Seth's Rant for March 12th, 2001

The Internet is NOT Different

The Internet is an entirely new technology which is fundementally different from anything we've seen before and thus requires completely new approaches by business and government.

There are a lot of tragically misinformed myths surrounding the Internet (nuclear war my ass, it can't even survive a Victoria's Secret fashion show) but the idea that this new technology somehow requires us to throw away every ounce of precedent and common sense is by far the most dangerous and the most wrong.

The business world is just now starting to figure this out. The initial euphoria of the Internet boom led to thousands of startup companies with only the vaguest hope of revenue, let alone profitability, which somehow managed to lure billions of dollars away from starstruck, "new economy" investors who for some reason thought that the normal rules of commerce didn't apply to the Internet. Even Microsoft, who are about as old guard as you can get in the tech business (think AT&T before the breakup), is about to bet the server farm that consumers will be willing to pay annual fees to keep their existing OS running (forget about bug fixes). Despite the recent tech crash, there seems to be an incessant notion that customers will buy anything in shrink wrap no matter how hard it sucks and then pay more in the vain hope that the next version might suck less.

But the real problem is not with business: the rules of capitalism are unforgiving and as customers, especially business customers, become more tech savvy their money will favor productivity over glitz. The really murky waters are those of government and law.

As in the business world, the government and the courts seems to be fixated on the notion that the Internet is somehow "different" and therefore exempt from the basic ideas of precedent and common sense. The most obvious example is the slew of patents being issued for such blatantly obvious ideas as using a cookie to identify a customer. The courts will eventually weed out the intellectual pirates who would claim ownership of ideas that have been in practice longer than some of them have been alive. But in the meantime it will cost billions of dollars in litagation, with thousands of companies and ideas held hostage to anyone with a patent lawyer and too much time on their hands.

A more sinister problem is the trend toward holding carriers responsible for policing their content. If someone were selling fake Rolex watches, would Rolex be allowed to get an injunction against Fed-Ex requiring them to search all of their packages or be put out of business? That would be absurd, and yet record labels are beating Napster into the dirt NOT even for transporting stolen music, but for the equivalent of selling a phone book that happens to list known criminals. If a state government were to pass a law saying that libraries were forbidden to carry books with certain words in the title, there would be a huge public outcry. Yet many states are considering legislation which would require just such restrictions on web pages. If a car company were to advertise a vehicle as rustproof knowing full well that it was actually rust-prone, the FTC would sue the pants off of them. Yet major software companies routinely ship software with critical bugs and no apologies for the results. Could you be held to a contract which you aren't even permited to read until after you've paid for a service, and which denies you any warranty or recourse even if the service doesn't even remotely resemble what was advertised? Apparently you can if you buy software. Would the FBI be allowed to plant a microphone in your home, just in case a wanted criminal happened to drop by? Maybe not, but they can read your email.

Ignorance in business is cured by bankruptcy. But ignorance in government becomes entrenched. The fact that the media, and so-called "expert analysts" are the first to wave the "New Economy" banner over the most egregious acts of stupidty only excerbates the problem and ensures that the politicians will back whatever dumb-ass laws get put in front of them. For now, the best we can hope for is some kind of reality check for government along the lines of the recent .com shakeout. Maybe Bill Gates will patent pissing. Do you think that'll get folks riled up?

This rant solely reflects the opinion of the author, probably while he was half asleep, drunk, or otherwise incapacitated. It does not necessarily reflect the actual opinion of DEI, it's associates, or possibly the author in a more conscious state. Hate mail will be prosecuted. Constructive criticism may be posted or ignored. Have a nice day.

Seth B. Noble - Rant - sbnoble - March 12, 2001