Internaut: Now Net cowboys want a federal sheriff

Shawn P. McCarthy

Amazing, isn't it, how companies that once demanded the government keep hands off the Internet are now begging it to move in and regulate the online chaos?

At the moment, at least 11 antispam bills are meandering through Congress. Previous spam bills were prompted by consumers upset about receiving spam. Now some legislation comes at the instigation of Internet service providers that are drowning in spam.

HR 2214 specifically notes that spam is 'flooding the arteries of critical communications networks and servers and threatening the viability of e-mail as a primary communications medium.'

Spam isn't the only area where Net self-regulation has led to conflict. The Coalition of Broadband Users and Innovators, which includes Amazon.com, Microsoft Corp. and Yahoo.com, is promoting so-called network neutrality to restrict broadband providers from teaming with other companies to offer special products and services. CBUI's position, in statements filed with the Federal Communications Commission, is that such agreements would be a disadvantage to CBUI members.

Of course, these companies have such marketing agreements themselves. But they perceive that cable Internet providers potentially could close them out of certain markets. They're looking to government to fix sales and marketing woes they can't fix themselves.

And how about HR 3261, which proposes limits on the copying and redistribution of databases? The same companies that want to sell information without sales tax and establish unregulated global markets would make it a crime for others to copy and sell their data.

Meanwhile, the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Courts, the Internet and Intellectual Property recently found it necessary to hold hearings on Internet domain name fraud.

One of the biggest issues looming right now is the future of the Domain Name System. VeriSign Inc. of Mountain View, Calif., the central registrar and controller of the main database for .com and .net domains, was recently called to task for experiments at capturing all traffic addressed to mistyped uniform resource locators. VeriSign last month sold its registry business to investment firm Pivotal Private Equity of Phoenix for $100 million.

VeriSign's ambitions highlight the gap between the technologists who have guided the Internet thus far and the businesspeople who have made certain platforms commercially viable. Some of these gaps can be closed only with government involvement.

As Americans, we take pride in the Wild West mentality that built the Internet. But we also recall that every Wild West town eventually had to appoint a sheriff to keep things under control. You might not always agree with the rules, but business without rules can lead to incredible losses'even a breakdown of the very structure that supports the business.

It's important to remember that the Net isn't an American phenomenon. U.S. regulations need a global counterpart, via international standards groups, to be effective.

Those who want the Net to remain eternally rule-free can take comfort in the current HR 48 which, along with S 1183, proposes ways to deal with global Internet jamming and censorship.

Freedom of information and unrestricted access are still what the Net's all about.

Shawn P. McCarthy is president of an data services development company. E-mail him at internaut@diagonalmediagroup.com.

About the Author

Shawn McCarthy, a former writer for GCN, is senior analyst and program manager for government IT opportunities at IDC.

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