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Internet Laws and Our Rights

The world is just at the dawn of the Internet revolution, a revolution that promises both benefits and new sets of challenges, if not problems. The benefits manifest themselves in political, economic, and social dimensions. The policy challenges are more numerous, but four in particular have attracted significant attention: privacy, intellectual property protection, taxation, and "open access" to high-speed or "broadband" networks. Policy issues relating to the Internet have loomed larger as the use of the Net has grown. In just four years, the Net had attracted fifty million users, the fastest pace of adoption of any communications technology in history. By contrast, it took thirteen years for television and seventy-four years for the telephone to reach the same number of users. As of January 2000, more than seventy-two million computers from more than 220 countries were connected to the Internet. Internet penetration is projected to continue increasing. Perhaps even more important, the speed of access is also projected to advance for any single user by leaps and bounds once various "broadband" technologies-cable, wireless, or enhanced services over conventional copper telephone lines--are installed more universally. The development of commerce, in turn, has generated strong and continuing demand for the Net itself. It is the use of the Net by private individuals and firms that has spawned debate about how, or whether, to translate various legal and policy frameworks familiar in the physical world to the world of "cyberspace," a world that seems to have no geographic location other than on the computers that reside on the network we call the Internet. As with all new technologies, the Internet has raised a series of concerns - some would say drawbacks - that are attracting increased attention among policymakers. In fact, the number of such concerns seems to proliferate as policymakers and citizens learn more about the impact that the Net is having. Should policymakers intervene now to mandate rules similar to those applicable in the "offline" world, or should they wait and see whether markets and technology will address the issue in a satisfactory manner? Over time, three different answers to this question appear to have emerged. Initially, the widespread presumption among policymakers and many academic scholars was that the Internet should be kept as a "regulation-free" zone.(1) The Net was viewed as an ideal example of unplanned, private-sector innovation, the benefits of which could be curtailed, perhaps dramatically, by premature and ill-advised government intervention. Moreover, by its very nature, the Net could be impossible to regulate. An attempt by one jurisdiction to regulate content on the Net, for example, or to impose taxes on transactions completed over the Net, would simply prompt the host of the website in question to move its server to a different location. The White Paper essentially argued that the private sector should take the lead on Internet issues, although some modest role for government was still envisioned (primarily to help close the so-called "digital divide").(2) ...



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