anche in italiano

This text was published originally in June, 1996.
It had minor adjustments and updates in October, 1997.
Many years later, some things have changed,
but the problems are essentially the same.


Can we really relax?
Here’s who, I think, will not leave us in peace

by Giancaro Livraghi
June 1996 – October 1997

There is a widespread perception, among users of the net, that after all there is not much to worry about. The net is free, anarchic, chaotic, complex, nobody will ever be able to dominate it or restrict our freedom.

The attempts of “censorship” based on “pornography” are so ridiculous that they will die out... Filters and PICS will never work, and they are intended only as “nannies” for small children... in any case we can l ive happily without exaggerated explicit sex on the net.

The American “decency act” has already been declared unconstitutional, it will have no effect... and the rest of the world will follow that example.

There are still pressures from the authorities, bureaucratical repression, seizures of computers and equipment, but they are less frequent; no more “crackdowns” like the one in the United States in 1990 and the one in Italy in 1994...

The proposed laws and norms for repression, censorship, taxation, restrictions, strangling bureaucracy, so far haven’t been very harmful... some silly rules are there, but they are not applied strictly.

Hacker scandals make headlines but die out quickly...

Monopolies, sooner or later, will be broken by market competition or anti-trust regulation. Microsoft will never own the net, and even if someone did that would not interfere with our freedom.

So... why worry?

Before I get to the point, I would like to talk about Cassandra.

She is known in history (or legend) as a witch, a soothsayer, a bearer of bad omen.

She was just a bright girl who said “Please, before we bring in that strange gift from those tricky Greeks, why don’t we take a look at what’s inside?” They didn’t listen – and then they blamed her.

It’s happened to me at times to be in Cassandra’s role; at other times, I was the stupid Trojan.

Both get rather badly hurt. So I hope, this time, to be neither one, nor the other.

But the fact is that there are good reasons to worry.

The infamous Decency Act was declared unconstitutional in the United States. But that is not the end of the story. There are people from Washington lobbying in Brussels to create an “example” that could be re-imported. And there are, in America as in Europe, continuing attempts to censor and control the net, including recent ones based on renewed “pornography” and “paedophilia” scares and on an old pretext – “terrorism and bombs”.

The European Union has made solemn statements about protecting and helping freedom of the net. But even in a pro-net statement such as the Bonn Declaration some points are ambiguous about freedom of speech; and pan-European pressures on so-called “self regulation” (which is not “self”, but imposed by political and administrative authorities) can hide some rather nasty tricks.

We should be wary about “filters” and “ratings” and all sorts of “electronic nannies” that want to protects us from the infection of free navigation in the biological diversity of the net. These devices would be (almost) harmless if each one of us could choose which “protective” software we want to use. But if (as suggested) they are chosen by some “superior authority” and imposed by controlling ISPs, it’s a very short step from “protection of the weak” to the repression of opinion that doesn’t please the authorities.

We may think we are lucky because we don’t live in one of those countries (of which there are many, and not all are remote) where connecting to the net can be punished with imprisonment, or worse; and we know that a technically experienced person may be able to bypass controls by connecting from Moldavia with a Martian id. But freedom should not be the privilege of a few hackers or mavericks while the majority of people is pushed back into the stable of controlled and conditioned information.

Let’s ask ourselves: who wants repression?

First of all, political parties. All of them. Because they don’t like the idea of a free exchange of opinion outside the familiar and controllable channels. Not only within one country or community, but, even worse, worldwide...

We should not trust politicians, or others, who talk about helping and protecting us. No, thank you, we don’t need your protection or supervision.

The tendency of all Powers, and especially political power, is to treat us like clumsy children that can’t take care of themselves. The bib they are offering can easily turn into a gag.

And it’s not just the Parties... I’ve had some opportunities to discuss this subject with the Trade Unions. In spite of some interesting openings in some part of their organization, they feel lost when they face the idea of flexible work, unable to untangle themselves from their hierarchical, “assembly line” structure, unable to understand in practice how electronic communication can be put to the service of citizens...

And... public administration and bureaucracy, who can’t stand something that isn’t subject to their forms, stamps, controls, tricks and muddles. In my country they turned into a bureaucratic monster even a law intended to protect the privacy of personal data.

There is a great deal of talk about reform of the administration, reduction of red tape, public offices at the service of citizens and not vice versa. There are a few examples of better organization. But generally, even if the stated “good intentions” turn into facts, it will take several years; and in the meantime it’s a real danger that bureaucracy will interfere in many ways not only with providers (especially the small ones) but also with users.

There are also companies and organizations that sell security, and have every right to promote their services, but often exaggerate in spreading fear and obsession.

We are all aware, I think, of the poor information, the “cultural illiteracy” of most mass media when they are dealing with the net. Newspapers, television, etcetera, as well as books: of which there are too many, often written by people who don’t know what they are talking about. There are many examples. A fellow I know just published a book about “new media”. I met him by chance and asked him for his e-mail address. “I don’t have one, he said, but I guess one day I should try”. There are many like him that are considered “authorities” on the subject.

But it’s not only ignorance. There are people who do have some experience, but still write things that are quite ridiculous and generally hostile, or embarrassed, or repressive.


Owners of traditional media are afraid of information out of their control, that could reduce their power.

We have found also that some of them, absurd as that may be, fear that they may lose money because of “competition” from the net.

Some of them are trying to get into the internet and gain positions of “hegemony”. Many others know that they will not be able to do so. The first, if they had a clear vision, should be strongly on the side of freedom; but it is not much of a burden for them to “appease” the scared ones by allowing limitations and controls which would do little or no harm to the large operators while bogging down the smaller ones and all independent initiative.

Also the dominating forces in “culture” and education appear quite often suspicious and uncomfortable. Many “intellectuals” hate the idea of losing their privileges as “masters of thought”, as the “source” of knowledge and opinion.

I have attended countless conventions and conferences in which self-appointed “experts” preach about the net, while it is obvious from what they say that they don’t know the difference between a modem and a cd-rom. And they are scared of both.

Journalists... there are some, of course, that know the net well, are not scared of it and discuss it intelligently.

But they are still a small minority.

Last year I attended a journalists’ conference on the net at the “Circolo della Stampa” – the sumptuous Press Club in Milan. The atmosphere was impregnated with fear.

How am I going to survive in a world were readers can check my sources? Shall I lose my privilege as the source of information? Shall I have to re-learn my trade from scratch? I hope to wake up tomorrow morning and find that it was only a bad dream.

Those journalists that have understood, or will understand, will not only continue to do their job, but learn to do it better. But many are still scared.

We can not look at this in the perspective of any one country. Ideas travel quickly; and bad ideas seem to travel even faster.

In Europe, we have an added problem: regulation from the European Union.

Several times (and especially after the “decency act” was declared unconstitutional in the United States) they promised publicly not to interfere with freedom on the net.

I don’t believe them.

In spite of that statement, they are working on all sorts of regulations, controls and censorship, lead especially by the French.

We know at least some of the areas in which they intend to act. Systems of electronic payment (as if they weren’t already solved); protection of copyright (what they really mean is the interests of large software suppliers, or publishers, or the entertainment industry); the fight against crime and “terrorism” in networks (that can lead to all sorts of repression of innocent people while doing very little about organized crime); “pornography” (and we have seen what that can lead to). Also privacy of personal data, which indeed should be protected; but we have seen how even that cam become the excuse for unnecessary, ineffective and repressive bureaucracy. Etcetera...

There is a lot of discussion about “commercial interests”. I don’t think there is anything wrong with trade and business per se. Not all commercial or business interests are “enemies” of net freedom. Many of them could be allies.

But the “enemies” do exist, and they can be quite dangerous. Some large commercial interests (not all) are afraid that markets may open up to smaller traders and they could lose the leverage they have now by controlling large-scale distribution, promotion and communication. (I don’t mean just companies in information technology, but in all sorts of industries, including consumer goods).

I’ve heard “spokesmen” for such interests declare publicly that the net needs to be regulated and brought under control before it becomes a tool for small businesses who might compete with the giants (what an awful thought) by offering goods at a better price or with better service.

One of them said to me with a sneer: “Wait and see, in six months the internet will collapse and they will need us to put it back together”. So far, facts have proved him wrong. When the net gets clogged, it’s not because there are more people using it, but because of the clutter of useless and heavy decorations, such as an excess of pictures, graphics and animation. What can rescue it is a healthy dose of common sense, putting content over appearance; under pressure by those who really need the net, including companies that now don’t understand it, but sooner or later will find it useful.

There are also attempts that may appear bizarre but are not to be underestimated. Traditional carriers of information (including post offices and telephone companies) have been asking central and local governments to tax the net before it becomes too competitive.

Attempts in some places so far have failed. But is the threat gone? I don’t think so. There are formal promises by the federal government of the United States and by the European Union that “specific taxation” of the net is to be avoided. But they might find other ways.

And then... there are the “rule maniacs”.

A certain type of law experts and legislators, who (even in a place like Italy, already plagued with 100.000 more laws than it can possibly need) want to increase at all times the number of rules and regulations, and make them as complicated as possible (also generating an increasing number of cumbersome and inefficient regulatory bodies, which provide jobs for their protégés and sources of power and corruption). For no good reason other than their own private interest.

It’s this type of people that keeps spreading the concept of society at risk, of a net dominated by hackers and pirates, or (isn’t that terrible!) invaded by independent and uncontrolled information and opinion. Society is at risk, they say, when minorities have a voice, differences of opinion travel out of control, information falls into the hands of those “common people” who so far had to come kneeling to the shrines of Law and Order.

(If someone thinks there is a difference in these attitudes between “right” and “left”, “liberal” or “conservative”, or any part of the political spectrum, the answer is very simple: there isn’t. Though I have met some younger judges, who are not, or not yet, part of the establishment, that are more open-minded).

Let’s be careful... especially in my country, but (I guess) all over the world, there are laws that start from a principle and apply the opposite. Such as a law against child abuse that in article 47/35/d contains some obscure prescriptions which, once decoded, indicate how many times one must be flogged for each specific disobedience. The example is imaginary, but very similar to a number of real cases.

(I had written this a year ago, and I thought it was just imagination; but when we look at some of the proposed legislation we find that reality can be even worse).

There are also, of course, the large producers of software, who inspired the grotesque crackdown in Italy in 1994.

But they seem to have learnt that such actions are as useless as they are unpopular, so I hope they may have become less dangerous.

But... there are large operators who are trying to turn the net into a big show, a sort of Hollywood or Disneyland, with lots of technique and little content. This would turn the net, or part of it, into a poor imitation of traditional media, and keep large numbers of users away from interactive communication and exchange of opinions. With a large use of fashionable catchwords such as “multimedia” or “virtual”, they are trying to sell us old culture in a new uniform (as well as much heavier software and hardware than we really need).

In my country (as elsewhere) there are television shows and other media that concentrate exclusively on appearance and technique, giving a false impression and distracting newcomers from the real human, social, cultural values of the net. There is also too much talk about the “internet” (meaning the web, and just as a means of “looking at pictures”) ignoring altogether the vast and important world of BBSs, community networks, etcetera.

Strangely enough, the one I fear less (I hope I am right) is the Police. At least, in my country. It is “public knowledge” that the Police has been on the net for years, knows it well, knows where and how to listen, is not in the least “scared” of it; and therefore does not want any censorship or repression, unless it is forced to do so by other interests. Or so I thought. But now three separate “law enforcement” organization seem to be competing for control of the net; and they tend to overstate, or make up altogether, all sorts of “dangers” to show off their ability to handle these so much discussed, and so poorly understood, “new technologies”.

Here again, there are international pressures, including already established (but rarely discussed in public) systems that can intercept the net without formal authorization or permission – and can screen and search by content. It would be very stupid for a criminal or a spy to use a medium that can be so easily controlled; but, in spite of that, intelligence services all over the world are doing all they can to block encryption, not because it’s used by criminals (who have more effective ways of avoiding controls) but because it gets in the way of hidden “surveillance” on ordinary citizens.

I don’t think we can put too much hope in “public opinion”. With all the bad information running around, there is a vast majority of citizens who would probably be quite happy to see some “controls” on these mysterious brain-eating machines that can destroy the minds of their children and are spreading pornography, paedophilia, strange behavior, undiscipline, criminality, alienation, obsession, violence, crime and all of the horrors that one sees in science fiction movies.

A lot remains to be done to inform and educate public opinion (and the media).

Probably none of these “hostile forces”, by itself, can really limit the freedom of networks, that have natural defenses in their own complexity – as well as (let’s hope) some support by business and political forces that take a wider view and see the value and potential of our freedom and independence.

But the different repressive forces can combine in the oddest ways, sometimes by design, sometimes by unexpected coincidence.

And they can all be fueled and multiplied by the most terrible of all destructive forces: the enormous power of human stupidity.

So... I think we should stay on alert. The road to a real culture and full freedom of nets (the more there are, the better) is still uphill; also full of obstacles. The ones we can see, and others that now may be unpredictable. The path of innovation is never linear, and always bumpy.

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