The taxation example shows that government demands on the IT world are neither unreasonable nor insurmountable in practice. Such demands, moreover, can actually quicken innovation because they create a common target for innovators. Think of how, in Europe, rapid innovations in wireless technologies followed the imposition by government of a single communications standard on industry.
Even when regulations don’t stimulate innovation, they are justifiable. Consider, for instance, how unbridled innovation in digital copying threatens to kill the proverbial golden goose of IT. Advances in digital copying are creating tools that make it fast and easy to copy songs and movies, downloaded from the Internet and then distributed by e-mail. First came MP3, software for downloading music free of charge from the Internet. An estimated 13 million Americans have already used the tool to copy music without paying for it. Recently, a new version of compression software, MP4, has been making the rounds. Hackers originally stripped MP4 from Microsoft’s Windows Media Player, a program designed to handle moving pictures sent over the Web. It can squeeze a movie down to 1 percent of its full size, making piracy and distribution far easier. Suddenly, movie piracy seems within reach of nearly everyone.
This situation can’t be tolerated for long. Tools such as MP3 and MP4 should be banned. Music and movies are only the tip of the iceberg. This isn’t a matter of protecting rich, highly concentrated industries. If pirated music and movies can be peddled with impunity, what’s next? Personal financial data and e-mails? Whole libraries? Photographic collections?
Banning MP3 and MP4 won’t be popular. It won’t be easy, either. Innovators often argue that any restriction will be mocked, ignored and ultimately discarded. They are often right. The history of nuclear weapons, writ large, proves that. Any ban on a software tool will spawn illegal traffic in that tool. And any ban will require revision.
But drawing a line isn’t futile. It creates a useful target for innovators, at least those who recognize that the purpose of technology is to serve people and that societies don’t remake themselves merely to satisfy a technological imperative. Drawing a line also sends a broader message to innovators: Rules still apply to their corner of life.