The following text is copyright 1996 by Network World, permission is hearby given for reproduction, as long as attribution is given and this notice is included.

Is the glass nearly full or nearly empty?

One cannot be a columnist dealing with data networking and be able to avoid commenting on the "Telecommunications Act of 1996" <ITAL PLEASE> (to quote its official short title.). Just about every one agrees that this bill is the end of the world as we know it. For some observers it ushers in an era of great good and for others great harm. To read the commentators, there do not seem to be many people who think in other than these stark terms.

There seems to be something in the human psyche that likes to reduce complex decisions to simple truths. This is a very complex bill, and like almost all products of the legislative process, contains portions that reflect the influence of individual legislators. Somehow, it seems that people are more comfortable focusing on a few paragraphs in a 280 page document than on the document as a whole.

There has been a huge outcry over the bill's attempt to regulate "obscene or indecent" communications to persons under 18 years old.

The specific rules that try to do this comprise about 220 words out of a total of over 5700 words in the bill. Obviously there must be something else in this bill but you would not know it from some of the recently published polemics.

I happen to dislike this section quite a bit. I feel that the government helps me quite enough thank you, without protecting me from what 7 year old children should not see or read. But I will admit that I fail to see what the Armageddon feeling is all about. Many of the vitriolic message I read on the various mailing lists said "stop this clearly unconstitutional bill" (or that was the gist of what they said). If it is "clearly unconstitutional " what is the issue? The courts will quickly toss it out. Perhaps the fear is that the courts will not agree that it is "clearly unconstitutional". It will cost some money to fight & I expect to contribute to the ACLU for this cause. In addition, the fact that it is no more possible for Internet service providers to control the content of transmissions as it is for telephone companies to control swearing on the phone line (which is illegal by the way) is bound to sink in eventually, at least with the courts. I would rather build tools to help parents than rules to inhibit discourse.

There seems to be a feeling that congress can be persuaded to remove this provision from the bill. You gotta be kidding. How would you like to run for reelection with an opponent claiming in the now-normal not-so-nice-guy TV ads that you are pro-porn?

So, doing what I wish others would do, and backing up from a 2" view of 5% of the bill to look at the whole, there is much to this bill that will fundamentally change what we now know as the Internet. The main thing it will do is to make it much more likely for us to see competition for the pipe and the services on the pipe into the home and business. It is just this type of competition that has brought the cost of Internet access down from hundreds of dollars per month to $19.95 while the lack of competition in the old telephone world led to the stately development over 15 years of ISDN and over 30 years of cellular phones. There are some interesting anti-competitive tidbits for small towns in the bill but even here if the price is too high, there will be entrepreneurs knocking at the door.

All in all, I think the glass is filling up and I'm looking forward to the next few years.

disclaimer: I'm expressing my own opinions, there will be Harvard lawyers on all sides of these issues (all the better to charge you, my dear).