Negroponte sees futility in 'Net censorship

Governments that try to censor the Internet do not grasp its decentralised nature and are engaged in a futile exercise, according to cyberspace guru Nicholas Negroponte.

Governments that try to censor the Internet do not grasp its decentralised nature and are engaged in a futile exercise, according to cyberspace guru Nicholas Negroponte. Negroponte, a founder and director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Laboratory and best-selling author of "Being Digital", says self-government on the Internet has worked remarkably well, reflecting an organic rather than a hierarchical order.

"The decentralist nature of the 'Net is not chaos," Negroponte says. "Nature tends to operate that way. People in government don't understand that. They say the 'Net is out of control because no one is in charge. I say, `No, it is not out of control -- precisely because no one is in charge'."

Speaking in Manila to a large gathering of local business people, Negroponte said that ironically, those in power today do not understand the digital world, or the huge wave of younger, "digitally literate" people who are their constituents. "The `digital homeless' is a big group of people who don't understand or think about the digital world, and these people tend to be our leaders," Negroponte says. "So there is a mismatch of people who understand the digital world, and those in the driver's seat. This is why some governments -- including my own -- are doing silly things."

He points out, for instance, that the Decency Act that formed part of the US Telecommunications Act was "absolutely crazy" and was "so unconstitutional" that the courts threw it out almost immediately. "Countries like Malaysia, Singapore and China don't understand this," Negroponte says, referring to countries in the region that have set up or are considering Internet controls. "Information access is different from the creation of that information."

At the same time, Negroponte stresses that the digital world holds many commercial opportunities for developing countries and small companies. "The common comment that nobody makes money on the Internet is absolutely wrong," Negroponte says. "A lot of money is being made." This, he says, is being done in terms of displaced costs and savings, as well as actual revenues derived electronically. Negroponte also says electronic commerce will enable "disintermediation" -- or allow manufacturers to bypass the middlemen and go directly to their end-users.

He says, for example, that a company called Virtual Vineyards does good business selling wines from small vineyards north of the Napa Valley in California. The wines are very good, but not produced in quantities large enough to interest wholesalers, Negroponte says. "This kind of thing will happen more and more," Negroponte says, noting that one day, consumers may be able to buy their diapers directly from manufacturers like Procter & Gamble or their cars from BMW.

"If you are a broker, agent or wholesaler, your job is at risk on the 'Net," Negroponte says.

In his address, Negroponte also pointed to the significance of digital cash, and how this will create new economic models where a company might charge a very small fee -- say one or two cents -- for a service or good, and still make money. These "micropayments" were not previously possible, because it costs 25 cents to process a credit card transaction, and US$1 to process a cheque, Negroponte says. "This opens up the opportunity to do commerce in ways never before thought possible."

The business consequence of all this, Negroponte says, is that the Internet can create something never before seen: global tiny companies. In the past, he says, global companies were always big because distribution requirements forced them to be big. Today, he says, "being big is no longer that important."

"In this David and Goliath world, the little guy has the opportunity to compete," Negroponte says.

In an open forum, Negroponte also addressed concerns that the Internet will collapse under the weight of increased usage. While traffic has been doubling every year for the last few years and putting a strain on existing bandwidth, new infrastructure will solve this problem over time, he says.

Increasingly, he says, the infrastructure of the Internet is getting fibre for its backbone, representing a gain of a million times over copper. "The bad news is that with so many links, your response time is the weakest link in the chain," Negroponte says. "Today, as it turns out, the intercountry links are the weakest because nobody has a vested interest in making those links very good."

Still, the demise of the Internet that some observers are predicting is not likely, Negroponte says.

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