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.

Of tools & weapons

One unfortunate feature of technology is the speed at which some new tool can be turned into a weapon. This is a feature upon which the poet Robert Frost once mused after stepping on the toe of an unemployed hoe. While the Internet and Internet technology is far from new we seem to be getting a spate of examples of tool transformation.

Companies and organizations that establish web pages to better serve their customers are seeing them subverted and transformed into embarrassments that get onto the evening news. The CIA and the justice department pages are only the most recent examples.

The same Internet connection that is used by employees to interact with customers and fellow researchers can be exploited as a pathway into the hart of the corporate network for those who would disrupt operations or ferret out company secrets.

Will the same government that is asking the cellular phone industry to make it possible to locate a caller within a few feet and within a few seconds demand that the same tracking be possible with mobile computing? A boon to both officials tracking criminals and those who would track dissidents.

Corporations and network providers are using caching web servers to reduce the need for commonly referenced web pages to be transferred multiple times, squandering the scarce bandwidth in the corporate Internet link or in the Internet service provider's backbone. Now some of these corporations are instrumenting the servers to track what URLs individual employees visit to be sure that the are "work related". This ability has not been missed by some countries who would like to get an idea in advance who potential troublemakers might be; you know, the people who pull down the CNN home page. The same kind of tracking can be done with some firewalls.

One of the most powerful aspects of the Internet is its reduction of the cost of entry for anyone who wants to publish their ideas or ideals. Dispersed individuals with a common heritage or dream can be linked into a community in a way that has up to now not been possible in the face of high costs or long delays inherent in other forms of communication. Fast, reliable and secure communication can help heal a community in adverse times. Unfortunately, not all dreams are positive. It is just as easy for those who hate as an avocation or occupation to use these pathways to spread their venom.

Internet mailing lists and discussion groups have proven to be a remarkable way to develop ideas and technology. They can be a very strong democratizing force. People who would never have the courage to speak up in a face to face meeting get involved in creating solutions to problems. But it is very hard to hold this type of on-line discussion if some parties are uninterested in discussion and try to dominate the scene. Controlling or ejecting a zealot is far harder on an open mailing list than an open meeting - simply requiring people take their place in a queue for a microphone can all but eliminate the problem in a physical meeting - there seems to be no equivalent in the electronic town hall.

I end with no positive picture here. From big-brother corporations spying on their employees while wondering where corporate loyalty has gone, to governments who see only evil that must be controlled, to ideologues and hate mongers rejoicing in anarchy, sometimes one wonders what the balance is between tools and weapons.

disclaimers: Some have claimed that a Harvard education is a tool that will be seen as a weapon to competitors but I know of no official position.