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Friday, 23 August, 2002, 13:42 GMT 14:42 UK
Cyberspace with borders
Computer user at home

Whoever said an infinite number of monkeys, all sitting at typewriters, would eventually write the complete words of Shakespeare - might need to think again after surveying the chaos that is the internet.

But there's a new debate starting about whether cyberspace - however sprawling - is slowly falling under American control, and whether the answer to that is to subvert everything the internet stands for.

Instead of having the freedom to make computer connections globally, why not have a net where national borders are respected?

Our Culture Correspondent Madeleine Holt dug into the background.


"Cyberspace - a consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators in every nation by children being taught mathematical concepts. A graphical representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity, lines of light ranged in the non-space of the mind, clusters and constellations of data, like city lights, receding."

When Gibson described cyberspace in 1984, he was creating a fantasy world in which people existed almost within their computers. In the early '90s when the technology was just taking off, there was incredible excitement. People believed this technology was going to deliver everything. We could live in virtual reality. There was the absurd coinage of a term, tele-dildonics, about sex in cyberspace. They believed that the internet and technology was going to allow us to do anything through our computers.

Idealism wasn't just in the air. It was in the technology of the internet. In the 1970s and '80s, campus pioneers like the Californian academic John Postell, developed the system and ensured it was decentralised and initially, barely regulated. The British inventor of the world-wide web, Tim Berners Lee, envisaged a free, not-for-profit internet. By 1995, when the American internet company Netscape floated its shares, investors were smelling money. As the internet gold rush began, one American warned this was a world with no frontiers. Big business and big government should steer clear.

"A declaration of the independence of cyberspace: governments of the industrial world, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from cyberspace, the new home of the mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone."

There've always been differing ideas about what the internet should be about, but there's one thing it's tough to argue against now. If there was a flag flying over cyberspace, it would be the stars and stripes. America accounts for more than a third of the global internet market, and more than 40% of all domain names are American.

America dominates the internet and it continues to do so. Many of the biggest internet companies are American. The US government has an oversight about how the domain system works. It's an American internet, and should the US Congress department Commerce Department decide to steal it back off us, they quite possibly could.

America's position is shored up by tough legislation. The 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act extended the power of American copyright holders. Under the act, the Recording Industry Association of America has been trying to force four American mesh internet service providers to cut off access to a Chinese website which had been offering unauthorised access to music. It dropped the case this week because the site wasn't active. Meanwhile, US congressman Howard Berman is proposing American copyright holders, who believe piracy is taking place, can hack into your PC and even damage it without fear of liability.

It's gotten to the point where the control of the net is now stronger than the control of individuals who are in the on the internet. For instance, new software is being mandated that will track every activity on the internet in a way that could never be done in a public space.

What do you think of that?

It's quite bad. It's gone from the point where the internet was something that allowed a individual to look out on the world to now a situation where the world looks in on an individual. They don't have control over that.

Since September 11th, there are many voices saying political monitoring has only intensified. One British net-head is saying reasserting the rights of the individual can only come through thoughtful intervention by national governments. It's claimed that in a couple years technology will allow borders to be drawn on cyberspace. That's net heresy, say others.

For years the credo of the internet community has been against government, against regulation, against any intervention by lawyers. So that a net-head should demand that barriers be erected within their cyberspace is quite an extraordinary development. It's somewhat potty.

If it's mad to some, it comes with a strong dose of reality. It's an admission that cyberspace has become real and prone to all the inequities of society at large. Correcting that through government is a very European idea. If it were embraced, it would mean varying America's founding digital dreams.

This transcript was produced from the teletext subtitles that are generated live for Newsnight. It has been checked against the programme as broadcast, however Newsnight can accept no responsibility for any factual inaccuracies. We will be happy to correct serious errors.

Newsnight's Madeleine Holt
"cyberspace is slowly falling under American control"
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