I’m depressed. I have been reading Lawrence Lessig’s The Future of Ideas, his sequel to Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace, and it seems much of what he predicted and warned against at the start of the internet revolution is slowly coming to pass, regardless of the march of open-source computing.
Lessig argued in his first book that the common belief that cyberspace could not be regulated. “That it is, in its very essence, immune from government’s or anyone else’s control”, was a fallacy.
His thesis was that “cyberspace has no nature”, it has only code which can on the one hand, create a free environment and on the other a place of “exquisitely oppressive control”.
His first book was written in the heady days before the internet bubble burst, and he warned that we would have to choose what kind of internet we wanted and what freedoms we would guarantee. These choices he wrote are all about architecture and the code that will, eventually, govern the world of the internet and who will control it and for what purposes.
Four years on and Lessig is back. He argues that free resources are crucial to innovation and creativity but the revolution that produced armies of dotcoms has produced a counter-revolution, a post-modern protectionism, which is stifling innovation as large corporations use their influence to ring-fence their intellectual property, manipulating the law and undermining the open technology of the internet to suit their own purposes; rewriting copyright and patent legislation to rigidly tax and control the flow of ideas and materials.
As one of the world’s most respected law professors, Lessig is remarkably well qualified to deliver an opinion and we are seeing the evidence all around us today. Large IT companies are falling over one another to re-engineer any concept of free expression out of the internet in Asia, while in the US, whose government is hypnotised by the lobbying influence and funding power of big business, is sleepwalking into a future defined not by information wealth but by digital rights management.
Lessig’s work also gives a glimpse into the future of the open-source movement, a taste of which we have seen in the recent SCO legal action over Linux.
"Open" and "free" are no longer expressions that sit comfortably in the minds of the legislators on Capitol Hill or with the companies that fund presidential elections. Already, Microsoft has sought patent protection in Europe and New Zealand for word-processing documents stored in XML format.
Microsoft argues that there is nothing sinister in this move, explaining that it will "innovate above the standard just as other companies will do in an effort to seek differentiation, address customer needs, add competitive value, etc.", and pointing out that other companies, such as Sun Microsystems, IBM and Hewlett-Packard all have done the same.
However, I thought XML was an open W3C standard and, perhaps, moves like this go some way towards supporting the suspicion that expressions such as "open" and "free" may prove ambiguous and have a rather limited shelf life on the internet of the future and may be replaced, at the very least, by a form of patent supported DRM-driven taxation or restriction outside of a pay-per-view digital economy.
What do you think?
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Setting the world to rights with the collected thoughts and opinions of leading industry analyst Dr Simon Moores of Zentelligence.
Acting globally, Zentelligence (Research) advises governments, suppliers, business and the media on the evolution, application and delivery of leading-edge technologies and specialises in the areas of eGovernment and information security.
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