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The Internet

Journal abb3w's Journal: Old Reading and Network Neutrality

So, one of the professors in the department I support is teaching her last semester before retirement, and has started giving away a lot of the extra books from her office. Being a biblophile, I've grabbed a few. One was Milton R. Wessel's 1974 "Freedom's Edge: the Computer Threat to Society." This, of course, was back when ARPANet had only around 50 IMPs, and contemporary with the end of the Watergate scandal.

Thus, like many efforts to look ahead, it's obviously dated. It was still in the days of Big Iron mainframes, with the idea of widespread real-time computer interaction a scarce-believable notion. Legislatures had made only incidental consideration of computers in the law. And yet, the book hints at the problems we face today: Identity theft, Network Neutrality, the Digital Divide, the effect of data aggregation on privacy, and the impact of digital reproduction on copyright. Looking back at looking forward is often helpful at seeing the present in a different light.

There's probably a few libraries that still have copies, and Amazon lists a couple used copies for sale at under $5 shipped. However, it's probably not going to reach a lot of people at this point, and Wessel did have some interesting insights. Being a lawyer of the Big Blue, Ma Bell, Organization Man age, he pictured a centrallized "Computer Utility" rather than the anarchic mass of the modern Internet. Despite the radical difference in design, the function is peculiarly similar. His attitude is also shows the pre-Nixon trust in elected officials that has since (certainly in Gen-X and later) largely shattered. He came up with some precepts on the lines of a "bill of rights" or "ten commandments" of computer usage over the course of the book... which I'll excerpt from the book here. The anecdotes and reasoning leading him to them make for interesting reading, but the precepts are most worth reconsidering from a modern perspective... both what they may have right, and what they have dead wrong. (The first and seventh seem relevant to the Network Neutrality debate.)

Computer Utility Rule 1: Access to a computer utility system shall not be unreasonably be withheld.

Computer Utility Rule 2: The information disclosed by a computer utility system seeking response must be such as to permit the respondent to provide an intelligent answer.

Computer Utility Rule 3: The infromation furnished by a computer utility system must be such as to serve the public interest.

Computer Utility Rule 4: A computer utility credit card shall not unreasonably be withheld from any individual.

The Data Bank: A mass data bank shall be permitted to operate only if the benefits associated with its operation outweigh the related risks.

Standards: Computer standards should be fixed by fairly selected and representative public organizations, so as to encourage maximum reasonable interchange among computer systems and between economic units, without unreasonably impeding technological development.

Public Computer Service: Public and quasipublic-sponsored computer services must be supplied on terms and conditions which result in their fair and equitable distribution to the public.

The Computer Economic Grid: The failure of a discrete unit of a computer economic grid must result in immediate disconnect from the grid without unreasonable harm to or interference with the rest of the system.

Human Response: The supplier of computer services to the public must afford the ultimate consumer reasonable human response and interaction, or be liable absolutely for error and harm done.

Computer Societal Impact: Government officials, professionals in and out of the computer industry, educators, and other leaders must study the impact of the computer on society, discuss and publish their efforts, and inform the public of their views.

Public Understanding Rule 1: Laymen must not hesitate to ask questions of computer professionals because they consider the computer too complex, or are reluctant to disclose their ignorance.

Public Understanding Rule 2: Computer professionals must answer lay questions in terms which are understandable to laymen.

Some of the battles these are intended to fight can now be regarded as laughably lost. (One of his "public interest" concerns in rule three was the need to regulate "certain excesses of slang and sex" as with TV.) However, they aren't a bad building block in the discussion of how the Internet should be made to work.

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Old Reading and Network Neutrality

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