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<nettime> Thoughts on the Coaltion of ISPs and the Usenet Blockade
Richard MacKinnon on Wed, 25 Feb 1998 08:20:55 +0100 (MET)


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<nettime> Thoughts on the Coaltion of ISPs and the Usenet Blockade


The Usenet Blockade The Usenet Death Penalty (UDP) is a misnomer because
it is not a form of virtual capital punishment--at least not in the
short-term.  It is more akin to a blockade or a seige.  A Usenet Blockade
may be an effective means of coercing the Netcom leadership to better
address the antisocial activities originating from the base camp of
spammers located within its borders. Primarily an economic attack,
blockades have been used throughout history to help meatspace governments
align their priorities with their neighbors. Since Usenet consists of
several sovereignties, it can be useful to apply much of what we know
about international relations, that is, the theories relating to national
actors interacting in an ungoverned space.  As an ungoverned space, Usenet
is learning how to self-govern by way of coalitions which is the primary
way actors move out of the state of nature into relative civilization. 

Competing Illiberalisms There is no doubt that spam is a major annoyance
for the Usenet world, and for some there is a real economic cost.  As a
result, users have turned to their leaders for solutions.  These solutions
range from personal defense systems (filtering software), to isolationism
(closed systems), to blockades (the Usenet death penality). 
Unfortunately, all three categories of solutions pose serious challenges
to the concept of free speech and the free movement of
information--arguably an ideology foundational to Usenet.  The challenge
is to determine which solution is less illiberal and to determine who
ought to make this determination. 

Analysis of the Competition:  Defense systems may be end-user based,
ISP-based, or network-based.

End-User based

1.  In the event of bombing (Usenet "spamming" in this example), end-users
may purchase among the many competing brands of poor, mediocre, and barely
satisfactory personal filtering systems on the open market.  A
functioning, Reaganesque "Star Wars Defense" system has not yet appeared
in the state-of-the-art efforts--not only do the defense systems screen
out incoming missiles, they often screen out rain, sunlight, and other
useful things causing the otherwise vivacious virtual environment to wilt,
dry up, and become dull. 

2.  Frustratingly, they also fail in their primary mission and let a lot
of missiles through with varying degrees of casualties reputedly ranging
from exposing children to naked adults and exposing adults to naked
children. This is something that software may never be able to
dress/address. 

3.  There is a lot of political controversy over these inadequacies.
Leaders of various end-user communities have met with representatives of
the moral-military-industrial complex in an attempt to either make better
personal defense systems or eliminate their use altogether.  As Bruce
Sterling in Austin observed at last week's Conference on Computers,
Freedom and Privacy, the resolution seemingly lies beyond the grasp of
even the White House Office of Science and Technology which finds it
simpler to tackle the problems posed by theoretical physics and space
exploration. Needless to say, the resolution is out there--way, way, out
there--creating a vacuum of indecision and an opportunity for ad hocractic
power. 

ISP-based

4.  Some ISPs in the past have attempted to close their borders and
restrict the flow of traffic in and out.  This has also been frowned upon
by many of the same leaders of end-user communities.  Fundamentally,
isolationism is an ostrich approach to making "foreign policy" among
CISPs. The Usenet world continues to spin and the people with their heads
in holes just end up missing out on lots of interesting events. 

5.  As a result, lots of disgruntled netizens flee from closed systems to
freer systems.  Geo-economics has forced many "virtual countries" to
loosen up their border controls.  Naturally, this makes them susceptible
to bombing attacks. 

Network-based

6.  Virtual countries which are loathe to close their borders because that
policy is inherently illiberal are forced to choose between establishing
network-level blockades or placing the burden of defense on the end-users
by way of personal filtering systems--most of which have also been
considered illiberal. 

7.  Blockading, fundamentally an ad hoc economic attack, has been
identified as a means of coercing a virtual country into policing the
activities within its borders so that its national digital output (NDO)
falls within the bounds of systemically acceptable end-user behavior.  The
Leviathan rears its ugly head. 

Who decides? Should Usenet "global" policy be set by individuals, their
virtual communities, isolated ISPs, coalitions of ISPs (CISP), or national
governments?  The logic of collective action in Usenet is governed by a
set of social laws which are elusive but as reliable as many physical laws
when properly understood.  As a board member of Electronic Frontiers-Texas
(formerly EFF-Austin), I have been participating in the drafting our
position statement on the Usenet Death Penalty and Netcom.  My
understanding of the social laws of ungoverned interaction is that any
policy recommendation to the coalition of ISPs requires as strong an
element of coercion if it is going to get their attention.  Otherwise, the
ad hoc UDP CISP will continue to pursue its interest and what it perceives
is the interest of its constituents.  The coalition wielding the most
coercive power has the most influence over the ungoverned decisionmaking
process. 

Who decides? Should Usenet "global" policy be set by individuals, their
virtual communities, isolated ISPs, coalitions of ISPs (CISP), or national
governments?  The logic of collective action in Usenet is governed by a
set of social laws which are elusive but as reliable as many physical laws
when properly understood.  As a board member of Electronic Frontiers-Texas
(formerly EFF-Austin), I have been participating in the drafting our
position statement on the Usenet Death Penalty and Netcom.  My
understanding of the social laws of ungoverned interaction is that any
policy recommendation to the coalition of ISPs requires as strong an
element of coercion if it is going to get their attention.  Otherwise, the
ad hoc UDP CISP will continue to pursue its interest and what it perceives
is the interest of its constituents.  The coalition wielding the most
coercive power has the most influence over the ungoverned decisionmaking
process. 

1.   The weakest statement:

"We the people of <insert your organization here> deplore the use of the
Usenet Death Penalty" on Netcom because it infringes on the liberties of
Netcom's end-users--liberties and rights which we hold dear and
inalienable. What happens to Netcom today could happen to us tomorrow." 

I like and support this statement, but my understanding of the social
physics is that it is anemic and although it may get some media play, it
will have little actual influence on the play of events.  It's an example
of critique without action. 

2.  One might write a statement as follows:

"We the people of <insert your organization here> deplore the use of the
Usenet Death Penalty" on Netcom because it infringes on the liberties of
the Netcom end-users--liberties and rights which we hold dear and
inalienable. What happens to Netcom today could happen to us tomorrow." 
Therefore, we are calling for a general strike against all ISPs which
intend to participate in this egregious and illiberal curtailment of free
speech.  On February XX, we are encouraging everyone to close their
accounts on these systems and move to ISPs who refuse to participate in
the UDP." 

I like this statement better because it uses the logic of the blockade
(economic coercion) against the CISP and it carries the satisfaction of
praxis--theory plus action. 

3.  Or one could write a statement like this:

"We the people of <insert your organization here> deplore the use of the
Usenet Death Penalty" on Netcom because it infringes on the liberties of
the Netcom end-users--liberties and rights which we hold dear and
inalienable. What happens to Netcom today could happen to us tomorrow." 
Therefore, we are calling for a general strike against all ISPs which
intend to participate in this egregious and illiberal curtailment of free
speech.  On February XX, we are encouraging everyone to close their
accounts on these systems and move to Netcom in an act of solidarity." 

This is the strongest statement because it shows conviction.  While most
of us have privately condemned Netcom for permitting the spamming, this
statement underlies our belief that the classification of what is spam and
what it isn't is a dangerous and suspect activity.  Further, it shows that
we are willing to give up our own access to Usenet in the fight to
guarantee access to everyone.  A long roll-call of voluntary conversions
would get the attention and action need to have an effect.  In other
words, the statement should be accompanied with a list that looks
something like this: 

user {AT} netcom.com, formerly user {AT} MAIN.Org
user {AT} netcom.com, formerly user {AT} unforgettable.com
user {AT} netcom.com, formerly user {AT} mail.utexas.edu
user {AT} netcom.com, formerly user {AT} actlab.utexas.edu
...and thousands of others formerly from everywhere.anywhere

This third statement accompanied by such a list, when presented to the
CISP will carry the political and moral weight necessary to work with the
laws of social physics, not against them. 

--Richard MacKinnon (http://www.actlab.utexas.edu/~spartan), author of
"Searching for the Leviathan in Usenet" and "Punishing the Persona:
Correctional Strategies for the Virtual Offender."  His views are not
necessarily the views of Electronic Frontiers-Texas or the Advanced
Communication Technologies Laboratory. 

-------------------------------------------------------------
Richard MacKinnon	http://www.actlab.utexas.edu/~spartan
Government Department		mailto:spartan {AT} gov.utexas.edu
Advanced Communication Technologies Laboratory (ACTLAB)
               The University of Texas at Austin
-------------------------------------------------------------

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