A blog on why norms matter online

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Looking back to look ahead: In 1993, the Internet was “suddenly the place to be”

Going back in time can lead to
 interesting insights. Be it on the 

challenges facing the Internet or the 
advantages of growing a beard.
In my research for a book on Freedom of Expression and the Internet that I’m co-authoring for the Council of Europe, I came across an article published 20 years ago that takes us back in time: 

Philip Elmer-Dewitt, First Nation in Cyberspace. Twenty million strong and adding a million new users a month, the Internet is suddenly the place to be, TIME International, 6 December 1993, no. 49, available online thanks to – of all – the chemistry department at FU Berlin.

In 1993, Time magazine ran an article on the emergence of the Internet. It seems to come from a completely different world. “Suddenly the Internet is the place to be,” Time writes,

“American college students are queuing up outside computing centers to get online. Executives are ordering new business cards that show off their Internet addresses. Millions of people around the world are logging on to tap into libraries […]. Even the U.S. President and Vice President have their own Internet accounts.”
Imagine that: Students are queuing up to get online. Today they will be angry if the WLAN is slow. And they will only queue up to get new devices to go online.

What we consider today to be one of the key features of the Internet, namely the ubiquity of information and its uncoordinated, decentralized provision of information was a major issue 20 years ago. Time again:

“But the Internet is not ready for prime time. There are no TV Guides to sort through the 5,000 discussion groups or the 2,500 electronic newsletters or the tens of thousands of computers with files to share.”

Oh dear: there is no one ‘guide’ to the Internet.

Back in 1993, Companies were not yet active online: The Internet, as Time wrote 
“will have to go through some radical changes before it can join the world of commerce. […] It does not take kindly to unsolicited advertisements; use electronic mail to promote your product and you are likely to be inundated with hate mail […] ‘It's a perfect Marxist state, where almost nobody does any business,' says [University of Pennsylvania information science professor] Farber.’ But at some point that will have to change.”
As we all know, this has indeed changed substantially. Now, everybody does business online. And hate mail is no longer sent to spammers; indeed, they would probably appreciate that as it would signal that a spammed e-mail account was active.

Yet all was not well in 1993’s Internet: Early on the Internet contained speech that was deemed problematic:

“People […] may be in for a shock. Unlike the family-oriented commercial services, which censor messages they find offensive, the Internet imposes no restrictions. Anybody can start a discussion on any topic and say anything.”
Imagine that: Anybody can say anything. We know, of course, that is it not true. Laws (e.g. against hate speech) that apply offline also apply online. They may just be more difficult to enforce.

But even twenty years later this general right of anybody to “start a discussion on any topic and say anything” remains at the center of the right to freedom of expression online. A lot has changed in two decades, but free speech continues to fuel the Internet as a catalyst for human rights.

The Internet, as far as it can be personalized as ‘The Internet’, supports human rights protection online through its foundational principles, including net neutrality, the open architecture of the network and the end-to-end principle. As Internet activist John Gilmore put it in the Time article: “The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it”.

A growing number of states apply national policies to the Internet that limit Internet freedom and destroy in part or in whole the potential of the Internet as a catalyst for change and for reaching a higher level of human rights protection.

In retrospect, 1993 – though it was two years after the introduction of the World Wide Web in 1991 – seems like a long time ago. But we should pay attention: We do not know what the future holds.

The speed in which the Internet develops intensifies; a version of Moore’s Law is applicable not only to data processing but to data availability as well. We do not how what challenges will exist for freedom of expression in one year, five years or 20 years.

What four lessons can be draw from the Time article.

  1. The technological innovations of the future are impossible to predict. 
  2. What seems exciting, revolutionary and new can – in retrospect – look tiny, puny and unimportant. 
  3. To understand the key challenges of today, it makes sense to go back in time. 
  4. Technologies change, but law lasts. 
The standards developed by the European Court of Human Rights (and it institutional predecessor, the Commission) over more than 60 years hold true today and will hold true, with some adaptions, tomorrow. The key of that standard is the commitment to safeguarding freedom of expression and accepting only interferences when they are legal, pursue a legitimate goal and are necessary and proportionate with regard to the goal pursued.
As a post-script: If you liked the Time article, you’ll love this interview, also from 20+ years ago, with Isaac Asimov, who talks in glowing terms about the potential of the Internet. Everyone can have access to all human knowledge, he says. “Every student has his or her private school and it belongs to them. […] They can be dictators of what they want to study.” 

If I had only known that back in 1993, sitting in school at 10, fidgeting because I was looking forward to soccer practice.

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