Free software and true internationalisation(alismismism)
Posted 15 Apr 2000 at 05:11 UTC by danpat
The 'net may span the globe, but do the people who use it? For those of
us outside the US, many of the issues that seem to dominate the major
forums have little or no relevance. Its nice to think that there might
one day be a 'net where everyone is part of a global community, free to
abide by a set of common "net laws", but what will it take for that to
Please excuse any lack of flow. I've never written about this before,
nor have I ever written anything like this before, I just have to get it
off my chest.
I come from Australia. For me, issues like encryption code export,
public liability and other stuff like that are pretty insignificant.
The ideal of the Internet
Declaration of Independence is a very nice one, brought about by one
mans frustration with the system. But how real can we make this dream?
We are all real beings (well maybe not all of us)
and as such, we do have to venture into the real world every now and
Traditional politics is based around property and money. In eras past
(or not so past) groups established
ownership over tracts of land by force of arms. These groups became
governments, the tracts of land became countries and the end result of
that we see today. So when we look at the 'net, are we looking at a
landscape that is pre- or post- settlement?
As far as technology has brought us today, it hasn't yet got us to the
stage of "being" online. Our ideal of a global culture is going to have
a serious crimp in its style until people are able to exist in one
environment or the other and not have to fight the rules of one to even
visit the other. What we do today is like standing with one leg on
either side of the border of two countries. We seem to be subject to
the rules of both, but each insists that its rules have precedence.
What I'm talking about here is not "when will we get the funky
brain-downloading-what-is-the-matrix technology", its about the ability
of the two countries (the one in which you live, and the 'net) to
recognise the sovereignty of the other. I deal with the 'net on a daily
basis and when I use communication medium like IRC, email and ICQ, the
thought that the person I am talking to might be sitting on the other
side of the planet rarely enters my head. All that is important is that
that person and I are both on the Internet and it is world in which we
are existing to communicate.
Of course, things aren't as simple as this. Things that occur on the
'net have effects that can be seen in the real world, and v.v. What I
think we're looking for is an independence of those things that only
exist on the net. The free software movement (yes dammit, what is this
"open source" rubbish?) is one of these things that demonstrates the
need for liberation from petty "real world" stuff. The idea of software
as a piece of merchandise isn't one that holds with traditional
definitions. Similarly, trade laws in most countries aren't equiped
properly to handle the idea of a trade in ideas (which is essentially
what free software development is about). When was the last time you
saw the idea of mathematics prohibited from sharing ? (I'm not talking
about strong crypto. That's an application of mathematics, not
I think as the free software community, it's our responsibility to show
how such an online world can work. For most software authors out there,
there is no other motive behind developing their bit of free software
other than "'cause I want to, Jim". What we need to show is how this
attitude and the people who go along with it aren't a threat to little
Sissy Naylor down the road with her cute teddy bear and shiny red
shoes. If we were left to our own devices, and not tied down with real
world legislation, things like spam would not exist (because someone
would get sick of it and fix the damn bug that causes it), ugly people wouldn't get
laughed at because their existance online would be without a face and script
kiddies would get their asses whipped because there would be
something in place to let that happen.
So when you next sit down to hack away at your pet project, or someone
elses pet project (it is free software after all), try to forget that
you live in the real world and give yourself a taste of living as part
of a global community. For those of you fiddling with restricted
software, find some project that isn't limited to such restrictions and
find out just how global you can become (my favourite part is having
shell accounts open in 12 different countries at once, it's strangely
The last thing I'd like to say is something I've learned from personal
experience. If you ever get the chance, travel. In reality. This
doesn't mean opening up a shell window to some other part of the world,
I'm talking about the pack-your-suitcase-because-kansas-is-going-bye-bye
kind of travel. I may be only 21 but I've spent several years living in
other countries, and I believe it's given me some insight as to the way
people around the world think. When you speak to someone online, don't
assume that their real life experience has been similar to yours. The
way they think about daily life may be completly different to you, BUT
you have found a common medium on the 'net. Make the most of it. Help
build that global community where everyone really is equal, don't try
and drag in unwanted baggage from reality.
I think next time I write something, I'll draft it first.
The idea of "internet sovereignty" misses the obvious (but overlooked)
fact that the Internet travels over those prosaic things we call fiber
optic cables, phone lines, microwave links, and data switches. All of
these things exist in the world of the physical, and are, as such,
subject to the same laws as any other property. Until such time as the
Internet can operate without being dependent on these objects, it will
always be beholden to the whims of those who rule this boring world of
objects. As long as users of the Internet have bodies, their bodies
will be subject to the whims of terrestrial governments -- and when the
government where your meat body resides commands you to do something or
have your body hauled away from your terminal, you'll have to seriously
consider doing it.
Cyberspace is a neat metaphor that makes for some interesting fiction,
but it doesn't actually exist, and won't for a long time if ever. The
very idea of a sovereign internet nation is the result of pushing the
metaphor past the breaking point. Don't feel bad; you have honorable
company: United States Supreme Court Justices Rehnquist and O'Connor
fell for the cyberspace metaphor in their dissenting opinion in ACLU
v. Reno too when they accepted the Government's "cyberzoning"
Nor is the Internet so revolutionary that the law won't adapt. The
wireless telegraph was far more revolutionary, and the law adapted to
that. Change in the law of this sort is a slow and deliberate process,
and those who don't make a living out of watching the law may not see
it. It is there, though.
While I think danpat's original article might be a bit too flighty, I think kelly's reply leans a bit too much to the mundane. In fact,
the whole debate reminds me of Pirsig's discussion of The University, where he asks "What is the university? It's not the
buildings, clearly they can be replaced. It's not the faculty, it's replaced frequently. It's not the students..." and so on (excuse
me for the very probably misquote, I don't have the book handy). The point is, even though the University can be said to posess
all these things, all these things put together do not make up the university. In the same way, even though the Internet does
use fiber optic cables, phone lines, microwave links, etc., these things are not what the Internet is.
There are several layers of social and cultural phenomenon layered on top of the technology, for one, and this, I think, is what
sets it apart from the wireless telegraph (and personally, I'm not so sure the wireless telegraph was more revolutionary,
technologically or socially). A social anthropologist I discussed this with once noted with delight how the net was changing a lot
of metaphors and people's perception of things, in particular their perception of location. With the frequent use of location
metaphors for anything that has to do with activity on the net (chat rooms, web sites, etc.), he saw it as likely that this will spill
over into everyday speech as well, which would tend to make the general perception of location a lot more malleable.
So I think that this is probably the reason why a sizable portion of Internet users would like to see the net as a new
country, a location in itself, respected by other, more physical nations. On one side, I think it's probably not realistic, at least
not for some time yet, but I think it might be in the future, when the net is so omnipresent (think "using 10% of the IPv6
address space") that it will not be possible for a nation state to significantly influence it.
Another technological development which might make this suddenly seem like a vastly more realistic and even necessary
concept would be functioning AI. Of course, if that happens, we'll have all sorts of mindboggling ethical, social and practical
questions to solve, but I consider it likely that seeing a global computer network as a separate nation might be one of the
Since I'm careening totally out of control, off topic and into the land of the speculative beyond belief, I'll stop now. But I don't
think the issue is as black and white as kelly seems to think. And that law won't adapt? Well. The vast differences between
countries on how libel law, free speech matters, and the like are handled have just become more glaringly obvious as the
Internet has become more prolific, and I see no signs of the law "adapting", in fact, there's a widening gulf between what most
people seem to think is reasonable, and the courts' interpretation of the letter of the law. So we'll see.
I see a growing need for some kind of international civil law system.
Whilst there was some need for this pre-Internet, the growth of the
Internet has magnified this enormously. The issues of jurisdiction in
cases involving the 'net may be legally resolvable, but are they just?
I'm not sure what is just, but I know that it is unjust for something to
be illegal somewhere and legal somewhere else.  But it is just as bad
(to me, anyway) to impose your values on someone else. So anything to
happen should be a consent-based pooling of jurisdiction. (This is
different than a pooling of sovereignty : e.g. in the United Kingdom,
Scotland still has a totally different legal system after centuries of
Union with England/Wales. Also, whilst there are moves to greater
integration and centralisation in the European Union, and a 'European
Court of Human RIghts', there are no plans to introduce uniform civil or
criminal law, and no real discussions on the matter. I suspect it may be
impractical to change legal system.)
On the 'net, the physical location of a server really makes no
difference - what matters is it's connectivity. And unfavourable laws in
one country will make servers relocate to countries with less broken
laws. In theory, this is good, as it deters big countries from making
stupid legislation. Except it isn't working.... See the DMCA, the RIP
bill in the UK, and so on. We will see the rise of offshore
'data-havens', analagous to 'tax-havens' (remind anyone of
Cryptonomicon?). These countries will provide refuge for
legitimate businesses as well as criminal organisations, and those
countries will be very reluctant to assist Western governments and give
away their advantage. (somewhat to analagous to Switzerland, and its
highly secretive banking industry, and also the Channel Islands, which
without their very-low-tax status would be just some boring islands off
the coast of France, rather than the financial and banking centre they
Eventually, the light will be seen by the governments. They will attempt
to reform law, and may well fix it. But by then the damage will have
been done : they will have harmed democratic tradiations, economic
and, perhaps more worrying, created data havens that they can never
touch, no matter how pressing the need [ think : Organised Crime].
(Apologies for general incoherence, I hope what I'm trying to say got
out there somewhere...)
 ok, so there are about a million exceptions to this, but you get
what I mean....
The world is divided into units called countries, and these countries are run by by various forms of Government. The NET is
that is NOT particularly dependent on these Governments to function, but can be rather disconcerting to them.
Much of the world's history has been devoted to Governments regulating the interaction of individuals, both for the good of
(I think most of us are quite happy that it is prohibited to stab one another in order to seize someone's wallet for example) and to maintain
the staus quo. Since the net makes it far easier to communicate, it also allows folks to reconsider rules that is easy to enforce in the
physical world. Any new technology tends to make the distribution of prohibited information more simple for example (same as when
VCRs were first avalable.) The power that be, having caught on that the net is undermining the rules of the physical world, attempt to
impose rules that would allow the net to be controled in the same way as your local video store.
Now folks who consider themselves part of the Net culture have a problem with the entire concept of Prohibited information
The physical world will work to make the net fit into the physical world's world view. Thus we have copy protection schemes,
proposals to monitor the net, and other rules all intended to prevent the net from changing the rules of the physical world..
If the net were to create a virtual country, then it would have to provide the services that a physical govenment provides, (security,
provison of food and water, (or at least standards to ensure the safety of food and water), and other government services. Some of these
can be better provided over the net, others are so ingraned in physical space, (Think water supply) that the net could not possibly
Now that does not mean that we should just give up, only that we have to take the power stucture of the physical world into account
when planing the net. Geeks and other net-citizens will have to become more aware of the political system in their own country and be
willing to write to their Government, (where that is an acceptable practice) to explain the down side of proposed (or existing) restrictions
The biggest threat of course is that the general public really does not understand the power of the net, and the media who themselves
feel a threat from the ability of everyone to be their own publisher, are unlikey to present a clear picture of what is at stake.
here is a list of books i can think of that cover these kinds of issues,
basically outlining what happens, say, when global economics drops a
bucket-load of trouble on people's heads as the current Status Quo is
either threatened or already trashed (and so the story picks up from
there), and because they are sci-fi
books, global information communication (and of course, the hero) helps
save the day :)
- Author: Bruce Sterling
- Heavy Weather
- Author: Neal Stepenson
- The Diamond Age (or, a Young Lady's Illustrated Primer)
- Author: William Gibson
- Neuromancer, Count Zero, Mona Lisa Overdrive, Idoru, All Tomorrow's
Interestingly, none of these books cover Open Source.