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.

The importance of occasional chaos

I have written in the past in this space about the importance of standards but one can go too far. What follows is extracted from my testimony as a witness for the American Library Association in opposition to the Communications Decency Act.

JUDGE DALZELL: And so what Mr. Baron just asked you about [a] hypothesizes that there is a plenary group that sets standards and by setting standards, doesn't that then exclude the possibility of new technologies such as the Worldwide Web which arose spontaneously, not even in these shores?

THE WITNESS: There are many places in the globe where the development of standards and the control of the standards development process is seen as a strategic necessity on the part of some governments. And so the defining of what standards to use, how to develop them and what the level the mandating of those standards is seen as strategic.

And it is absolutely true that a too-strong environment saying all standards must come from standards group number two has a serious impact on innovation. The Web rose out of a hole. The whole concept of the Web rose out of a need that we didn't know we had. We didn't know we had this lack of ability to do easy browsing because we didn't have the concept of easy browsing. This was something that sprung out of innovations on some parts of some individuals.

It was not part of a standards effort. It was people doing something. It caught on because people saw it as useful.

There are other holes in the Net. We don't know what they are. There are other needs that we don't know we have. And certainly being too reliant on "we only do those things which are standard" will stifle that innovation and it would be very bad for us. We went through many years of telecom where we did not have, let's say, rapid innovation because of that kind of centralized standards development constraint.

JUDGE DALZELL: And indeed, isn't the whole point that the very exponential growth and utility of the Internet occurred precisely because governments kept their hands out of this and didn't set standards that everybody had to follow?

THE WITNESS: The U.S. Government and many other governments attempted to mandate a particular kind of protocol to be used on worldwide data networks, and this is the OSI protocol suite.

That particular suite of protocols has failed to achieve market success. What achieved success was the very chaos that the Internet is. The strength of the Internet is that chaos. It's the ability to have the forum to innovate.

JUDGE DALZELL (in the opinion granting a preliminary injunction)

True it is that many find some of the speech on the Internet to be offensive, and amid the din of cyberspace many hear discordant voices that they regard as indecent. The absence of governmental regulation of Internet content has unquestionably produced a kind of chaos, but as one of plaintiffs' experts put it with such resonance at the hearing: "What achieved success was the very chaos that the Internet is. The strength of the Internet is that chaos."

Just as the strength of the Internet is chaos, so the strength of our liberty depends upon the chaos and cacophony of the unfettered speech the First Amendment protects.

disclaimer: Some would say that Harvard understands chaos all too well. Even if that might be true, the above are my opinions (presented under oath)