[This was originally published on Aviary Magazine and mirrored on attrition.org.]
Original Article: Bring in the Cyberpolice by Christopher Watts Forbes, November 1, 1999 page 112
Warning and Disclaimer
Every once in a while a new article comes across my desk that I just have to respond to. In most cases I try to present additional ideas or a new viewpoint and often agree with the original article. This article will be different. I’d like to apologize in advance for the more insulting tone this article will take. The article I am responding to rubs every last nerve in my body and just screams “What in the hell were you thinking?”. My response will also contain more questions than usual. Questions that will not be answered by me, as I am posing them to the subject of this article in an attempt to point out how thoroughly naïve and unthoughtful he was before making his comments. For those who dig articles beset with flames, you will no doubt have fun!
Original Article Summary and Relevant Quotes
Christopher Watts devotes a couple of pages to ideas on Internet regulation and funding from Robert Cailliau, a 52-year-old Belgian native who heads Web communications at CERN and spends much of his time with the International World Wide Web Consortium (a standards-setting body). Some of the more interesting parts of the article lead to an abundance of questions.
"We're in the middle of chaos. It may calm down. But the alternative is that there's a total meltodwn of the system and that it becomes unusable. That would be a catastrophe. We must regulate [the Web] if we want to have some civilization left. And it's getting urgent." - Robert Cailliau How would Cailliau make the Web more civil and less chaotic? His controversial idea is that we should find some means other than banner ads to finance it. "The forced influence of advertising has given us completely useless TV," he notes. "You don't want that on the Net. But most on-line information providers need to attract advertising - which slows downloads and clutters the screen with windows." To reduce the Web's dependence on advertising, Cailliau proposes a socalled micropayment system, wherein Web surfers would pay a few cents every time they download a page from the Web. "It would change the landscape completely if [Web-site owners] could live by providing a high-quality, responsive service," says Cailliau. "An article from a newspaper would [cost users] something on the order of a cent or less, but a really hot item could be several cents, depending on what the author thinks he or she can get away with. If you find it too expensive, you go somewhere else. The site that's too expensive loses clients." - Robert Cailliau Cailliau's other proposal to save the Web from its own success: License all Internet users, the way auto-mobile drivers must be licensed to use public streets. In defense of this controversial idea, Cailliau says: "To get a license, people would have to learn basic behaviour: choosing an Internet service provider; connecting to the Web; writing e-mails; problem diagnosis; censoring your own computer; and setting up a site. More important than that: knowing what dangers to expect and knowing how the Internet can influence others." "If you operate a TV or radio state, you have to have a license. It has nothing to do with fundamental freedom. It has to do with protection of the average citizen against abuses." - Robert Cailliau "Everybody thinks that licenses are perfectly all right on the roads, because of the danger to life and limb. But one can equally cause a lot of harm by spreading false and dangerous information. Sooner or later someone is going to be able to trace the death of a person to an Internet act. Then [the licensing question] will probably be taken seriously." - Robert Cailliau
The so-called macropayment system
For avid Cyberpunk readers, you are probably already groaning about this idea, frantically waving your copy of Snow Crash around. Neal Stephenson described the macro-payment system in more detail in his 1993 book “Snow Crash”. In the novel, Hiro Protagonist uploads information to a large network like the Internet in hopes that someone will find it useful. When they do, he collects money from their use of the information. What Robert Cailliau seems to forget is the actual implementation of this. Sure, it is trivial and novel to suggest such grand ideas that will revolutionize the Internet while saving us from ourselves, but these ideas look petty and trite in their infant stages.
Taking his example, lets say the article you are reading cost three cents. We can answer my first question of “Who determines the value of each page?” with “the author does.” Imagine browsing the OSALL site and seeing an article title “In Response To: Bring in the Cyberpolice”. Would you pay three cents to read it based on that? If not, would a three line summary of the article do it? After all, it’s only three whole cents to read it. So you decide to give it a shot and click on it. Wait, pop up box asking if you are sure you want to pay three cents for the following page. Imagine that pop up box for almost every page you see. Browsing would get very annoying very fast.
So now you’ve clicked on this article and read it. How do you pay for it? You have an outstanding debt of $0.03 to pay to OSALL and believe me, Mike wants to collect! What kind of payment system would have to be in place for this to work? Would you pay your ISP who would in turn pay OSALL? Wouldn’t paying two hundred sites a month become more tedious and annoying? I don’t know about you, but my bank charges me for wiring funds to other account holders, cutting cashiers checks and more. Imagine the fees associated with paying hundreds of people. In today’s world, I have a feeling the fees would outweigh the browsing costs.
When you reload the page, is there a second charge? What if the article is updated with more information or corrects errors? How about sites that mislabel the cost of their articles? Or sites that overbill you by ten cents? Are you really going to take fifteen minutes out of your day to complain about each site that does this? All of which is adding up creating a bill three times what you expect? What if you aren’t satisfied with the content you read, who do you get a refund from? What is the process for doing so?
There are so many questions and so few answers, this system seems doomed to failure before it leaves Cailliau’s mouth. Does he have answers to any of these questions? Or does the W3C have ideas on how to implement this in a fashion that is standard? I don’t think so.
License and Registration please!
Can you imagine the dialog box that would pop up when you violated an Internet regulation? I sure can’t. Cailliau’s idea that we should “license all internet users the way automobile drivers must be licensed to use public streets.” is another beautify of an idea. Let’s give this one some more thought.
Licenses are designed to show you are familiar with the laws and regulations that govern a particular aspect of society. Your driver’s license is more than a picture that gets you into bars, it shows you have fundamental operating knowledge of automobiles, and the regulations that dictate driving them on public streets. Well, what laws are there that govern Internet usage? A handful of laws about cyber stalking, computer hacking and the like. Cailliau’s idea that Internet Licenses would cover everything down to netiquette suggests more laws would need to be created. Do we really need laws and regulations dictating that quoted material in a Usenet post should not exceed the reply? That flames should be taken to e-mail after x amount in a public forum? That emoticon abuse consists of using x emoticons in a given message? While some of this is actually appealing because of the rampant stupidity displayed by many net users, do we really need laws governing it all?
Now the tough questions. Who would set all of this up? Would you be granted a country based license? International license? Who would make the regulations that dictate Internet use? Who would issue these licenses? Would they be a software token that interfaces with your dialup software? Who would police violations of regulations? If you violate a law, what would the punishment be? What would the penalty of ‘surfing without a license’ be? Would there be a charge associated with the license? Renewal? Revocation?
What next? A license to walk down the street? Makes as much sense as any Internet license. Both allow you to interact with other people, view businesses and web sites, put up your own message and more. Yet we need a license for one and not the other? It seems to me this idea was born out of the media hype and hysteria surrounding “all the bad things” found on the Internet.
Perhaps a more practical solution would be increased attention to abusive individuals. When i report a spammer or flooder, it the foreign system will take the steps necessary to document the incident and terminate the net access of the offending individual, wouldn’t that work just as well? If the person keeps doing it, they will eventually run out of ISPs in their area. If ISPs shared files on these abusive individuals, it would make it even more difficult. While my idea is not much better than Cailliau’s, it is already there and works sometimes.
My turn for a great idea
The notion of macropayment is very appealing, especially to me. I help run and maintain a web site that gets more than five million hits a month, without making a penny for my efforts. If I could get one penny per hit, or even ten cents per person that visited the site, life would be good. I for one would love to see some kind of system set up to pay for content, but my practical and logical side kicks in every time.
In keeping with Cailliau’s naïve and primitive ideas, I would like to suggest that in the future we travel via Star Trek teleporters. They are faster and more efficient, and are much more practical. Rather than spend all of that time and hassle on airplanes, boats, trains and cars, we can beam straight to where we want. Of course, like Cailliau’s ideas, I may need to actually think about how it would be implemented first. Damn, I knew it sounded too good to be true!