If Larry Lessig really believes that anti-regulation, pro-free-market
sentiment is confined to naive Internet kids, he is dead wrong. His
argument for regulation is equally fallacious.
I have been an Internet user since ARPANET [Advanced Research Projects Agency Network] days, in 1976. Today I am one of the senior technical cadre that makes the Internet work, and a core Linux and open-source developer. I have closely studied the
history of the Internet technical culture. It is therefore rather
doubtful that I can be said to suffer from Mr. Lessig's imputed
"extraordinary ignorance about the history of the Internet."
["Innovation, Regulation, and The Internet," TAP Vol. 11 Issue 10]
while politicians talked about public access, I acted -- in 1993, I
built a free volunteer-run ISP [Internet service provider] to serve minorities and the poor and senior citizens in Chester County, PA. Chester County InterLink is still running today.
Speaking both in my own person and as an ambassador from the people
who built and run the Internet, I say Mr. Lessig's pro-regulation
argument is confused and mistaken. First, he waves around a
historical theory that without it AT&T; would never have permitted the
Internet to happen. Then he confuses "regulation" by voluntary mutual
contract with regulation by government force.
The obvious counter to the first argument is that AT&T; was itself a
creature of regulation, and that two public-policy wrongs of this
kind very seldom make a right. Mr. Lessig, apparently realizing the
weakness of his position, stops short of actually trying to use the
history to justify regulation. Instead, executing a deft rhetorical
backflip, he tries to equate the voluntary social contract of the
open-source community with government fiats.
I didn't invent the open-source community's social contract, but I
analyzed it and gave it a name and told its story in my book, "The
Cathedral and the Bazaar" -- and I must say I find Mr. Lessig's
equation both morally and pragmatically bogus on multiple grounds.
Morally, there is a chasm between mutual voluntary cooperation and the
involuntary, one-size-fits-all pseudo-cooperation enforced at the
point of government guns. We in the open-source community are clear
about this, even if Mr. Lessig is not. More power for politicians,
bureaucrats and regulators will only hinder our work as it has in the
past, and is no part of our design.
Pragmatically, Mr. Lessig ignores the inconvenient fact that three of
the classic four model open-source licenses (including the one
attached to most of the Internet's core code) do not in fact require
people to keep derived works of code open. The one that does so
require (the GPL [General Public License]) offers only a contract between equals which nobody is compelled to enter, not the disempowering and coercive "thou shalt"
of regulation. And the GPL has never been tested in court.
Thus, the open-source community (like the Internet standards
Mr. Lessig poses as a model of virtue) is sustained not by government
regulation, or even by contract law, but by essentially voluntary
norms founded in enlightened self-interest. And that's the way we in
that community want to keep it. We experience Microsoft's attempts to
monopolize and the government's attempts to regulate as equally
threatening, equally disruptive, equally evil.
Nathan Newman's recapitulation of Internet history is less actively
erroneous in its facts, but still seems curiously disconnected from
the reality I have experienced over a quarter-century of using and
building the Internet. He attributes much more consciousness,
intention, and coherence to the government's actions than they seemed
to have at the time.
By doing this, Mr. Newman is able to construct a narrative in which
the benign hand of government gave us the edenic ARPANET, and its
removal has cast us into the outer darkness to await the salvation of
more government action. This narrative almost reverses the actual
case, and would be met with disbelieving laughter by most of my peers.
In fact, most Internet policy has been made by default, often by
individuals within the government against the government's stated
intentions. For example, when Mr. Newman praises the inclusive growth
process that led to an ever-larger community of users and
technologists working with the Internet, he ignores the way that
actually happened. A few far-sighted individuals at the DARPA [Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency]
deliberately flouted the ARPANET's charter, which restricted access to
those directly working on research and government contracts. These
renegades encouraged the growth of early online communities like the
SF-LOVERS list that had nothing to do with the official objectives of
the program -- and then effectively lied to a Congressional oversight
committee to cover up what they were doing.
Before the 1994-1995 privatization of the Internet that Mr. Newman so
regrets, I would not have been able to build Chester County Interlink.
I wanted to -- I'd wanted to for years -- but the government's Appropriate
Use Policy prevented it!
Indeed, when the government has officially and consciously set out to
make Internet policy, the results have been almost uniformly
disastrous. Consider as another example the Communications Decency
Act of 1996, which would have sunk my little free-access ISP under
its conformance overhead.
But the policy recommendations at the end are so diffuse that it seems
almost beside the point to argue with Mr. Newman. I could certainly
applaud an explicit call for the government to stop purchasing
closed-source software; that would issue Microsoft a well-deserved
check without entailing any coercion at all. But Mr. Newman never
quite gets that far, issuing instead only a vague call for the
government to "consolidate resources in support of open-source
We, the people who built the Internet and are making today's
open-source revolution, have received a comprehensive education over
the last twenty-five years in the results of government "help." It
has taught us to trust technology and free markets and our own
competence, not the well- (or ill-) intentioned interventions of
politicians and pundits.
The best advice on Internet policy remains "Laissez faire, laissez
Eric S. Raymond is an Internet developer and writer living in Malvern, PA.