Sunday, February 25, 2007


Our class last Wednesday mentioned a provoking term, coined during the domain name gold rush: cybersquatter. These people would "infringe" on the "territory" of other companies or individuals by staking out a claim of a certain domain name. They would buy or in anticipation of the site's eventual sale to their "rightful" namesake.

Now ordinarily we would call such foresight "wise," and perhaps in another era, such savvy individuals "investors." But modern intellectual property trends have shaped our understanding of ownership, trademarks, and the territoriality of the net. The law operates with the assumption that there is a rightful owner of a domain name, or more technically, the string of numbers that codes for a particular server.

Is it fair to allow the burger chain McDonald's to file for the name, plus any other variation of their choice? Is there a limit on trademark protection? Why have we foregone a frontier mentality in terms of the net? Or more important, why did we even conceive of the internet as territory to begin with?

Monday, February 19, 2007

Beyond the "Jukebox"

A response to George Will's Newsweek article.

George Will atempts to curb our enthusiasm for the latest round of technological innovation, the internet. His article serves to mute the triumphant cries by the technologically starry-eyed and to give perspective on the "real" impact of digital networks.

He misses the point.

Will opens his article by describing his daughter's AIM habits. He first approaches the "information revolution" culturally....and aptly. But when he proceeds to downplay the role of the internet by citing examples from modest tech investments or observing trends in brick-and-mortar industries, he changes the mode of his argument.

Information technologies of course have their economic impact. The cost of maintaining a website can be compared with that of a sprawling brick discounter. There are efficiencies to note and to criticize. But, in my opinion, the impact of the internet is beyond the "bottom line."

The internet is as much a cultural phenonmenon as an economic and technological one. In that sense, Will is right to call the internet a "jukebox." But the manner in which this jukebox operates is revolutionary, extending beyond mass media/pre-programming schedules from broadcasters and moving instead to user-produced content, user-regulated networks, and the infamous long tail.

Will should read Benkler's Wealth of Networks. He should attend a LINUX conference. He should compare a Wikipedia page to his print encyclopedia. Peer networks ARE something new, and they ARE something to be excited about.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Cyberland: a conversation about public vs private

James Boyle in "Shamans, Software, and Speelns" describes the role of the law as well as its rule as dependent, if not defined by, the division of "private" from "public" life. The liberal tradition glorifies the realm of the individual, the private citizen in civil society, entitled to private property and privacy. Yet an oftentimes conflicting tradition, that of American republicanism, claims that
a healthy, thriving democracy depends on an envigorated public sphere, where information flows freely, if not perfectly.

Difficulty arises from this public/private division where cyberlaw is concerned. This is due to the fact that the internet is about INFORMATION. The internet facilitates conversation and relationships, and the meat of those conversations is information. So cyberlaw must govern the exchange and access to information in its many forms. Yet how do we classify the "space" that merely a "consensual hallucination," merely a visual represenation of a network?

Boyle tells us that private law looks to return society to the status quo. Cases in private (civil) law are settled to keep things as they are; damages are decided according to income, etc. Public or criminal law concerns itself with a more egalitarian political community. It treats the involved parties as equals. This distinction is important in the dicourse of property. Information, as it is commonly understood in today's world, is property-like, when not property itself.

However, it is even more complicated than that. Property like a house or a TV is one thing. It is a finite, physical object. Yet the ownership of information is problematic. It is a horse of quite a different color. It can be either finite or infinite, a product or a process. It is a public good, and yet IP law treats it as privately owned. A poem, for example, takes material from the "commons," i.e. words, idioms, expressions, grammar, and converts it into something protectable as a new, privately-owned product. A case of appropriation from the commons. Yet if someone were to read the poem, they have, in an essence, a copy of that poem, either in their memory or stored on a computer somewhere. And in this sense, the poem (or information) is infinite. A million people could read that poem without diminishing the amount "owned" by its author.

This is just a ill-organized wandering through the troubles of IP theories, information exchange, cyberlaw. I am sure the private/public duality will be explored further!

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Spacing Out -- what is cyberspace?

An interesting thought is how exactly we, as a society and as individual users, wish to govern this radically pervasive "space," the internet.

My first reaction is that "space" is a false term for the digital network. It was a term coined by William Gibson to describe his virutal world in his groundbreaking sci-fi/cyberpunk book, The Neuromancer. His passage reads as follows:

Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts... A graphic representation of data abstracted from banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding ...

His conception of cyberspace was of a representation of a data, a visual image that conveys the connections between nodes. Cyberspace in this sense is no space at all, but merely a representation of relationships.

For this reason, I believe a discussion of how we regulate and control cyberspace (by law, by behavior, by practice) must be informed by a knowledge of the relationships of the involved parties. Governing cyberspace is then governing relationship, be they human-human, human-machine, or machine-machine. Our laws should reflect this dynamic, and not attempt to draw up radically new measures for regulating some alternative, 4th dimension "space."