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For better or worse, openness has made the internet what it is

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 1, 2012 - Think back to those olden days before the internet – all the way back to 1992 – and ponder what you would have decided if presented with these options about how the online world would evolve.

You could have a system regulated by people who will keep it safe, with no viruses, no fraud and no Nigerian princes seeking to share their wealth if you would only give them your personal information. Or you could have a system that is totally open, controlled by users like you, not from some power on high.

How about these options:

An all-encompassing online encyclopedia, the greatest compilation of knowledge the world has ever seen, written by expert authors, pored over by fact checkers, vetted by peer reviewers, then stored on an encrypted CD protected by copyright.

Or a website where anyone would be allowed to write anything, and those articles would be open for editing by anyone else.

If you could erase people’s memories of how the online world has developed over the past 20 years, most internet users would probably choose the first option in each case. Instead, of course, online has become much more open, much less regulated and much more controlled from the bottom up, not the top down, with sites like Wikipedia prevailing because of people’s collective determination to get things right.

That scenario is at the heart of what James Boyle, a law professor at Duke University and expert on the evolution of the online world, sees as the result of what he calls “cultural agoraphobia” – people’s fear of openness and preference for an atmosphere that has rules, structure and hierarchy.

Still, he said at Washington University Wednesday, in the first of three lectures, even though the internet violates every rule of corporate structure and human interaction, it still works.

“This is just inconceivable,” Boyle said, adding, “The internet treats censorship as a malfunction and routes around it.”

In a system that is open to everyone, Boyle said – “You don’t need permission from anyone. You don’t need to be sane. You don’t need to be a nice person.” – the key is that the dangers of agoraphobia were not only surmountable but were vanquished by an unlikely source.

“What you wouldn’t have forecast,” he said, “is that openness would solve the problems of openness. We are the peer reviewers of ourselves.”

Not that all problems in the online world are gone, of course. As an example, Boyle highlighted what happened on Jan. 18, when Wikipedia went dark and other websites such as Google joined in a protest of two anti-piracy bills before Congress that would have severely crippled the open online atmosphere.

Saying that the protests would be considered a turning point in the saga of the Internet, he said the two bills – whose sponsors hastily retreated – would have resulted in a “tower of Babel” online, as sites that faced total shutdowns in one country could have popped up in another, sometimes in very different forms with very different rules.

“This would have broken the internet,” he said. “This was a failure of cosmic and comic proportions.”

The struggle over intellectual property rights, normally an issue that attracts limited attention, instead became a fundamental battle that drew in a large audience, Boyle said.

“What happened was that for the first time since the invention of the World Wide Web,” he said, “intellectual property became a political issue where a politically sophisticated person could not say, I choose not to understand that.

“It became the moment that we said with this architecture that has so much that is bad and so much that is wonderful, if we are going to change the nature of this open network that we came up with by accident, we should do so in a very open debate.”

Because the bills failed to pass, he concluded, an online system that allows people to connect across lines like race and sex and nationality -- a system that is sometimes unpleasant but also produces openness, democracy and movements like the Arab Spring – will be allowed to remain and flourish.

And that result occurred, just as the internet’s open culture prevailed because of public pressure, not because of “thoroughly uninformed legislators in the throes of the genuine delusion of cultural agrophobia.”

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.