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History is prelude

by Scott Bradner

Its been an interesting few weeks for anyone who is a fan of freedom. The US Attorney General Janet Reno was quoted as wanting to control the distribution of encryption software via the Internet. The FBI is blocking a license for a small Canadian satellite telephone company to sell their phones to US customers because they can not wiretap (if that’s a proper term in the context) conversations over the satellite. The New York Times reported that the Clinton administration is planning on installing a vast computer communications monitoring system ostensibly aimed at protecting government computers. And the same administration defended a new International Public Information (IPI) System as targeting only foreign audiences in its aim to influence people to support US foreign-policy objectives.

I guess "interesting" understates the situation quite a bit. The administration claims that it is concerned with the privacy and rights of individuals. But their actions continue to be indistinguishable from the actions a repressive government would take to violate those rights - maybe when they say they are concerned they mean they worry that the citizens have too many rights.

I was getting increasingly depressed by reading the headlines so I decided to reread a neat little book on the history of the telegraph that was published last year. The Victorian Internet by Tom Standage (ISBN 0-8027-1342-4) starts with an experiment performed in 1746 in which 200 monks, each connected to the next with a 25 foot piece of wire. Jean-Antoine Nollet, a French scientist then gave the chain of monks a high-voltage shock and listened to the reaction of the monks to see how fast electricity flows. It ends in 1885 with the observation that "a great future is in store for the telephone."

Unfortunately I was not able to get as far from today's headlines as I would have liked to. A lot of the issues we are now being faced with in the Internet first showed up with the telegraph. Encryption was an issue in the early telegraph and was banned by many governments. The telegraph turned out to be so successful that serious congestion problems developed, some of which were relieved by the introduction of alternative transport technologies, pneumatic tubes for one example. Large monopolies developed as did new government managed standards organizations, criminals quickly learned how to commit long distance fraud, corrupted messages caused significant monetary losses and security became a major issue. Britain even built a private world-wide telegraph network to connect the parts of the empire.

I recommend the book but caution that even though it is an enjoyable read and filled with interesting tidbits there is too much prologue in this history for it to be a pure escape.

disclaimer: With 6 Harvard alumni becoming US president, Al Gore can only hope that history is prelude but the above review is mine