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Washington Post: Battle of the Internet

Sep 10, 2000, 18:05 (14 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Sebastian Mallaby)

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"A decade or so ago, libertarians believed their triumph was inevitable. The Net would empower individuals at the expense of government and corporate hierarchies: 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 force shifts in the superstructure of ideology, and there was nothing anyone could do about it. In the revolutionary world to come, digital communes would trump outdated national boundaries; the state would wither away; the architecture of the Internet would evolve without top-down direction, and nobody would own it.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...."

"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, thrives on the energies of villagey hackers; their pride and joy, a free operating system called Linux, is said to work better than Microsoft's standard-issue product. The open coders argue 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."

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