CMC
Magazine

April 1998 http://www.december.com/cmc/mag/1998/apr/mackin.html


Thoughts on the Coalition of ISPs and the Usenet Blockade

by Richard MacKinnon

The Usenet Death Penalty (UDP) is a misnomer because it is not a form of virtual capital punishment--at least not in the short-term. It is more akin to a blockade or a siege. A Usenet Blockade may be an effective means of coercing the Netcom leadership to better address the antisocial activities originating from the base camp of spammers located within its borders.

Primarily an economic attack, blockades have been used throughout history to help meatspace governments align their priorities with their neighbors.

Since Usenet consists of several sovereignties, it can be useful to apply much of what we know about international relations, that is, the theories relating to national actors interacting in an ungoverned space. As an ungoverned space, Usenet is learning how to self-govern by way of coalitions which is the primary way actors move out of the state of nature into relative civilization.

Competing Illiberalisms

There is no doubt that spam is a major annoyance for the Usenet world, and for some there is a real economic cost. As a result, users have turned to their leaders for solutions. These solutions range from personal defense systems (filtering software), to isolationism (closed systems), to blockades (the Usenet death penalty). Unfortunately, all three categories of solutions pose serious challenges to the concept of free speech and the free movement of information--arguably an ideology foundational to Usenet. The challenge is to determine which solution is less illiberal and to determine who ought to make this determination.

Analysis of the Competition

Defense systems may be end-user based, ISP-based, or network-based.

    End-User based

  1. In the event of bombing (Usenet "spamming" in this example), end-users may purchase among the many competing brands of poor, mediocre, and barely satisfactory personal filtering systems on the open market. A functioning, Reaganesque "Star Wars Defense" system has not yet appeared in the state-of-the-art efforts--not only do the defense systems screen out incoming missiles, they often screen out rain, sunlight, and other useful things causing the otherwise vivacious virtual environment to wilt, dry up, and become dull.

  2. Frustratingly, they also fail in their primary mission and let a lot of missiles through with varying degrees of casualties reputedly ranging from exposing children to naked adults and exposing adults to naked children. This is something that software may never be able to dress/address.

  3. There is a lot of political controversy over these inadequacies. Leaders of various end-user communities have met with representatives of the moral-military-industrial complex in an attempt to either make better personal defense systems or eliminate their use altogether. As Bruce Sterling in Austin observed at last week's Conference on Computers, Freedom and Privacy, the resolution seemingly lies beyond the grasp of even the White House Office of Science and Technology which finds it simpler to tackle the problems posed by theoretical physics and space exploration. Needless to say, the resolution is out there--way, way, out there--creating a vacuum of indecision and an opportunity for ad hocractic power.

    ISP-based

  4. Some ISPs in the past have attempted to close their borders and restrict the flow of traffic in and out. This has also been frowned upon by many of the same leaders of end-user communities. Fundamentally, isolationism is an ostrich approach to making "foreign policy" among CISPs. The Usenet world continues to spin and the people with their heads in holes just end up missing out on lots of interesting events.

  5. As a result, lots of disgruntled netizens flee from closed systems to freer systems. Geo-economics has forced many "virtual countries" to loosen up their border controls. Naturally, this makes them susceptible to bombing attacks.

    Network-based

  6. Virtual countries which are loathe to close their borders because that policy is inherently illiberal are forced to choose between establishing network-level blockades or placing the burden of defense on the end-users by way of personal filtering systems--most of which have also been considered illiberal.

  7. Blockading, fundamentally an ad hoc economic attack, has been identified as a means of coercing a virtual country into policing the activities within its borders so that its national digital output (NDO) falls within the bounds of systemically acceptable end-user behavior. The Leviathan rears its ugly head.

Who decides?

Should Usenet "global" policy be set by individuals, their virtual communities, isolated ISPs, coalitions of ISPs (CISP), or national governments? The logic of collective action in Usenet is governed by a set of social laws which are elusive but as reliable as many physical laws when properly understood. As a board member of Electronic Frontiers-Texas (formerly EFF-Austin), I have been participating in the drafting our position statement on the Usenet Death Penalty and Netcom. My understanding of the social laws of ungoverned interaction is that any policy recommendation to the coalition of ISPs requires as strong an element of coercion if it is going to get their attention. Otherwise, the ad hoc UDP CISP will continue to pursue its interest and what it perceives is the interest of its constituents. The coalition wielding the most coercive power has the most influence over the ungoverned decisionmaking process.

Competing coalitions desiring to challenge to the decision of the CISP should declare their philosophical position on the issue. Three sample declarations are listed below in order of the likelihood of success.

The weakest statement:

"We the people of <insert your organization here> deplore the use of the Usenet Death Penalty" on Netcom because it infringes on the liberties of Netcom's end-users--liberties and rights which we hold dear and inalienable. What happens to Netcom today could happen to us tomorrow."

I like and support this statement, but my understanding of the social physics is that it is anemic and although it may get some media play, it will have little actual influence on the play of events. It's an example of critique without action.

One might write a statement as follows:

"We the people of <insert your organization here> deplore the use of the Usenet Death Penalty" on Netcom because it infringes on the liberties of the Netcom end-users--liberties and rights which we hold dear and inalienable. What happens to Netcom today could happen to us tomorrow. Therefore, we are calling for a general strike against all ISPs which intend to participate in this egregious and illiberal curtailment of free speech. On February XX, we are encouraging everyone to close their accounts on these systems and move to ISPs who refuse to participate in the UDP."

I like this statement better because it uses the logic of the blockade (economic coercion) against the CISP and it carries the satisfaction of praxis--theory plus action.

Or one could write a statement like this:

"We the people of <insert your organization here> deplore the use of the Usenet Death Penalty" on Netcom because it infringes on the liberties of the Netcom end-users--liberties and rights which we hold dear and inalienable. What happens to Netcom today could happen to us tomorrow. Therefore, we are calling for a general strike against all ISPs which intend to participate in this egregious and illiberal curtailment of free speech. On February XX, we are encouraging everyone to close their accounts on these systems and move to Netcom in an act of solidarity."

This is the strongest statement because it shows conviction. While most of us have privately condemned Netcom for permitting the spamming, this statement underlies our belief that the classification of what is spam and what it isn't is a dangerous and suspect activity. Further, it shows that we are willing to give up our own access to Usenet in the fight to guarantee access to everyone. A long roll-call of voluntary conversions would get the attention and action need to have an effect. In other words, the statement should be accompanied with a list that looks something like this:

user@netcom.com, formerly user@MAIN.Org
user@netcom.com, formerly user@unforgettable.com
user@netcom.com, formerly user@mail.utexas.edu
user@netcom.com, formerly user@actlab.utexas.edu


...and thousands of others formerly from everywhere.anywhere

This third statement accompanied by such a list, when presented to the CISP will carry the political and moral weight necessary to work with the laws of social physics, not against them.

Richard MacKinnon (mailto:spartan@gov.utexas.edu), author of "Searching for the Leviathan in Usenet" and "Punishing the Persona: Correctional Strategies for the Virtual Offender." His views are not necessarily the views of Electronic Frontiers-Texas or the Advanced Communication Technologies Laboratory.

Copyright © 1998 by Richard MacKinnon. All Rights Reserved.


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