Column: Life, liberty and the pursuit of a home page

How would Thomas Jefferson have responded to the opportunities and challenges posed by the Internet? James Martin muses ...

Thomas Jefferson's wonderful home, Monticello, was recently the inspirational setting for a series of discussions among computer industry pioneers. The format of the Computerworld/Smithsonian Monticello Lectures was modeled on the meetings Jefferson held to debate the revolutionary issues of his time. I was asked to be moderator -- in effect, pretending to play Jefferson.

As we sat at Jefferson's table, surrounded by the seemingly close ghosts of his era, I naturally entertained thoughts about how Jefferson would view today's electronic frontier if he were alive. I'm convinced he would have embraced it enthusiastically.

He would have been proud that Monticello has a charming home page on the World Wide Web (http://www.monticello.org). He would have been very pleased that the Library of Congress named its legislative Web site Thomas (thomas.loc.gov), in honour of the man who provided the library's core collection. More important, the Thomas Web site is a prime example of the power of the Internet to achieve Jeffersonian goals. Citizens with Web access -- not just fat-cat lobbyists -- can download the actual language of bills in the US Congress and monitor the legislative process.

The notion of making the world's great historical and cultural treasures accessible to students would have had immense appeal for Jefferson. "I feel an ardent desire to see knowledge so disseminated through the mass of mankind that it may, at length, reach even the extremes of society: beggars and kings," Jefferson wrote in 1808.

I'm guessing that Jefferson would have been pleased by the libertarian bent of the Internet community and the recent court decision that struck down an effort to ban "indecent" speech in cyberspace. As the federal court in Philadelphia concluded, "Just as the strength of the Internet is chaos, so the strength of our liberty depends upon the chaos and cacophony of the unfettered speech the First Amendment protects."

In essence, the Internet allows citizens to become pamphleteers and rabble-rousers. "A little rebellion now and then is a good thing," Jefferson liked to say, because it sweeps away the cobwebs of Old World thinking.

Like Jefferson, we stand at the threshold of a new world. We have an awesome opportunity to give it whatever characteristics we decide. For starters, we must protect the founding principles of the Internet -- free and open exchange of information -- from excessive government regulation and monopolistic corporations.

Just as Jefferson and the other Founding Fathers debated the future of America, so must we debate the future of cyberspace. For example, how do we provide universal access to the 'net so that we avoid a bifurcated world of information haves and have-nots? And how do we pay for that?

There are deep and dangerous issues to consider, including privacy abuses, fraud and the borderless nature of cyberspace. As Jefferson put it: "We have the wolf by the ears; and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go."

It is up to us, the builders of this new world, to ensure that cyberspace brings democratic principles to the global melting pot. Maybe we can even improve on Jefferson's conviction that "all men are created equal" and this time, make sure that includes women, people of colour, foreigners--even the British.

(James Martin, founder of James Martin & Co. in Fairfax, Virginia, is a writer, lecturer and consultant on information technology. His next book, "Cybercorp", will be released in October.)

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