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The false allure of islands.

This is not the column I intended to write. After hearing about Compuserve's staunch non-defense of personal liberty in response to a local German government's censorship query I was going to take Compuserve to task by writing a column entitled "Capitulation As An Art Form." But the more I thought about it, the more I wondered if there was another factor at work here and if it would make much difference to us in the long run what Compuserve does.

Compuserve, along with Prodigy and a few others, started life as islands. They were glorified bulletin boards. Significantly glorified ones but bulletin boards none the less. A user would dial them up to find a self contained world. Chat rooms, information and news services, help lines were all present on the island. But these islands had no connections beyond their shores. If you had an account on Compuserve and your friend had an account on Prodigy you had to communicate by telephone and paper mail rather than email. And woe be to you if your friend was out there on the wild frontier called the Internet.

With apparent great reluctance Compuserve, then Prodigy, started to realize that the landscape of an island is a bit limiting and that the rest of the world was out there on the Internet. First email communication was enabled (with some sort of crazy billing plan) then a bit of the web and now Compuserve is advertising the "best Internet access."

The Internet must have been kind of scary to the managers at Compuserve. First of all, who did they complain to if the Internet did not work? In addition, there was this not insignificant problem in that the Internet was starting to grow quite fast. This web thing made the Internet user friendly (more user friendly than the proprietary island user interfaces) and web sites with all sorts of interesting stuff on them were springing up. If this kept up what would Compuserve use to differentiate itself from a simple Internet dial-in port?

I wonder now if the initial Compuserve reaction to the German prosecutor's questions was influenced by some residual feeling within Compuserve that, if they can figure out a way to go it alone and disconnect from the big bad Internet, they will better ensure their relevance in the future. Some Compuserve executive might have seized the opportunity as a way to demonstrate so-called problems on the net. This executive might have had some glimmer of an idea that if they did this often enough the public would start reminiscing about the attractiveness and predictability of islands again.

I think Compuserve and its brethren have a reason to worry. As the number of Internet-based services grow there is less reason to use specialized access services. Compuserve et al will then be competing against generic Internet access services. Any special features that Compuserve has can be duplicated by organizations connecting servers to the Internet. A feature of this way of providing services, one that I'm sure Compuserve will appreciate right about now, is that the service organization does not require facilities anyplace other than where their server is. Thus a for-fee news server in Barbados would have no property in Germany or business presence to be threatened by local authorities.

The fundamental question that Compuserve must face is not how to resist or limit the censorship demands of 179 governments around the world, but what will its role be in a future of generic data connectivity service offerings.

disclaimer: Harvard is not one of the 179 world governments (at least not since the Kennedy administration), in any case, the above are my opinions.