become the legal case of tomorrow and precedent the day after. …

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