One Internet Is Not Enough

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Despite its Wild West reputation, the Internet is subject tosubstantial regulation. There are rules on children's privacy,copyright, domain names and more. Congress is looking at newprivacy and spam requirements, Internet taxation, gambling, and thedigital divide. And the American Bar Association, the Frenchgovernment, and the UN are pushing global Internet governanceplans.

A solution, however, is more Internets, not moreregulations.

The Internet needs borders beyond which users can escapedamaging political resolutions of these battles, which are rootedin the Internet's nonowned, common-property status. Conflictinglegislative visions in a cyberspace populated by exhibitionists atone extreme and would-be inhabitants of gated communities on theother, reveal the basic truth that not everybody wants or needs tobe connected to everybody else.

To escape the regulation trap of the commons, the Internetshould splinter and go private. One Internet is probably notenough. Instead, owned Internets-proprietary "Splinternets" whereprespecified ground rules regarding privacy and other governanceissues replace regulation and central planning-may be superior.What matters most is not necessarily the Internet as it existstoday, but Internet technology.

Physically, parallel Internets could be up in short order. TheInternet itself runs mainly on 13 root servers (computers). Otherserver and router hardware is obtainable. The fiber backbone is inplace. And the audience and applications are growing. Already,dedicated video networks operating on Internet protocol areemerging.

The catch is securing widespread adoption, a horrendousmarketing and money problem. Some consider today's root serversystem to be a "natural monopoly."

But as broadband infrastructure strategies and server warehousesexpand, it is likely that we could surf distinct networks the waywe surf Web sites today. At some point, the benefits of tailored,owned networks capable of harmonizing issues of privacy, values,access, and participation outweigh the costs of regulation, endlessgovernance fights, and the costs of inherent insecurity on anonowned Internet from which criminals and hackers can't beexcluded. One National Security Agency official recently evenargued that real security is not an option on the Internet, and amore secure network should replace it.

Besides, diverse applications-streaming video, gaming, securecommerce and teleconferencing-may benefit from separation. TheWireless Application Protocol, a proprietary means of aggregatingWeb-based content on cell phones, already exists apart from theInternet. And AOL has been separate for many years.

While today's Internet will forge ahead, companies may profitfrom a presence on several networks with correspondingly differentrelationships with users. Or they could provide content tonewfangled middlemen who troll for information across networks andthen filter it according to consumer preferences. To addresswidespread privacy fears, banks, hospitals, and insurance companiescould combine with major Internet Service Providers, data hotels,and phone or cable companies to create an alternative Net. Thepurpose would be to keep confidential information off the"hackable" commodity Internet altogether.

Future networks could offer porn-free surfing-others, porn-only,perhaps with privacy guarantees. Some might allow kids to provideinformation online under specified conditions, others obviouslywould not. While networks paid for by ads could be frequented bypeople who don't mind giving up personal information, those whodon't want to reveal personal information might use for-feenetworks that ban mouse-click "profiling" by third-partyadvertisers. Since contracts govern private network property,companies that violate their promises to safeguard information theycollect would be held accountable.

In a thousand ways, self-selecting users, through contracts,could sort themselves among competing networks with unique groundrules and policies. The same individual may present different facesto the world depending upon whether he is surfing a shopping,educational, adult, or medical network.

Certain overarching issues, such as encryption policy andInternet tax policy will apply to any network-and splintering won'thelp. But even the issue of freely available copyrighted multimediafiles exists largely because there has been no network owner tohold accountable in the Internet commons. The commons helpedexacerbate the "Napster problem" in the first place.

It may be preferable for consumers and businesses to organizeamong assorted open networks rather than accept an increasinglyregulated cyberspace cage. Warfare on the digital commons invitesmore regulation and adds to a deteriorating and antiquatedInternet. Splintering, though it will be criticized asBalkanization, increases our options and wealth. It also protectsour rights, which depend upon the institution of privateproperty.

Clyde Wayne Crews Jr. is director of technology policy at the Cato Institute. A version of this article appeared in Forbes magazine.