Book Review: NetPolicy.Com

Book Review

NetPolicy.Com

NetPolicy.Com, by Leslie David Simon. Washington, D.C.: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2000, 442 pages.

Marjory S. Blumenthal

Public policy about, for, and because of the Internet is hot. The growth of the Internet and its uses and abuses have made it everyday news. Government attention has grown accordingly, and along with it punditry and advocacy aimed at framing the public interest.

Against this busy backdrop, Leslie David Simon’s NetPolicy.Com is an ambitious but flawed undertaking. It combines in one volume an overview of why the Internet has taken hold with a tour of multiple policy arenas, including description, commentary, and recommendations. This is an admirably ambitious agenda for one book, so perhaps we should not be surprised that it is not a complete success. Simon does a good job of providing the big picture, raising most of the questions that policymakers and engaged citizens should ponder about the Internet. But in his analysis and his prescription for the future, Simon is not quite up to date with recent developments and not sufficiently broad in his vision of the options.

A major limitation of this book is its dated frame of reference. NetPolicy.Com was conceived in the mid- to late-1990s, a time when the Clinton administration was taking an active interest in the Internet. Too much of the book frames the discussion in the perception of the Internet at that time. The prominence of the Internet and its importance to economics, culture, and politics have grown considerably since then. Some reference is made to developments that occurred in early 2000, but such updating is rare and uneven. The growth in wireless communication and wireless links to the Internet is essentially overlooked; as are consumer applications, from online games to personal financial management; and the rise of audio applications, from telephony to music on the Internet. All of these developments shape public and governmental perceptions of the Internet and needs for public policy. They are among the factors promoting extensions of consumer protection, for example, to the Internet space.

In its short history, the Internet has already been the object of several waves of hype and retrenchment. Analysts must be able to distinguish between transient phenomena and deep-rooted trends. Simon makes too few of those distinctions and thus fails to clearly identify the patterns of change in the Internet marketplace that matter for policy discussions.

When he does describe technologies, Simon tends to project optimistically from potential to impact. For example, he touts the ability of information technology to substitute virtual interaction for face-to-face contact and to create more effective new forms of education, but he neglects to mention that advances in communications have long been accompanied by increased travel for more in-person meetings and that the application of Internet capability to the classroom is far from straightforward. Simon is too willing to believe that a cause-and-effect relationship exists between Internet developments and other social changes. The reality is that much more research is needed to establish a reliable picture of how the Internet is affecting society. Simon seems to be unaware of Larry Lessig’s important 1999 book Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace, which illuminated the uncertainties that plague our understanding of the interplay of technical design, formal regulation, and market action as influences on the Internet’s evolution and impact.

An interesting illustration of Simon’s technological optimism is the repeated anticipation of biometric technology applications. There are, indeed, situations where authentication through biometrics may be warranted, but this technology is problematic in ways that matter for public policy. Decisions about how to implement biometrics will determine whether it is perceived as a risk to privacy that the public will reject. It is one thing for someone to lose a password, which can be easily replaced, but what if a fingerprint or retinal pattern is compromised? What will it take for the affected individual to regain its use? NetPolicy.Com does not consider this possibility or the policy questions that follow from it.

Not just Big Blue

One of the more intriguing aspects of Internet policy is the fluid set of players. When the Internet was commercialized, a few large Internet service providers (ISPs) were soon complemented by a proliferation of small ISPs, the ranks of which are now shrinking. Companies such as Cisco and Sun, which were involved in key hardware and software, grew with the Internet, and soon all manner of companies arose or developed new lines of business to build on what the Internet could do. It was in this period that IBM regained its momentum and gained a clear Internet focus. But the disproportionate attention to IBM, where Simon worked as a policy analyst, distorts the picture of Internet industries in ways that matter for competition policy and other topics.

The growth of new Washington corporate offices and lobbying representatives for Internet businesses other than the established players is a major development of the past decade, and particularly the past five years. So, too, is the growth of advocacy organizations focusing on Internet policy. The dot-orgs have become a force to consider along with the dot-coms, but they receive little attention in NetPolicy.Com. Privacy advocates are acknowledged briefly, and largely as a fringe group. A reader of this book would have no appreciation for the significant growth of civil liberties, media, and consumer advocates focusing on public policy. Ironically, this lack of balance bears out the fears of these public interest advocates about the potential loss of diversity of content and perspectives that was characteristic of the early Internet. These groups argue that the Internet should be understood as a public space or commons. Simon, by contrast, views the Internet as a marketplace, which skews his selection and treatment of policy issues. This is apparent in his discussion of the growing tensions between profit-making and nonprofit interests in intellectual property debates. Simon fails to discuss the new political landscape that is forming because of the increasingly diverse interests that see the Internet as crucial to their information dissemination and advocacy.

One area in which Simon makes an important contribution is his consistent attention to the rest of the world. The Internet is, and indeed always has been, an international phenomenon. U.S. leadership in its technology development and use was abetted by local economic and policy conditions, but other countries–on their own or, as Simon describes, in response to the Clinton administration’s evangelism–are moving to catch up and/or put their own imprint on the Internet. The global Internet will increasingly affect U.S. policy, not least because of the enforcement challenges presented by the Internet-mediated flow of information and resources across borders and jurisdictions. That is a variation on the theme of Thomas Friedman’s The Lexus and the Olive Tree, another important book that Simon fails to cite.

Unfortunately, the examination of specific country plans and progress displays Simon’s methodological weaknesses. Country profiles appear to have been derived largely from official documents, which are out of date and likely to present goals rather than assessments of experience. Where multilateral issues, such as coordination on the domain name system, are explored, there is a presumption that the establishment institution, in this case the new International Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), will do what needs to be done. Simon chooses to overlook the controversy that has surrounded ICANN since its launch under U.S. auspices and to downplay distrust in the establishment. Simon is probably correct in suggesting that countries, regardless of ideology, would be wise to focus on the benefits afforded by the Internet, but it is a mistake to disregard the fact that all countries seem interested in at least some attempts to tame the Internet.

Whither Internet policy?

As the Internet extends its influence into ever more aspects of modern life, the challenge of writing comprehensively about its relationship to public policy grows as well. Many of the newer developments reflect the Internet’s maturation as infrastructure and as a platform for mass-market services. Yet concern persists about how to maintain the objective of the original, more narrow policy framework based in federal research support: Can there be incentives or other actions that preserve the Internet’s character as an environment for innovation, or does a mass-market future imply ossification?

Simon appears to view the taming of the Internet as inevitable. He points approvingly to the potential for more influence from established nongovernmental organizations, such as the International Telecommunications Union, which have responded to the threat to their viability from the Internet by reorienting their strategies. If allied with governments, as they have been historically, such organizations may, indeed, promote the kind of Internet governance that smaller-scale interests and advocates worry about. Meanwhile, the most Internet-centric institution cited by Simon, the Internet Engineering Task Force, continues to be the guardian of Internet architecture, but its influence has diminished, and other players, from the World Wide Web Consortium, which includes a diverse mix of business, academic, and government members, to a variety of industry- and technology-focused consortia, act to shape at least segments of the Net in ways that may have long-term consequences. This mix of centralization and decentralization clouds the picture of Internet evolution in ways that challenge policymakers.

The Internet has changed institutions from companies to governments. Institutions, in turn, seek to put their imprint on the Internet. Tomorrow’s Internet and today’s Internet policy reflect the dynamic chemistry of dot-coms, dot-orgs, and dot-govs. That chemistry is hard to capture in a snapshot, and NetPolicy.Com delivers only a preliminary sketch.


Marjory S. Blumenthal (mblument@nas.edu) is executive director of the National Research Council’s Board on Computer Science and Telecommunications.