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Paris, Monday, September 4, 2000

Libertarians No Longer Rule the Net


By Sebastian Mallaby The Washington Post
WASHINGTON - In real space these days, the clash of ideologies sometimes seems muted. But in cyberspace it is getting fiercer. The lone-ranger programmers who pioneered the Internet face an onslaught from suits, snoops and millions of ordinary mouse potatoes who regard the Net as some new kind of TV. As a result, the libertarianism that used to dominate cyberpolitics is under assault from all quarters.

A decade or so ago, libertarians believed that their triumph was inevitable. The Net would empower individuals. The little guy could disseminate his views without a publisher or distributor. The humble activist could download reams of free data and so debate government officials on a newly equal footing. Peter Huber, a celebrated cyberprophet, proclaimed the inversion of George Orwell. Technology would not empower Big Brother. Rather, it would subvert him.

This argument had a rather Marxian feel to it. Shifts in the technology of production would inevitably force shifts in the superstructure of ideology. Digital communes would trump outdated national boundaries, the state would wither away, the architecture of the Internet would evolve without top-down direction, and nobody would own it.

Instead, programmers would produce and share the code of cyberspace under rules resembling the Marxian dictum: From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.

These days none of this seems inevitable. Nearly all the big Net-connected stories of the past year have been about the assault on that original libertarian vision. The flap over the FBI's Carnivore software is about big government using the Net to snoop on unsuspecting citizens. The dot-com buzz is about entrepreneurs turning the Internet into a giant shopping mall. The AOL-Time Warner merger is about a megacybercorporation that wants to own the cable pipes on which the future Internet will run. The Microsoft lawsuit features big government vs. big business. In all these cases, libertarianism is irrelevant.

The one exception, arguably, has been the flap over Napster, the software that created a sort of dot-commune for music. Anyone who logs on to the Napster Web site can live by Lenin's rule: Make your computerized music available for copying by other visitors to the site and in exchange get the chance to copy everybody else's. No gatekeeper demands to know how much music you contribute to the commune, and nobody meters what you take away from it.

Property rights have been suspended. As Napster's boss told a congressional hearing last month, the site is ''a return to the original information-sharing approach of the Internet.''

Plenty of teenagers and screenagers celebrate Napster as a victory over The Powers That Be, in this case the music companies that have the gall to demand $15 for a CD. In one sense, they are right: 20 million fans are happily pirating music on the Napster site. And even if a lawsuit forces its closure, similar sites will go on thriving.

But this victory for libertarianism is incomplete. Nobody seriously doubts that society needs intellectual property rights to foster creativity. Indeed, Napster is itself a jealous guardian of its rights over its own software.

The basic problem for libertarians is that cyberspace is getting crowded. People can organize their affairs by informal consensus when they live in villages. But when they move to the city, they need lawyers and cops. Now that one in two American households has a home Internet connection and Internet use is climbing around the world, the Net's scale is more than metropolitan. It has crowds, commerce and inevitable conflict.

When the Internet was small, nobody minded that it was used to violate intellectual property. Now that it is vast, an army of entertainment-industry lawyers has descended upon it.

When the Net was small, it would not have occurred to Shawn Fanning, Napster's teenage founder, to guard the rights to his software. But because it is vast, the boy's entrepreneurial uncle seized upon Napster's commercial potential and hired a grown-up manager to build a company on it.

Of course, the libertarians have not given up, and within the urban landscape of the Net there still lurk village-like communities. The open-code movement, which develops software cooperatively and free of charge, argues that, in cyberspace, disparate hackers can triumph over urban power centers: They will crack the encryption that protects corporate Web sites, they will destroy authoritarian order with anarchic viruses, they will devise decoys to confuse Carnivore-type eavesdropping programs. Perhaps. But The Powers That Be are equally determined.