High Noon on the Electronic Frontier: Conceptual Issues in Cyberspace

Peter Ludlow, Editor
Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1996
516 pp., $30 sf.

David Todd
Information Services
Montana State University-Bozeman

If the contributors to this volume are correct, chances are about nine out of ten that you've "pirated" some software for your computer. And most of the contributors to this volume think that's okay. Whether you agree or disagree, you'll find something in this collection of essays and articles that will cause you to question your views.

This is not a collection of technical or legal articles on information technology. It is a collection of primarily popular-press articles on philosophical, ethical, legal, property-right, and public-policy issues that have arisen in this information age. The collection juxtaposes the views of the owners of software property rights with those of electronic outlaws; the views of inventors who believe that software patents are necessary to encourage entrepreneurship mixed with articles by equally creative inventors who believe they are not; rationales by those who believe "information wants to be free" with discussions by those who now believe the former are simply criminals.

Peter Ludlow, the editor, is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. He assembled this volume after teaching an undergraduate course entitled "Philosophical Issues on the Electronic Frontier." He selected articles that are likely to keep your interest in topics that might otherwise seem deadly dull.

In the course, Ludlow was able to engage students quickly with articles on electronic communities from publications such as the Village Voice, but he found that he lost them when he moved on to articles on property rights, etc., from more traditional academic publications such as Communications of the ACM. To create this volume, Ludlow selected "radical" writings that represent extreme views from publications such as Wired, Phrack, and Pirate and mixed them with scholarly articles from more traditional academic publications such as Communications of the ACM and Scientific American. The result is a collection ranging from scholarly discussions of the issues to diaries of experiences in cyberspace.

Perhaps as a result of the desire to hold the reader's attention, the emphasis is upon radical "glitzy" pieces, so the volume is not well balanced. There are few occasions where an issue receives both argument and counter-argument. Despite that shortcoming, the collection is both informative and provocative.

The collection is organized as five sections that cover various issues: piracy and property rights; security; privacy; censorship and freedom of speech and press; and self and community in cyberspace.

The collection leads with strength. The opening article is by John Perry Barlow, writer of songs for the Grateful Dead, co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), frequent writer on cyberspace issues for popular press, retired rancher, and resident of cyberspace from Pinedale, Wyoming. He offers a unique perspective of royalty payment and copyright issues as a member of ASCAP ("It doesn't work. Honest.") and writer of songs that the Grateful Dead encouraged audiences to tape at concerts ("...if you want the experience and not its thin projection, you have to buy a ticket from us.").

Barlow makes a strong argument that software should be not be subject to copyright and patent laws. (The collection also includes Barlow's articles: "Jackboots on the Infobahn", about the Clipper Chip encryption system; a transcript of an on-line debate on that subject with Dorothy Denning; and an appendix on hackers based on an article he had written for the Whole Earth Review.) Articles by Richard Stallman (author of EMACS, a sophisticated text editor), Mitch Kapor (author of Lotus 1-2-3), and the League for Programming Freedom reinforce the idea that software patenting can't be enforced and shouldn't be done. The patent system is being forced upon us by large corporations ("robber barons" of the electronic age) trying to gain control over the information highway and the tools needed to build it. At least, these are ideas that many of us in the information-technology field have come to believe as a result of the very effective publicity generated by the EFF, founded by Barlow, Stallman, and Kapor.

After four articles on this side of the issue, there is a single article by Paul Heckel entitled "Debunking the Software Patent Myths" that provides compelling counter-arguments and data. Heckel had been an early programmer at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), at which windows systems and many other "modern" technologies were developed in the '60's and '70's. Xerox was singularly unsuccessful in translating the incredible innovations from PARC into marketable products. Heckel holds patents for some of his developments and reviews in his article the difficulty he had enforcing those patents against infringement. More helpfully, he systematically analyzes the patent cases cited in the prior articles as reasons why software can't/shouldn't be patented. From that analysis, he concludes that software patents: a) stimulate companies to bring commercial products to market; b) stimulate new business formation; c) stimulate the commercial introduction of fundamental advances by small entities; etc. In sharp contrast with the positions of the earlier articles, Heckel concludes that software patents stimulate invention by individuals or small companies who then have difficulty enforcing their rights against large companies that pirate patents.

It is just this contrast in views, across the broad range of topics discussed, that makes this collection so stimulating and likely to be of interest especially in the West. The free or easy access to software that seems right in many ways, reinforced by the difficulty of patenting mathematical algorithms that underlie many of the innovations in software, is very much at odds with the inherent desire to see the "little guy" rewarded for innovation and successful risk-taking. The battle that is the source of many myths in the history of American invention is now being waged on the Electronic Frontier.

Subsequent topic sections are not as well balanced (if 4 to 1 is balanced!). Under security and privacy, Dorothy Denning describes her interview with an editor of a hacker's magazine, her subsequent friendships with hackers, and her growing sympathy with their viewpoint. ("All of the hackers I spoke with said that malicious hacking was morally wrong.") She came to believe that hackers are simply inherently curious individuals who enjoy the "thrill, excitement, and challenge" of breaking into systems. However, in a postscript written five years later, she concluded, effectively, that she had been misled and "came to disagree with some of my earlier interpretations and conclusions." Unfortunately, that brief postscript is the only effective antidote against the several articles that promote the positive image of hackers as bright students who are not being challenged intellectually by their schools.

The eight articles on privacy and security center on encryption systems. Several articles focus on the Clipper Chip system proposed by the administration (promoted by the National Security Agency). That system provides some degree of security for commercial transactions, but it is widely believed that NSA has the ability to crack the Clipper Chip encryption code. The discussion centers on whether, as public policy, we should promote and use a standard that we know will permit the government "wiretapping" of digital messages needed to combat organized crime and terrorists or whether we should insist on encryption systems that virtually guarantee complete secrecy. One highlight of that section is an article by Philip Zimmerman, author of the PGP ("Pretty Good Protection") program that provides more secure encryption. Zimmerman's story is interesting both because of the origin of the program (implementing an algorithm that was published and then subsequently patented, raising the patenting issue) and its distribution (responding to threats from the US government because he made the software freely available in the US, he resorted to having the program distributed from New Zealand).

For those of us responsible for managing university computing facilities, the articles about censorship raised issues we already know are painfully difficult to deal with. While the section focuses on SYSOPs (private citizens who operate bulletin boards for information exchange), the issues of obscenity, freedom of access to information, community standards, and academic freedom are thorny issues with which university computing centers must also deal. The articles provide little of the contrasting views presented in other sections and primarily review the liability issues, recent law suits, and acknowledgment of the difficulty of dealing with this issue, particularly in cyberspace, where national and regional boundaries are irrelevant and "community" is defined by your electronic associations.

The articles in the last section, on identity and community, include descriptions of the virtual communities cyberspace enables and the virtual personas that individuals can assume in that anonymous environment. If you don't know what a MUD or MOO is, there are descriptions of those systems and several recorded dialogs that show the kinds of beings you'll encounter in them. The titles of two articles, "Gender Swapping on the Internet" and "A Rape in Cyberspace", suggest the kinds of behavior that occur in cyberspace, but the titles alone don't do justice to the quality of the discussion. In "A Rape in Cyberspace", the discussion of how the cyber-community should deal with the cyber-crime is particularly interesting: the sense that there is a community and that there are standards for acceptable behavior, related to but not necessarily identical to the physical world is...heartening. And (giving away the ending) after a lengthy discussion within the cyber-community about appropriate discipline, the perpetrator appears to have committed virtual suicide in response to community shunning.

The style of writing in High Noon varies considerably, from the formal style of Heckel to the Alice-in-Wonderland style of Barlow's "Crime and Puzzlement." The volume itself suffers from little editorial cross-referencing (it appears more as a collection of vaguely-related articles than a coherent set of arguments and counter-arguments). While some of us might consider those to be deficiencies, others might view those as features that parallel the cyber-world that the volume documents and that give a sense of the confusing ambiguities that surround its evolution.

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