May 3, 2006  ·  Tim Wu

When I was in my teens my brother David and I ran what was then called a pirate bulletin board. We had at the time three computers, an Apple IIgs, a IBM 286, and a Mac we borrowed from school, and we had very different feelings about each.

David & I were loyal to the Apple II platform. That the IIgs was, and it pains me to say this, a flawed and doomed product, made us only more loyal. The IBM was a much better machine, yet cold and generic in a way that meant we never grew attached to it. So we let the IBM ran the BBS, and kept the Apples for ourselves. We named our BBS “Fifth Business,” after the novel, and David and I were the sysops.

Fifth Business was relatively successful. At its pinnacle, we had a fancy 2400 baud modem, about 35 calls a day, and about 40 megabytes of files and games available for our users. It was, in a sense, our dream, yet of course over time, we got bored of it. We barely played the games people uploaded — the only game we really liked was Ultima. It was actually more exciting to be a user, struggling to get ahead, than a sysop, with total power. And so one day, though I don’t quite remember when, we just turned it off, and that was the end of my career as a pirate.

David & I were lawbreakers, and part of this book is part of an effort to understand law-breaking and its effects on legal systems. (My brother, incidentally, is a programmer, and now makes his living creating the kind of software we used to make available for download for his firm, pseudo interactive, publishers of Full Auto. I should ask him how he feels about that.)

So of course the filesharing wars from the 2000s are the unavoidable focus of that discussion. What we describe in the book is what we call the “forest fire” model of legal change. That is the idea that mass waves of lawbreaking are sometimes how the law changes – in the sense that forest fires, while they look scary, can actually keep a forest healthy. Of course if the whole forest burns down that’s not quite so great, but refusing to accept what lawbreaking is saying can eventually lead to even worse results.

The forest fire is just an analogy and may not be such a good one. But it is certainly clear that Napster begat Kazaa, and that Kazaa in turn begat both iTunes and Skype, which have made enormous contributions. Not everyone likes iTunes or Skype for various reasons. But the ability to download songs for a dollar and make calls for nothing. must be counted for something.

None of this, I suggest, would have happened without the challenge to law that came from the Napster in his dormitory. And so what we need to have is a more nuanced idea of what lawbreaking is telling us, what messages its sending. That’s actually the topic for my next book, and I’ll leave it there.

May 2, 2006  ·  Tim Wu

My first experience using a chatroom was in 1988. Some group in Toronto, Canada, set up something called the “Free Access Network,” or FAN. It wasn’t really the internet: it was all dialup, with perhaps 100 phone lines or so. And it was, true to the name, free.

FAN was amazing, and still maybe the most addictive thing I’ve experienced in a life with a decent amount of experimentation. After school we’d run home, Lisa, Karen myself, Quaid and others (Onil was always skeptical), 15 year-olds all, and “war-dial” FAN desperately trying to get an open line. I developed a Pavlovian response to the sound of the modem’s carrier – a kind of deep excitment that comes back just by thinking about it.

As an aside, I remember Cory Doctorow, the writer and Boing-Boing editor, well-known to readers here, was also on FAN. Cory and I went to primary school together, and even once colloborated on a short film, but since high school we’d drifted apart. My last memory of Cory on FAN, at the last time I would see him in a decade, was the day Robert Heinlein died, May 8, 1988. Cory, of course, wanted people to quit talking about nonsense and recognize the importance of what had happened.

But back to FAN — what drew us in? There was, of course, flirting, which to a 15-year old has a power not dulled by the drudgery of dating. But, to me, really it was something else — this sense of vastness of opportunity. The feeling, oddly enough, that you can get in the Grand Canyon, or walking around parts of New York City, when you think, who knows what you might find or become. Something about those simple lines of text made the imagination run free, like all the dust at Black Rock City, and I’m still not sure why.

That was how it was — when the internet promised deliverance from the hassles of identity. And when the internet mostly was stuff that took you away from the “real world,” or what sometimes was called “meatspace.”

Where’s that vision, nearly 20 years later? Certainly, some of it is still there, and its maybe better, especially in places like Second Life. Today’s online worlds, have way more users than FAN ever did and get alot deeper. But what’s different is there’s alot, maybe most of the internet usage that’s not really personally transforming or an escape, unless you consider writing responses to eVITE personally fulfilling. Sometimes I feel a little sad about that, sad that email doesn’t have the same thrill it did in 1993 — when “you have mail” felt like getting messages from a burning bush.

What happened over the long run is interesting. The principles of the network’s design, in short, trumped the power of the applications, as compelling as they were. That may seem a subtle point, but one with enormous meaning for how the Net is governed.

Alot of the early apps were indentity-twisting and escapist. That, among things, led to a strong sense that self-governance could handle most problems (as it does on Second Life). That’s even what seemed to be what the Supreme Court had in mind in ACLU v. Reno, or when it called the internet as a “unique medium–known to its users as ‘cyberspace’–located in no particular geographical location but available to anyone.”

But the infrastructure, the basic protocol design, itself never believed in or promoted self-enforcement or independence from law. Instead, it just pushed difference and tolerated diversity. That meant, in time, more replication of realspace activity — banks, ebay, amazon, orbitz. Apps not designed to get away from the real world, but instead trying to improve it. That meant more demand and need for laws to control the effects of what the network had given birth to. That led to what we see in the book: more government involvement, sometimes out of necessity, and for better or for worse.

In short, the framers of the Net maybe might have, but didn’t actually create a Net that would rule itself. They created something that could be anything and many things. And that’s what it has become.

May 1, 2006  ·  Tim Wu

One theme in the book is that an evolving balkanization of the internet is often driven by consumer preference. A good example is the suprising decline in the use of the English language on the Web.

From Ch. 3

The Economist confidently stated in in 1996 that “English may now be impregnable established as the world standard language: an intrinsic part of the global communications revolution.” A New York Times article written the same year, titled “World Wide Web: Three English Words,” asserted that “if you want to take full advantage of the Internet there is only one real way to do it: learn English.”

That turned out not to be true. English was dominant at first. But it faded fast. By the end of 2002, less than half of the web pages were still in English, and the flights from English just continued — babelization, if not balkanization.

Today, David Sifry and Ethan Zuckerman write on “the surprising possibility that Japanese may have unseated English as the dominant language of the blogosphere.” According to Sifry’s fascinating survey, ”

Something that may come as a surprise (at least to the English-speaking world) is that English isn’t the biggest language of the blogosphere. In fact, English isn’t even the primary language of one third of all posts that Technorati tracks anymore.

If you look at the survey, you’ll notice other oddities too. French accounts for but 2% of technocrati blogging, for example, despite being one of the world’s most widespread languages.

So much for those ten years I spent in French lessons (yet fortunate that I’ve had 3 months of Japanese, kamon).

May 1, 2006  ·  Tim Wu

The New York Times building has a special long hallway where it keeps pictures of reporters who have won pulitzer prizes. Its fun looking at how hair-styles have changed over the years. But most interesting of all is the picture from 1931, the picture of Walter Duranty, to which the Times has physically attached a large disclaimer.

My tour guide, Jenny 8. Lee, told me the story. In the 1930s Walter Duranty was one of America’s most famed reporters. As the New York Times’ Moscow correspondent, he filed vivid stories explaining the growth and meaning of Stalinism to the American people — its differences from Marxism, and the meaning of things like collectivism and the Five Year Plan.

There was just one problem. Relying on official sources, and subject to extensive censorship, Duranty’s stories soft-pedaled — or missed — the brutality of the Stalinist program. Duranty’s dispatches, available online, say things like

Stalin is giving the Russian people–the Russian masses, not Westernized landlords, industrialists bankers and intellectuals, but Russia’s 150,000,000 peasants and workers–what they really want namely, joint effort, communal effort… Stalin does not think of himself as a dictator or an autocrat, but as the guardian of the sacred flame, or ‘party line’ as the Bolsheviki term it, which for want of a better name must be labeled Stalinism.

Decades later the New York Times repudiated Duranty’s work. That’s the reason for the disclaimer attached to his picture, which explains that “Times correspondents and others have since largely discredited his coverage.”

Why discuss Duranty? I do so to get at one of the issues that my co-author Jack and I disagree about — namely, whether Google, Yahoo, and other companies should be doing business in China and other censorial countries. Jack, and many others, including the companies themselves, say that the results will be better for everyone: for the companies, for the Chinese people, and for the U.S. and Chinese economies.

I understand the position, and I generally agree with policies of engagement, not isolation. I think if I were in Google’s position, I’d be tempted too — particularly since the .com product is so lousy in China, and Google hates to deliver a second-rate product.

But my reasons for disagreement have less to do with consequence, and more to do with ethics — particularly the ethics of a media company. It seems to me its one thing to supply cars or wheat to a regime that may not live up to the highest standards. But what I think we’ve learned over the years is there’s something about media, and its constant tendency toward corruption that warrants more.

It is the risk captured in the Walter Duranty story, of becoming, without anyone really noticing, an organ of state power and a stooge to Stalinism. Today, what Duranty and search engines in China have this in common is this: They must lie to do their job. We’re not going to give you what would actually be the most popular result. And while some lying can be justified and is normal in the business world, over the long run it seems to me too corrupting for a company whose business is providing information.

One usual answer is that Chinese search engines will gladly take Google’s place. I understand the point but I don’t know what it justifies. If I work at Enron, there may be others willing to shred documents, but does that justify me doing so? Pravda also wrote stories like Duranty’s. But the difference was that people thought the NY Times was news, not propaganda. Similarly, people thought the purpose of search engines was to find out what’s really out there.

Internet content and search companies do not see themselves as media in the ethical sense of that word. They think of themselves as mere instruments, and thereby free from many of the duties that might attach to more traditional companies. I’m not sure that’s right.

Perhaps one day I will be proven wrong, and Google’s entrance into the chinese market will mark a turning point. Perhaps the companies will provide a wedge whereby U.S. government pressure reaches inside China more effectively. But I suspect over the next decade, or maybe decades from now, more will come out that makes colloboration seem as wrong now as it was in the 1930s.

May 1, 2006  ·  Tim Wu

Today I’m scheduled to meet with Dr. Xiong Chengyu, who is one of the personal advisors to Chinese President Hu Jintao for internet & media issues. He is in town to meet with the National Committee on United States-China Relations, among other things.

Here’s what I’m curious to hear about: What Dr. Xiong thinks China’s internet policy is; or what function, exactly the internet does or should play in Chinese society.

In the West, the typical role of a communications infrastructure is spoken of, at an ideal, something that leads to more self-expression, happier people, and more involvement in the nation’s governance. Failing that, it ought at least entertain people and make the country richer.

Observers, myself and our book included, make guesses as to what China’s government sees as the function of the internet in Chinese society. Not all have been, exactly, flattering.

But I am very curious to hear what is said directly, and I’ll let you know what I learn.

May 1, 2006  ·  Tim Wu

Jack at I were at the Markle Foundation in New York today to speak about the book, and as is so often the case, ICANN and domain name governance came up.

Carol Cosgrove-Sacks, until recently the United Nations’ Director of Trade, asked whether an Internet that increasingly reflects the will of individual nations, as our book suggests, won’t inevitably need a more globally responsive domain name system. In other words, she asked whether, in the long run, ICANN just cannot survive.

Esther Dyson, who happened to be at the event, gave a most interesting response. “Domain name governance” she said (and I paraphrase) “is like the One Ring. You can’t trust anyone with its power.”

While she didn’t say this, ICANN under this logic is basically like a hobbit — an organization too weak to be a threat to anyone.

“ICANN has two things going for it” said Dyson, “it lacks power, and it lacks legitimacy. If ICANN tried to do anything controversial, the U.S., Europe, Japan, and the world internet community would resist and put a stop to it.”

So is that a good enough answer? Is a decent result enough, or does the process matter?

The question is central to our book. In writing Chapter 3 of our book we interviewed, among others, Ira Magaziner — who shed very helpful light on the whole process that lead to ICANN. (Readers may be particularly interested in his discussion of the famous 1998 “show down” with the late Jon Postel.)

The view taken by Magaziner and others in the Administration parallel Dyson’s hobbit thesis. The idea was something like this: the U.S. government needs to step in to prevent regulation of the Internet. Call it “unregulation,” or regulation to stop regulation.

That seems like a paradox, yet for Americans, how you feel about “unregulation” is a key to future debates over the internet and internet policy (it is crucial to the network neutrality issue, as I’ll discuss later this week). In short, given the enormity of government power, our book says that sometimes people will want and need government to keep the internet free from, yes, government, and governments.

More on this as we go on.

May 1, 2006  ·  Tim Wu

Most happy to be here. Mostly, but not entirely, I’ll talk this week about Who Controls the Internet. If you’ve already read the book, I’d love to hear any comments or feedback. The book can be purchased here or at most online or physical bookstores.

Let me introduce the book first. The book is mostly a history of the last ten years of nation-states & the internet. It is an effort to tell the story of the struggle of governments to control the net, and to understand the role played by geography, culture, and physical force in shaping what the network is becoming.

The book chronicles a rise in the use of state power to try to control network conduct. That’s bookended by the Elred v. Reno case on one side, and ends with Yahoo & Google’ capitulation to Chinese demands over the last few years. Along the way, it chronicles slow changes in the architecture of the network driven by local culture and government obsessions, with chapters on Copyright, ICANN, eBay, China, Int’l Law and others.

We have worked hard to make this a story accessible to many readers. Of course many of the readers of this blog are experts in one or another of the topics in the book. But even then, what we’ve tried to do is putting the last 10 years together, and put them in some perspective.

May 1, 2006  ·  Lessig


I’m happy to announce that Tim Wu, one of the authors of a new and related book, Who Controls the Internet?, will guest blog (again) this week. This is also the last week of class at Stanford, so I’ll be back in a real sense next week.

The book is a great extension and critical development of some of Code-related ideas. It has an especially terrifying and extensive discussion of control in China, and is beautifully and simply written (with pictures, too!) Another must read for those in this space.

Welcome back, Tim.