The Internet: Killer Virus of the State

By Bill Frezza, Columnist

Al Gore knows it. Newt Gingrich knows it. The talk radio junkies can smell it, at least the ones who can read and write.

Our civic fabric is unraveling. And as it does, uncontrolled, undigested and unmanaged information is spewing out. Free reign is being given to a wild cornucopia of ideas and opinions that would never have passed into broad circulation filtered through the conformity of the old media.

Watch carefully as the various organs of state waken to the threat and fire up their immune systems.

Congress can enact all sorts of restrictions on strong encryption. The FBI can hire thousands of informants to monitor Usenet groups. Grandstanding senators can rail against electronic hate speech and digital pornography. Local DAs can embark on witch hunts pursuing out-of-state bulletin board operators. The Justice Department can declare war on computer companies that get too powerful to be allowed into the banking business. The IRS can use pattern analysis to track electronic money launderers. Even the U.S. Postal Service can get into the act, offering to "validate" e-mail: Today a service - tomorrow a requirement?

But each assault on freedom-of-the-Net will breed 10 technical work-arounds. Cybercrats can't outfox cypherpunks. Let Gingrich and Gore hail the arrival of the information superhighway that "the people" can use to talk back to our "leaders." Their illusive dream of "participatory democracy" will be short-lived.

Because this highway doesn't lead to Washington. Networked computers and the torrent of information they carry are inherently decentralized, destabilizing, and uncontrollable - a virtual Ho Chi Minh trail of cyber-insurgency.

The information revolution will transform the politics of power just as surely as the broadcast media did 70 years ago. Only this time, power will devolve back toward its sources, not inward toward demagogues seeking to gather it. The Net will subvert the centralized economic and social control mechanisms that allowed the great welfare-warfare states[33] of the 20th century to dominate our commerce, our psychic landscape and even our definition of who we are.

Why do so many people reflexively see government as the solution to their problems? Why have we been herded into fractious groups with labels designed to instigate sound-bite wars? Who is relentlessly whipping us from crisis to crisis in an effort to focus our attention on whatever social policy initiative happens to top the agenda in Washington? Why have we, the citizens of the only nation[22] ever founded on the primacy of the individual, sunk into such habits of dependency that we can't think and act and take care of ourselves? What has made us so effete as a people?

Could it have something to do with the way old media has dominated public discourse? From FDR's fireside chats to Hitler's propaganda machine to the dutiful White House press corps soaking up Bill Clinton's "message of the day," old media has been the handmaiden of the leviathan state[33].

But not new media. Watch what happens when "the people" break out of their herds and fan out across the Net in search of whatever discourse and ideas suit their own predilections. Wait for the day when citizens, incessantly polled by leaders trying to jump out in front of each passing parade, don't even bother answering the questions. "Do you feel that your group is going to get its fair share of the booty your elected representatives plan to pilfer from that group?" Get lost.

I am an American, but my children will be free citizens of the Net. They may reside in this country[22] or that, but their economic and social intercourse will effortlessly span the globe. And their children will wonder in puzzlement at sovereign-centric concepts like a "national balance of trade" just as we would be perplexed if Connecticut passed punitive tariffs to stem the influx of goods from New Jersey.

And best of all, never again will a generation of youth be frog-marched off to die in foreign jungles in a decades-long media-manipulated clash of "national ideologies." War can go back to being a pointless local tribal affair, incomprehensible to all but the pitiable antagonists.

What if they gave a press conference and nobody came?