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Roger Clarke's 'Cyberspace and Liberties'

Information Technology & Cyberspace:
Their Impact on Rights and Liberties

Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, Canberra and A.N.U.

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Invited Address to the 'New Rights' Seminar Series
of the Victorian Council for Civil Liberties

Mietta's, Melbourne, 13 September 1995

"Will the information superhighway fulfill its promise of availability to all, and will constitutional principles undergird its structure? At stake are three basic civil liberties values: free speech, including access to information; privacy, and equality" Barry Steinhardt, in 'Civil Liberties', the National Newsletter of the American Civil Liberties Union, #380 (Spring 1994)


Information technology is delivering on its long-standing promise to change the world. Even battle-hardened 25-year industry veterans have never endured the dynamism and excitement that's occurring right now on the net.

The contention of this paper is that the hitherto cosy world of civil libertarianism is about to be subjected to an unmerciful shake-up. Rights relating to information are quickly becoming unenforceable by national jurisdictions, and hence freedom of access, freedom of expression and the right to intellectual property are becoming dependent on factors other than legislation, the courts and law enforcement regimes.

More generally, debate about the impacts of cyberspace on specific rights and freedoms is inadequate. The precepts on which conventional discussions of liberties are based are being shaken to the core, as social organisation breaks free from the strictures of geographical communities, jurisdictions and nations.

© Roger Clarke, 1995

This is a provisional working paper. You may refer to it, and quote from it, but you are requested to respect the author's rights as though conventional copyright was still effective in cyberspace. Please ensure the identity of the source travels with any use you make of the material, so that I can harvest the echoes around the net.


I stand before you chastened. As a good social scientist, I set out to perform an experiment. But it went wrong, by which I mean it gave the wrong answer. Something about my experimental design must obviously have been incorrect.

So all I can do tonight is describe the experiment, and invite you to tell me where my design is wrong, and how I can adjust the experiment so that it produces results which accord with our knowledge of reality.

The purpose of my research, and of this presentation, was to investigate what impact information technology in general, and the phenomenon of the Internet in particular, would have on the rights with which civil libertarians concern themselves.

I'll commence with some observations about rights which I believe are fundamental to the analysis which follows. I'll then spend some time discussing the realities of virtual life, identifying the new forms of human communication which have emerged in recent years, and examining some aspects of those new forms which cause concern.

Action begets reaction, and a series of moves have been made to impose regulation on Internet activities. I'll discuss those, and then assess whether self-regulation represents a better, or at least a complementary, measure. Finally I'll embarrass myself by drawing a few conclusions from this obviously flawed work, and invite you to correct my delusions.

Some Fundamental Observations About Rights

The kinds of rights my analysis is concerned with are those which are generally touted as being inherent, inalienable rights of human beings. They are encapsulated in various international covenants, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A relevant example is the Draft Bill of Rights formulated by my hosts, the Victorian Council for Civil Liberties (for an outline, see Attachment 1).

Inherent in any discussion about rights is the impingement of one person's exercise of their rights on the rights of others. All rights therefore carry with them concomitant responsibilities, for humans, and for organisations of all kinds.

Although the chimera of absolute rights has survived the last half-century, the simple fact is that the interpretation and implementation of rights is culturally relative. This creates difficulties, because, with few exceptions, laws are implemented at the level of geographical jurisdictions, whereas cultures are associated with communities of various kinds. Some communities are geographical, but others are based on ethnicities, religions, political philosophies or ideologies, guilds, professions and common interests. There are therefore many circumstances in which the powerful impose interpretations appropriate to their own perspectives on whole populations. A special case of this is where the political majority imposes its will on minorities.

The regulation and enforcement of rights is commonly regarded as being primarily a matter for parliaments and the administrative and judicial arms of government. This brings into play the eternal conflict between the State as protector of rights and as abuser of rights. There is, however, an acknowledged role for individuals and non-governmental organisations to assist and to participate in the regulation of society, through the gathering and dissemination of information; the lobbying of parliamentarians, government officers and private sector executives and managers; and, within the constraints of the law, by direct action.

Information Technology in General

Information technology (IT) is a combination of artefacts, techniques and their application. Since about 1940, computers have been applied to many purposes. Their impact on workplaces, individuals and society as a whole has increased dramatically during the last two decades of the century. This period has seen maturation in computing, combined with the use of communications, both local and distant ('telecommunications'), in order to link many computers into what is 'virtually' a very large one. Data has ceased to be local to a particular machine, location and function. Instead, data has become widely accessible, and readily inter-related.

This matrix of widely inter-connected computers is being slowly but steadily augmented by the incorporation of robotics. This enables computers to have direct effects on the physical environment, in some cases in the space surrounding the particular artefact itself, but in others affecting distant objects and individuals.

A vast amount has been written about the impact of IT on rights. I've contributed a moderate number of words myself, especially in relation to data surveillance and information privacy. This particular piece of research and this presentation are directed at a particular sub-set of IT, commonly referred to as 'cyberspace'.

Cyberspace in Particular

'Cyberspace' is a word and concept invented by a sci-fi author, William Gibson, in his landmark work of the early 1980s, 'Neuromancer'. Some years later, when pressed to explain what it meant, he described it as 'shared hallucination'. The term's immediate and widespread adoption arose precisely because it captured the essence of 'virtual life' out there on the net - it spoke to the people who practised that once-arcane art.

But participating in the net isn't arcane any more. Originally there were bulletin board systems (BBS) that people could dial into using a phone, a computer, and a modem that enabled the computer to use the telephone line. Once connected, a person could post messages, and read messages that other people had posted. It was, and remains, a direct analogue of the pin-boards in everyone's workplace and down at the local shops. There are so many people, with so much to say, that BBSs are generally focussed on quite specific topics; and there are literally tens of thousands of them. A particular form of bulletin boards is newsgroups.

Meanwhile, organisations were building networks to provide permanent links among their computers. As technology improved, and the need arose, these 'local area networks' (LANs) were connected together. In some cases they were only connected within a single university, government agency or corporation; but increasingly organisations have perceived benefits in linking them to other organisations' networks as well.

To cut a frantically hectic, two-decade history short, a general-purpose means of inter-connecting networks emerged during the 1980s, and its use has been growing exponentially ever since. The Internet is simply that. It contains nothing. It merely provides linkages between existing networks. Those networks, and the equipment on those networks, can run processes of various kinds, and store documents and data. Most of the processes, documents and data are private to the organisation or individual concerned; but a remarkably large, and continually growing, amount is publicly accessible.

The Internet is the working prototype of that invention of policy-makers, the national and global 'information infrastructure' in the U.S.A., Australia and elsewhere. It appears very likely to survive and to continue flourishing; on the other hand, it appears unlikely to remain the only game in town. Various large corporations see it as a temporary, intrinsically communistic phenomenon (by which I mean communism in the original and the Italian sense: something which involves a great deal of collaborative and not-for-profit service activity).

Because it's successful, the corporations reason, the Internet deserves to be and needs to be privatised, and converted from an open scheme to proprietary standards. Microsoft's much-vaunted, much-taunted, but yet-to-be-delivered Network (internationally called MSN, but in Australia to be launched by a 50-50 venture with Telstra called on-Australia) is the most visible of this class of alternative network. There are other, long-standing but rather less usable and attractive proprietary schemes, many of which now provide at least some access to the Internet.

A much more serious competitive threat exists in the form of conglomerates and alliances combining telecommunications companies like Telstra and Optus with entertainment moguls like Murdoch and Packer. These are seeking to exploit established cable in the U.S. and many other countries, and newly-laid cable in Australia, to launch Internet-like services.

As was indicated earlier, the Internet is intrinsically open rather than proprietary. It also has 'relative bandwidth symmetry'. By this I mean that the width of the pipe into your home is about the same as the width of the pipe going out. In my case, my 14,400-baud modem carries about half of a printed page per second in either direction. The telco-entertainment alliances look very likely to provide much bigger ('broadband') capacity in (to carry lots of video), but only narrow bandwidth out (to carry just your choice of TV channel, your choice for the next virtual spin of the virtual roulette wheel, etc.).

Such inequality in incoming and outcoming bandwidths would be consistent with an image of human beings as consumers of services delivered electronically, rather than as participants in the electronic world. If people want to subscribe to those services in sufficient numbers (and what fan of sport, films or 'soaps' will be permitted to resist??), then the marketing imperative directs that such services should be provided. The concern is that by limiting outgoing bandwidth, these operations would force-feed semi-programmed consumers, and fail to inculcate in the populace the capabilities of self-education and self-determination.

The Internet has made available a 'space' in which many people virtually work and play (in both cases, any-time / any-place). It has been described and interpreted in a vast number of ways, as people have perceived its import in different, sometimes curious, and in some cases downright misleading ways. It is often referred to as 'the net' (even though it is in principle just one of many possible nets); as 'the matrix' (which refers to the many paths one can follow in order to navigate around it); and as the 'information superhighway' (a desperately poor metaphor - see Attachment 3). The notion of 'cyberspace' is attractive to the media (and was to the organisers of this series) because it has an artistic ring to it, inviting each of our minds to draw on its blank canvas.

The Immediacy of Cyberspace

What's important to this analysis is not the Internet's history, architecture or even its romance. What matters is the services that are available over it, the uses to which it is put, and the manner in which people interact with one another over it.

There are many ways to categorise the services that are available on the Internet; for example, Exhibit 1 distinguishes between person-to-machine, person-to-person, person-with-group and machine-to-machine services.

Exhibit 1: Services on the Internet

A more complete taxonomy needs to classify services along at least the following dimensions:

To consider an example, Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) and their close relation, newsgroups, represent an important class of service. Some of their key characteristics are:

BBS and newsgroups are long-standing and low-technology services. They use text only, and are asynchronous, i.e. 'conversations' are sporadic and not at all interactive. Synchronous services like chat and MUDDs (which are also text-only mechanisms) generate much higher-temperature exchanges. Services which combine immediacy with additional media, such as video-conferencing, evidence rather different patterns of behaviour, and have rather different costs and benefits. Emergent services combining high-quality video (i.e. moving images) and interactivity between person and machine, or between people and machine, or between people, are expected to result in some quite dramatic creativity.

The particular service which has generated the majority of the excitement since mid-1993 is the World-Wide Web (WWW, or 'the web'). This is essentially a combination of:

A vast electronic library has sprung into existence. It enabled me to prepare this paper without leaving my desk to go to my own or anyone else's physical library or even bookshop. The library and the bookshop came to me; and all of my references are electronic. (This was fortunate, partly because I had insufficient time to go to libraries and bookshops; and partly because the topic is so new that conventional libraries, and even bookshops, contain very little that would have been of any use to me; and partly because such material as does exist isn't on the library and bookshop shelves because other excited customers beat me to it).

During its still-formative first two years, the dominant pattern of usage of the web is as community-service; but it's moving in the direction of partial and compatible commercialisation. Its profit-potential is of course a major motivation behind the attempts of Microsoft and many others to capture the net.

In short, Cyberspace is exhilarating, it spurs creativity, and it is enabling many new patterns of human communication and community-building. It is intrinsically international (or, better said, non-geographic).

The Threats of Cyberspace

Many of the same people who are so desperately enthused about the potential of Cyberspace are concerned about various instances of dysfunctional human behaviour on the net.

The most visible and readily sensationalised concern is about the use of the net for pornography and racial vilification. Mediocre taste, in graphic designs and colour-schemes, as well as in models' poses, abounds in virtual life, just as it does in real life. Some skill and assiduousness is necessary to locate and view seriously obscene materials; but there is little doubt that skilled net-surfers can find it if they set their minds to it. A significant proportion of skilled net-surfers are what we not so long ago used to describe as being 'of tender years'.

Another concern is that, as payment mechanisms follow documents into the virtual world, money laundering by 'serious crime' will become much simpler, and the web of surveillance that has been built in recent decades will fail in its task of delivering intelligence to law enforcement agencies.

This is actually a particular element of a much broader area of concern. Life in the virtual world is essentially pseudonymous. By that I mean that people have to use a name, and an electronic address, but there are no mechanisms to provably associate a person with an identity, to restrict a person to a single identity, or to restrict an identity to a single person. For people who wish to actively smother the relationship between themselves and their 'digital persona', a number of mechanisms are available, including machines all over the world which willingly provide addresses (i.e. email-accounts and storage space), the freedom to obscure the machine and account from which a message was sent, and so-called 'anonymous remailers' for bouncing messages around the net and thereby denying access to their point of origin.

There are considerable advantages in pseudonymous, and even entirely anonymous, transactions. For example, whistle-blowing and witness-protection schemes are dependent on them; and artists of all kinds use them, especially those who have multiple roles in society, and seek to obscure their multiple roles from their associates. They have great value in the democratic process, because people who pursue politically unpopular arguments can use them as a form of insurance against pressure from the politically powerful.

On the other hand, criminal exploitation is clearly a problem, and there are other concerns too; for example, the norms of human interaction are less likely to be observed in such environments, and, even on seemingly non-contentious issues, relationships can quickly reach flashpoint. Electronic violence is in its infancy, but viruses, rumour-mongering, hate-mail and mailbox bombardment are all describable phenomena, and may graduate from art-forms to techniques. Because of the fear of retribution, all are more likely to be used pseudonymously or anonymously than by a readily identifiable person.

A matter that concerns many people is the compulsiveness of some forms of IT. Interactive CDs and TV, particularly when coupled with 3D 'virtual reality' techniques, raise the same spectre that TV originally did. There is ample evidence that some people are far more comfortable in the current, fairly primitive, largely text-based virtual world, than in conventional society. A risk exists of escapism-as-a-way-of-life becoming mainstream.

The Threats to Cyberspace

As I acknowledged earlier, many cyberspace junkies and net-surfers are nervous about various aspects of Internet services. Naturally those who are least appreciative of change, literally the conservatives amongst us, are particularly apprehensive. And some of those people are prone to knee-jerk reactions.

Pornography, and particularly paedophilia, has been at the centre of a rapid series of initiatives, in the U.S.A., Australia and some other countries, to impose constraints on the content of electronic transmissions. Parliaments and even Law Reform Commissions have a well-known inability to adapt to change, especially rapid, technology-induced change.

Most of the discussions that have taken place to date have been stuck in the mire of analogy: an electronic bulletin-board is treated as being "like" a news-stand, bookstore or library, and "not like" a publisher. The fact is that an electronic bulletin board is simply different, and its characteristics need to be appreciated and analysed in its own terms, not using historical and irrelevant categorisations. This argument is much stronger in the case of more technologically modern and more novel services. A matter of current concern in Australia is the delegation to the Australian Broadcasting Authority of the responsibility to investigate a wide range of new services, most of which are simply not 'broadcast' services.

In part because of impetuous reactions, and in part due to unduly simplistic analysis, some of the proposals for regulation have sought to impose onerous, and in some cases entirely impractical, responsibilities on various participants in the IT industry. The Exon Bill, which has passed the U.S. Senate and is currently before the House of Representatives, is the most ridiculous of these. A few unworkable proposals, and even some delegated legislation, have appeared in Australia.

The moderates accept that there is value in the law declaring that extreme examples of material that the community has defined to be obscene should be illegal to distribute in any form, including electronic. Those moderates are currently fighting a rearguard action, and are feeling distanced as much from the extremists of the right as from those of the left, who are demanding a completely libertarian environment in the virtual world, whether or not censorship is sustained in the physical world.

Another area in which regulation has reared its head is in the debate over whether the public should be permitted to use 'hard' cryptography (or even to use cryptography at all). Encryption is the process of converting a message or document into a form which obscures its content. It must be decrypted in order for its content to be apparent. The originator can choose to whom he or she provides the means of decrypting the message.

The sciences of code-making and code-breaking are of long standing, and are heavily dependent on branches of mathematics. The military and national security communities invest a great deal of time and money in techniques and computational power, especially in the U.S.A. New cryptographic techniques are commonly cracked within a relatively short time, by brute (computational) force or by more subtle analytical means. The term 'soft' cryptography is used to refer to a code which the national security community are satisfied they can crack fairly quickly; and 'hard' cryptography for codes that they can't be sure of breaking fast enough.

The U.S. national security community is interpreted by many people to have embarked on a campaign to preclude the general public from using cryptography, or at least to prevent them from using 'hard' cryptography. Some other governments have been accused of harbouring the same ambitions, including, very recently, the Australian government.

Apart from such forms of regulatory strangulation, a more diffuse concern is that which is often labelled 'the gap between the information-rich and the information-poor'. The issue is the extent to which Cyberspace will be accessible by the low-income segment of the community. In economically advanced nations, that is not currently a major problem, and, to the extent that it is, it is addressable through conventional socio-economic mechanisms. The Community Information Network (CIN) and the Education Network (EdNA) initiatives are current examples in Australia. The problems appear far less tractable in low-income / low-growth nations, such as virtually the whole of Africa.

Net Self-Regulation

Part of the net community's response to the proponents of self-regulation is that the net self-regulates, and should be left to its own devices to get on with doing so. On the one hand, such claims seem like the precociousness of youth. On the other hand, there are some fundamental differences between real and virtual communities, and perhaps there are better ways than hard-headed, 'Constable Plod' approaches to the regulation of the net.

There are a number of ways in which use of the net has matured during the last few years:

The immediacy, the compulsiveness and the community feel of Cyberspace may indeed be giving rise to stronger forms of self-regulation than are common in local communities: helping hands are, after all, a great deal easier to find on the net than are committee-members for Neighbourhood Watch. So perhaps the net is indeed capable of a considerable degree of self-policing.

Implications of the Research

Where has this line of argument led us? I've clustered the inferences into three groups.

(1) The Demand for New Information Rights

It's only natural that, in the new contexts of Cyberspace and the new electronic communities it's spawned, some of the old ideas will persist, through force of habit. It's therefore tempting to review existing formulations of human rights, in order to come up with revised wordings that will guarantee the newly desirable qualities. This kind of thinking is implicit in the title of the seminar series to which I've been invited to contribute.

I've done some preliminary searching for evidence of demands for 'new information rights'. Attachment 2 reproduces a web-document which expresses a set of 'electronic rights and responsibilities', "to provide an ethical standard with which to measure the policies of states and corporations with regard to the Internet and related multicast communications networks". It was produced in Sydney, but in an internationalist context ( the Electronic Frontier Foundation and its Australian associate, Electronic Frontiers Australia).

The document is an interesting mixture of pious hopes and practicability. It fails to grapple with the problem of balancing conflicting rights. It seems to generally deny legal enforcement of responsibilities and constraints on rights, other than intellectual property and contract. (It also uses that, to conservatives, infuriating computer scientism convention of starting the count at zero instead of 1!).

But whatever its faults, it's a distillation of what many of the members of electronic communities are looking for. It's easy to foresee tensions between traditional patterns of rights and responsibilities and the perceptions of net-devotees.

(2) The Impossibility of Information Rights Generally

It was noted earlier that electronic communities are intrinsically international, or, more correctly, non-geographic in nature. For the purposes of regulation, that is tantamount to saying that information has gone trans-jurisdictional.

An additional, compounding factor is that information is now replicable for such low costs that its dissemination is for all intents and purposes gratis. This has implications for 'information rights', and also for what I prefer to classify as a 'social and economic right', the right to intellectual property.

It's no longer possible for governments to effectively enforce laws relating to information, and hence Information Rights like freedom of access to information and freedom of expression are losing their meaning. You either have the means to discover and access documents, or you don't; you either feel free to post a document or express an opinion, or you don't. On the net, the electronic frontierland, it's action that counts; a formal right may be superfluous, and in any case unenforceable by conventional authority.

Admittedly it will take quite some time for this message to permeate, and there will be some decidedly reactionary measures passed into law in the coming years, and some decidedly pointless and tasteless actions by law enforcement agencies (although hopefully few in Australia as pointless as some of what's going on in the U.S.A.).

The realisation will in due course hit home that rights, responsibilities and freedoms in relation to information, are simply not regulatable by authority. Enclaves will be established, and self-regulation will be applied; but cheats will prosper, as they always have done. And, as ever, eternal vigilance is more important than relying on provisions enshrined in legislation.

(3) The Increasing Unenforceability of Rights Generally

There are many pressures on nation-states, including:

The social unrest will be seriously exacerbated by the availability of the rebellion-fomenting weapon that the Internet represents. Jacque Chirac's won't be the last mailbox to be attacked using the electronic version of the 'letter-bomb' campaign. Unpopular actions by governments will be swiftly countered by populist action-groups. On contentious issues, action-groups on two (or more) sides of the spectrum will mobilise public opinion to prevent the implementation of any policy at all. Modern nation-states may be in the process of sliding quickly into frozen immobility and ultimately ungovernability: Los Angeles' Rodney King riots and the Papeete powder-keg of colonialism and nuclear testing grounds, may be harbingers, not just isolated incidents.

The paradox for civil libertarians is that the implementation of rights is dependent on a sovereign parliament capable of passing laws which can be enforced. Assuming that the proposed Victorian Bill of Rights requires the usual gestation period for major changes (of between one and two decades), it will be unenforceable. The clash between the real and the virtual realities is rendering ineffectual the edifice of national implementations of internationally agreed human rights.


You'll recall that I apologised in advance for the absolute lack of correspondence between the experience of our senses and the outcomes of my research.

Now I'll grant you that this was only a 'gedankenexperiment'. But the social sciences have been adept in the last few decades at deeming to be 'scientific' such hitherto loose techniques as reading, discussing and thinking about a topic (now rendered respectable as various forms of 'qualitative research'), consulting to a client and writing up the results (variously called 'field experiments' and 'action research'), and conducting laboratory experiments on the equivalent of white mice (undergraduate and MBA students) and the implicit generalisation of the results to unrelated populations. I submit that the gedankenexperimenten technique is also on the threshhold of acceptance as a legitimate research technique.

I therefore invite you to explain to me what in my experiment was so wrong that it led me to such unpalatable conclusions.

Attachment 1
The Victorian Council for Civil Liberties' Draft Bill of Rights

Note: I have re-sequenced and structured the list

A Bill of Electronic Rights and Responsibilities, V0.15">

The intention of this document is to provide an ethical standard with which to measure the policies of states and corporations with regard to the Internet and related multicast communications networks.

0. Rights

The following section represents rights that belong to every adult Internet participant. Laws or policies that infringe upon these rights endanger the personal liberty, property, security, and ability to resist oppression of all Internet participants.

0.0 The right of access to any publicly available information, restricted only by cost.

0.1 The right to control and license intellectual property invested in original expressions, but not in algorithms nor other abstract specifications.

0.2 The right to accept any information from any source.

0.3 The right of every person to transform in any way any information they originate or receive.

0.4 The right of every person to refuse to disclose any information they originate or receive.

0.5 The right to transmit any information to any person, as limited only by intellectual property rights.

0.6 The right to ignore information of any nature provided that this ignorance does not infringe upon the rights of others.

0.7 The right to seek legal recourse for damages caused by the actions and expressions of others.

0.8 The right to publish any information in any public forum, and to submit any information to any moderated forum, as limited only by intellectual property rights.

0.9 The right, as administrator of a system, to deny participation in that system to any person for any reason, as limited by contractual obligations.

0.10 The right, as moderator of a moderated forum, to deny participation in that forum to any person for any reason, as limited by contractual obligations.

0.11 The right of every person to abide only by those laws and regulations that apply at their physical location.

0.12 The right to distribute in electronic form any publicly available report, policy, regulation or law.

1. Responsibilities

These are responsibilities that inhere to the exercise of the above rights. None of these responsibilities can be nor should be guaranteed by law, as any law that provides such guarantees will infringe upon one or more of the above rights.

1.0 The responsibility to tolerate the expressions of others, even when these expressions directly offend your own opinions and beliefs.

1.1 The responsibility to refrain from transmitting information to persons and forums not explicitly concerned with that information.

1.2 The responsibility of parents and educators to control the information that they make available to children.

1.3 The responsibility to neither harass nor threaten others.

1.4 The responsibility to be considerate of the costs of network bandwidth and storage space.

1.5 The responsibility to include adequate warning with any information that may mislead or endanger a naive reader.

1.6 The responsibility to represent yourself, your observations and opinions, and the expressions of others sincerely and without misrepresentation.

1.7 The responsibility not to publicly distribute the expressions, images, or particulars of others without their consent.

1.8 The responsibility to pursue all conversational remedies for perceived damages and inequities before seeking judicial recourses.

1.9 The responsibility of moderators to observe and enforce the charters of forums that they moderate.

1.10 The responsibility to observe, discuss, refine and promote the rights and responsibilities represented in this document.

1.11 The responsibility of the representatives of states and corporations to provide and maintain guarantees in law and policy of the rights represented in the first section of this document.

1.12 The responsibility of the representatives of states and corporations to avoid and remove any guarantee in law or policy of the responsibilities represented in the second section of this document.

Author: Peter Merel, Sydney. The author requests that comments be posted to the newsgroups and

Attachment 3: The 'Information Superhighway' and Other Metaphors

Extract from Clarke R. 'Information Infrastructure for the Networked Nation' (100 pp.) Working Paper available from the author, Department of Commerce, Australian National University, November 1994

'Information infrastructure' has proven to be an excessively pompous phrase, and many attempts have been made to popularise the image. Especially in a case like this, where the issues confronting government regulatory agencies and parliamentarians are new and unfamiliar, metaphors are powerful communication tools, and may decisively shape the debate. The most common of these, the 'information superhighway' is discussed in this section, and shown to be dangerously misleading. Alternative metaphors are sought out.

The term 'superhighway' is a little long for common usage, and the term 'infobahn' has emerged to address that deficiency. More importantly, however, 'highway' has many negative associations, ranging from traffic jams, accidents and speeding tickets, to tollways. It implies massive investment, and a swathe cut through the countryside.

What's needed in a metaphor is that it be graphic, attractive, and contain many useful analogical features and few unfortunate ones. Its efficacy must be judged from the perspective not of the well-informed specialists, but of those people who need to grasp the new idea. In this case, the audience is non-Internet users, the general media, officers and executives in relevant regulatory agencies and key Parliamentarians.

With current technologies, an information infrastructure comprises both backbones or trunks (to carry large volumes of traffic between major conurbations) and tails (to connect individual sites to the backbone). The 'highway' notion corresponds to the backbones, but fails to encompass the tails. This has led some commentators to use grotesque extensions of the metaphor, such as 'on-ramps' and 'cloverleaf interchanges'. Moreover, there are several senses in which railroads would be a better analogy than main roads, because once a message is on the net it submits to active management by it, rather than being a free agent. If road or rail transport imagery is to be persevered with, then the tails to industrial and commercial sites and to homes would be by-roads or branch lines. Hence it would be more appropriate to compare the information infrastructure with the complete road transport infrastructure, or the entire rail network.

An alternative approach might be a reticulation model, along the lines of the way in which supplies of water, electricity and gas reach us. This has the deficiency that these models tend to be designed for one-way rather than two-way flows.

But these ideas still miss an important element of the information infrastructure of the very near future. By-roads, branch lines and pipelines imply physical connections, whereas wireless tails are already technically feasible, and becoming commercially available in such forms as GSM digital mobile networks. Analogue services support only voice, but digital technology will also enable the transmission of fax, data and email. Using portable devices such as laptops and hand-held 'personal digital assistants' (PDAs), people will soon be sending and receiving email from park-benches and taxis. To convey the idea requires images like broadcasting and narrowcasting. The poverty of the 'superhighway' idea becomes even more apparent when it is appreciated that backbones can also be wireless, in particular through satellite and terrestrial microwave technologies. To express wireless backbones and tails in terms of road, rail or pipeline metaphors is challenging in the extreme.

A number of alternative notions are popular among Internet and sci-fi aficionados. 'The Net', 'the Matrix', and 'the Web' all have appeal, but lack the power to convey the essential difference to newcomers. 'Cyberspace' may be technically misleading, but its virgin nature enabled Gibson (1985), Sterling (1986) and other science fiction authors of the 'cyberpunk' genre, to paint meaning on a blank canvas. It still seems unlikely, however, that an idea popularly defined as 'shared hallucination' will be saleable to hard-headed public servants, parliamentarians and Cabinet Ministers.

Another idea that has circulated is the use of ecological and geographic idioms, including arable land, pastoral land, parkland and wilderness areas, perhaps augmented by storehouses, libraries and delivery trucks. A further notion, less appealing at first sight, but meaningful nonetheless, is of a 'superfungus', whose spores travel invisibly. There is scope for a more comprehensively connection-less image, such as the 'data-field' (not as in 'paddock', but as in 'magnetic field').

Finally, perhaps a metaphor should be chosen which is driven not by the technical way in which the information infrastructure works, but rather by the social possibilities it delivers. For example, images such as electronic 'collective', 'community' and 'society' may better convey the real meaning, or, in Australian terms, 'the bush telegraph'.

Realistically, though, it takes a great deal to launch a new metaphor, and the II will doubtless continue to be discussed with the help and hindrance of transport-related metaphors. One small refinement would be to replace the unhelpful prefix 'super' with some safe, catchall, and preferably very open-ended alternative, resulting in such alternatives as the short and philosophically appropriate 'meta-bahn' and the more romantic and stylish 'cyber-strada'.


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