July 22, 2006  ·  Elaine Adolfo

The Web has changed millions of lives. Just two months from now, on September 22, we’ll be celebrating the first OneWebDay. OneWebDay is one day a year when we all – everyone around the physical globe – can celebrate the Web and what it means to us as individuals, organizations, and communities. In short, it’s like an Earth Day for the Internet–a day to stop and think about what the Internet means to us.

Add the OneWebDay Button to your site and get together with friends in your town to plan an outdoor celebration with an online component that people elsewhere on the Web can appreciate. Put a link on the OneWebDay wiki In New York’s Bryant Park, San Francisco’s Union Square, in London with the Lord Mayor, near City Hall in Austin, in downtown Chicago, in downtown Portland, Maine, all over Canada, and in Naples (Italy), and Canberra (Australia), OneWebDay will be celebrated for the first time on Sept. 22 — and those are just the celebrations we know about.

The goal of OneWebDay is to make the Web, and our individual connection to it, visible — so that we don’t take it for granted. We make progress when we make things visible.

May 5, 2006  ·  Tim Wu

Well I had planned to write a few thoughts about Yochai’s book, but I haven’t finished it yet! Perhaps later, with Larry’s good grace.

It has been a great pleasure being here this week — the commentators on this site are really sharp and thoughtful, and it is just a nice platform for writing.

Enjoy Who Controls the Internet, if you’ve got a copy, and I look forward to any comments any of you may have.

May 5, 2006  ·  Tim Wu

Jane Jacobs, the great theorist of all things urban, died recently. It had been my dream to go find her in Toronto but that will never happen. She’s obviously influential to urban planners, but I’ve found her writing tremendously helpful for thinking also about network design.

If you aren’t familiar with her work, Jacobs was an enemy of bad central planning. She believed in cities that grew up in a willy-nilly, unpredictable way, allowing new buildings to gradually replace old, or be converted to new purposes. She believed the causes of urban blight were dullness, and hated housing projects, mega-blocks and other doomed efforts to make people live just so.

What Jacobs favored is letting neighborhoods be. She thought city planners ought create small roads and small blocks that worked on a human scale, and then stand back let the inhabitants decide how best to use their neighborhoods. Here thinking wasn’t quite economics or sociology, liberal or conservative, but rather a powerful attack on our constant tendancy to overestimate our own abilities to plan how people should live their lives.

The comparisons to network design should be obvious. Network designers, like say the writers of ATM, who have too specific an idea of what they want their users to do create abominable networks that imprison their users and become obsolute quickly. The more general purpose and useful the network, the more it does for society and individuals, and the better it evolves from one use to another.

Consider the comparison: a SoHo building can begin life as a factory, become an artist’s loft, then a boutique, then a condo, and so on. Some of the networks and even applications have led constantly evolving lives. The internet supported usenet, gopher, veronica, the web, ICQ, IM and so on, in a steady kind of evolution that was unpredictable in advance. The WWW itself has shuffled through static sites, through “home pages” of the Geocities era, through the rise of the search engine, through the blog, and through 2.0-style sites. Someone, maybe Danah Boyd, should write “The Death and Life of Great American Applications.”

Jacobs understood that the point of urban planning was not planning for a moment, but trying to cultivate healthy, evolving cities that make people happy to live in. Much of the same can be said about information architectures – the best planned networks don’t overplan, but somehow manage to create a kind of life of their own.

You can learn this in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, or any of Jacobs’ other books.

May 5, 2006  ·  Tim Wu

James Love has an interesting article on the treaty on broadcasting and webcasting rights now under discussion at the WIPO, and completely ignored by nearly everyone.

Broadcasters have long wanted yet another form of intellectual property to, yes, provide more incentives to invest in the broadcasting of content. Love suggests that a collection of web firms, like yahoo, are lobbying for a web equivalent — a webcasting right as well.

In the meantime, I’d like a property right that gives me more inventives to wake up in the morning and floss my teeth.

May 4, 2006  ·  Tim Wu

Over the next ten years or so, as others have said, a big platform war may not be as between Windows & Linux, but between computers and (deluxe) cell phones.

For Bellheads, the cell phone is in many ways a dream platform. It puts many of the sacred principles of closed infrastructures into place, including:

1. Limits on equipment attachments; (customers use approved cell phones);
2. Vertically integrated content & applications; (ringtones, etc.)
3. Pay-per-use, value added services (like “411 and more!”)
4. General freedom to bill;
5. Limited customizability or programability.

So the cell phone platform, if the Bells are right about innovation, should be just killer. As a revenue source, that’s true. Yet other than SMS, I guess, I just don’t see alot of apps other than voice.

The question is, would it make sense for a provider to experiment with an open cell platform? To make it easy for third party developers to offer applications to cell-users, without making some kind of deal?

Do principles like Network Neutrality make any sense for wireless? Or are conditions sufficiently different?

May 4, 2006  ·  Tim Wu

So I’ve been in a debate with Christopher Yoo over at legal affairs on the topic of Network Neutrality –

Here’s a Snippet:

A lot of the difference in Chris and my own views stems from how we think the process of innovation occurs. Chris, rather like the later Schumpeter, believes that large firms — in this case, network operators, drive telecommunications innovation. As the later Schumpeter put it, the “large-scale establishment” is “the most powerful engine of [economic] progress and in particular of the long-run expansion of total output.”

Chris thinks incumbents like AT&T will rarely or perhaps never threaten innovation. Instead he views them as the driving force of the technologies of tomorrow.

I am skeptical. I think these view of incumbent behavior has been discredited, and that in general incumbents, particularly in a monopoly position, have a strong incentive to block market entry and innovative technologies that threat their existing business model.

May 4, 2006  ·  Tim Wu

The dot xxx debate has been back in the news recently, and what I find unendingly puzzling is the sides taken.

From first principles, you’d except groups who want it to be harder to get pornography on the internet to want a .xxx domain — followed by a law (like this one, or stronger) ordering ISPs to block porn sites that don’t move to the porn zone. That would make it relatively easier to avoid randomly running into porn on the internet.

Yet as everyone knows the positions are reversed. The United States has signaled strong opposition, as have other governments. Groups in opposition rely on arguments that defy logic – like the argument that dot-xxx would mean more porn on the internet (if there is anything slowing the market for porn, its not the unavailability of a domain name). But U.S. groups, for reasons I cannot fathom, urge that dot-xxx would “mean perhaps twice as many Internet porn sites and twice the danger to children.”

What the episode largely teaches is a lesson in how the obessions of large and powerful states will shape the Net of the future. The opposition to dot-xxx is fairly hysterical — it is of the mindset that thinks it is better to pretend pornography doesn’t exist, for to admit it exists is to condone it. That’s a puzzling way of thinking to much of the world, but very familiar to Americans and some Europeans. Hence the opposition to dot-xxx.

Since the 1990s I’ve thought alone with others that porn on the internet could be better zoned. But if to zone it is to condone it, so much for that vision.

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.