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october 2008

Three laws for the world wide web


by Jan Sundermann
Next Right: Science-fiction author Isaac Asimov

In the context of the media, politics was and still is mostly politics for power. Here in Nordrhein-Westfalen, we learned that lesson again over the three years, when new laws brought new regulations for community radio. The producers of non-commercial community slots within a commercial network had to feel strongly their powerless position against a coop of commercial and political interests. So, basically since the days of a certain Ronan O'Rahilly walking into a record-company controlled Radio Télévision Luxembourg (RTL), not much has changed in the fight for power. Only the platforms have changed.

We can see these politics at work, for example, when we look at the world wide web, and the power that a so-called search engine named Google has accumulated. The former David — compared to Goliath Gates — now has become a new near-monopoly player — and this through and by a wide acceptance from the side of the consumers. And what do search engines do? Well, they've transformed themselves partially into blocking and erasing engines. That's what happened recently during the Olympic Games for the Chinese users upon request by and in agreement with the Chinese government.

  Unknown to me, there may be other such cases going on. Interesting is now, that one of the origins of the world wide web was a military developed network called Arpa. It was designed to ensure the flow of information in case of a breakdown of normal communications. In the case of a nuclear war, the information should then find its way to the intended recipient more or less by itself.
  This ability may still exist in the world wide web today. But from examples as China we have to learn, that this anarchic element can be lost under the blanket of commercial and/or political interests. So the first appeal I want to express here is: put the world wide web into the administration of the ITU, the International Telecommunications Union, to minimize the before described influences.
Next The basic concept of the Arpa network as a kind of a self-organising and self-repairing engine is an engineers dream. Such kind of engines had originally been an invention of science fiction authors and are known as robots. One of the important authors in this area of literature was the late Isaac Asimov. In his prophetic short stories known as the Robot Stories or "I, Robot," Asimov saw the need to formulate some rules known as the "Laws of Robotics." My second appeal here therefore is: could we apply Asimov's laws of robotics to the world wide web? I try to do this by translating back into English what I found in a German language issue of the short stories.
  The first law by Asimov goes: "No robot may hurt a human person, or let a human get hurt through inaction." For the world wide web I propose this version: "The world wide web may harm not a single one of its users by mis-using the user's data." This, of course, implies that the transport of viruses and so on has to be prevented by the net and its supervisors.
  The second law by Asimov is: "Each robot must follow orders given to it by humans, as long as these orders are not in contradiction to the first law." For the world wide web I propose: "The world wide web must be designed in a user-friendly way." This, for one thing, implies that hard-and software is backwards compatible and that the net may not be used for espionage or robbery of data."
  The third law by Asimov is: "A robot has to protect his own existence, as long as this is not does not conflict with the first or second law." For the world wide web this now may be the most important law, for it translates into: "The world wide web must keep up its ability to transport information from sender to recipient also in cases of blocking-attacks from the inside or the outside."
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