Last December, Vincent Falco, a 28-year-old game programmer in West Palm Beach, FL, released version 1.0 of a pet project he called BearShare. BearShare is decentralized file-sharing software-that is, it allows thousands of Internet users to search each other’s hard drives for files and exchange them without any supervision or monitoring. Released free of charge, downloaded millions of times, BearShare is a raspberry in the face of the music, film and publishing industries: six months after the release of version 1.0, tens of thousands of songs, movies, videos and texts were coursing through the network every day. Because the software links together a constantly changing, ad hoc collection of users, Falco says, “there’s no central point for the industries to attack.” BearShare, in other words, is unstoppable.
Which, to Falco’s way of thinking, is entirely unsurprising-almost a matter of course. BearShare is just one more example, in his view, of the way that digital technology inevitably sweeps aside any attempt to regulate information. “You can’t stop people from putting stuff on the Net,” Falco says. “And once something is on the Net you can’t stop it from spreading everywhere.”
The Internet is unstoppable! The flow of data can never be blocked! These libertarian claims, exemplified by software like BearShare, have become dogma to a surprisingly large number of Internet users. Governments and corporations may try to rein in digital technology, these people say, but it simply will never happen becauseinformation wants to be free. Because, in a phrase attributed to Internet activist John Gilmore, the Net treats censorship as damage and routes around it. Laws, police, governments and corporations-all are helpless before the continually changing, endlessly branching, infinitely long river of data that is the Net.
To the generations nurtured on 1984, Cointelpro and The Matrix, the image of a global free-thought zone where people will always be able to say and do what they like has obvious emotional appeal. Little wonder that the notion of the Net’s inherent uncontrollability has migrated to the mainstream media from the cyberpunk novels and technoanarchist screeds where it was first articulated in the late 1980s. A leitmotif in the discussion of the Napster case, for example, was the claim that it was futile for the recording industry to sue the file-swapping company because an even more troublesome file-swapping system would inevitably emerge. And the rapid appearance of BearShare-along with LimeWire, Audiogalaxy, Aimster and a plethora of other file-swapping programs-seemed to bear this out.
Nonetheless, the claim that the Internet is ungovernable by its nature is more of a hope than a fact. It rests on three widely accepted beliefs, each of which has become dogma to webheads. First, the Net is said to be too international to oversee: there will always be some place where people can set up a server and distribute whatever they want. Second, the Net is too interconnected to fence in: if a single person has something, he or she can instantly make it available to millions of others. Third, the Net is too full of hackers: any effort at control will invariably be circumvented by the world’s army of amateur tinkerers, who will then spread the workaround everywhere.
Unfortunately, current evidence suggests that two of the three arguments for the Net’s uncontrollability are simply wrong; the third, though likely to be correct, is likely to be irrelevant. In consequence, the world may well be on the path to a more orderly electronic future-one in which the Internet can and will be controlled. If so, the important question is not whether the Net can be regulated and monitored, but how and by whom.
The potential consequences are enormous. Soon, it is widely believed, the Internet will become a universal library/movie theater/voting booth/shopping mall/newspaper/museum/concert hall-a 21st-century version of the ancient Greek agora, the commons where all the commercial, political and cultural functions of a democratic society took place. By insisting that digital technology is ineluctably beyond the reach of authority, Falco and others like him are inadvertently making it far more likely that the rules of operation of the worldwide intellectual commons that is the Internet will be established not through the messy but open processes of democracy but by private negotiations among large corporations. To think this prospect dismaying, one doesn’t need to be a fan of BearShare.