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Internet and the Telecommunication Acts of 1900

Wout de Natris

On his blog Bruce Schneier recently published a post called "Power and the Internet". An article that most people in the western world will agree with. Internet freedom against Internet safety and security, the powerful have a lot of power to wield and the rest is at best ad hoc organised or fairly powerless lobby organisations. So who is likely to win? Vested interests, he warns.

That the Internet is or will be embedded in laws is unavoidable. Are there lessons to learn here? All this is not totally new. The telephone was a new communication device installed in a home that could be listened into. The local pub or store phone as the 20th century equivalent of a phone shop or Internet cafe? How did our (great-)grandparents deal with this technological advancement in their laws?

Issues at stake

Schneier correctly points out that the potential for direct influence on personal life the Internet brings is much higher than ever before. The surveillance possibilities on and joining databases through the Internet are nearly limitless. This takes wisdom and restraint on the side of governments to deal with in a proper way.

Usually things just sort of happen because it's technically possible, with all risks and potential damages to personal private lives hanging in the balance. Followed by court rulings and proposed changes to the law to make it possible anyway.

The question on what a democratic society deems proportionate and desirable is a correct one and needs answering, soon.

History's lessons?

As the Internet is also a modern day equivalent of the 1880s Wild West, governments are desperately trying to get to terms with it. Whether through the GAC, WCIT, ITU, UN, etc., it all is a fight for control over this new beast.

From the 1880s onwards telephone started spreading and lived the wild west live. Budding private companies were doing what they were doing, creating a chaos of the wires hanging over streets. No regulations, no control, no oversight. As this was mainly a national issue, governments started to deal with this problem. Wrote Telecommunication acts, following on the telegraph laws, nationalised companies, etc.

Reading roughly through parliamentary texts personally, in my case to find relevant passages to "Rights of way" in the Dutch 1904 law, I saw all sorts of concerns politicians and civil servants were struggling with at the time. Concerns that were not so different from today's, as long as we look at them in a little bit more abstract fashion.

There are, at least, three lessons to learn here.

  1. What were the concerns of government on telecommunication in those days?
  2. What lessons can we learn from writing laws on a new communication acts? And what mistakes to avoid?
  3. Were there voices that feared governmental intervention then and if so who were they and what did they protest on?

In short this is all in the archives of national libraries. It's not as if we are inventing the wheel here. Telephone lines even crossed borders in those days to.

Conclusion

It is high time that the academic world comes up with studies that compare occasions in which technological advancement was embedded into law through the past 150 years from the particular point of view Schneier addresses. There must be valuable lessons there that the western world can learn from and assist in avoiding past mistakes or perhaps amend concerns. That alone would be quite a feat. What should be self-regulation, what regulated and for both in which way successfully accommodated? Questions that are to be reviewed and answered with restraint and wisdom.

By Wout de Natris, Consultant international cooperation cyber crime + trainer spam enforcement. More blog posts from Wout de Natris can also be read here.

Related topics: ICANN, Internet Governance, Law, Policy & Regulation, Privacy

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