Network Society as Seen by Two European Underdogs

by Alma Whitten

Preview

Internet use in Italy and Spain is growing, but both countries are still well behind most of Europe in their proportion of Internet hosts to population size and economy. This session examines some factors that have affected the development of Internet use in those countries, sometimes in surprising ways. In Spain, the high expense of Internet connection has actually served as a unifying force for an on-line community fighting to get rates lowered, and that community is now providing a base for a wider debate of Internet use issues, in particular free expression and political speech. In Italy, harsh and aggressive prosecution of intellectual property laws, driven by corporate pressure and in conflict with cultural expectations, has led to the confiscation of enormous amounts of computer equipment and frightened people away from the Internet. The media, governments and businesses in both countries have generally been slow to gain an accurate sense of the potential benefits of Internet use, but individuals have gradually discovered the value of the Internet for research and communication. It is also worth noting that, especially in Italy, mobile phone use is extremely widespread, and that this is probably because the practical usefulness of mobile phones is immediately obvious to the general population, while Internet use is initially seen as an activity for hobbyists.

Review

Giancarlo Livraghi began by arguing that the nature of the Internet is biological and ecological, distributed and without a center, and that this is also true of Internet culture. Because of this, we cannot look at the development of Internet usage in different countries as simply different stages of the same process; instead, we recognize that different cultures must follow different paths.

Andrea Monti spoke about the notorious 1994 Italian "Crackdown" in which many homes were raided and computers seized in a hunt for illegally copied software, explaining that the police were at that time technologically unsophisticated and did not know to draw a distinction between seizing data and seizing the medium on which the data resides, and that computer seizure was not yet recognized as a human rights issue. Ironically, Italian law actually requires that users have the right to make a backup copy - a point often conveniently forgotten by corporations. The copyright lobbyists in Italy also want to prohibit and criminalize any exchange of information about how cryptographic intellectual property protection mechanisms work.

David Casacuberta then talked about several interesting incidents in Spain, beginning with the Telefonica boycott, in which early Internet users were brought together in a fight for more reasonable rates. Initially, politicians attempted to portray the Internet users as a greedy elite, who wanted everyone else to pay higher phone rates to subsidize their Internet hobby. The media initially concurred, but eventually switched sides and became sympathetic to the boycott. In the end, the struggle for a flat rate contributed to the development of a stronger Internet community, which then went on to tackle more philosophical issues such as freedom of expression. After describing the boycott and its effects, he went on to characterize DNS services in Spain as "chaotic, corrupt, and stupid," whereupon Giancarlo and Andrea added that in Italy, the DNS management is chaotic and stupid, but as far as they know, not corrupt. Spanish DNS rules require that domain names be at least four characters long, and not consist of common words, but powerful corporations get domain names that violate those rules.

David next described an incident in which an ISP which hosted a Basque nationalist web page was subjected to severe email bombing after a horrible terrorist incident which had only tenuous connection to the web page authors. The media covered the mail bombing without condemning it, and in their reporting, published the email address of the ISP, which led to a redoubling of the bombing. Opinions still differ on whether this was an innocent mistake or in compliance with directions from the government. Afterward, there was much discussion of the ethical considerations of the situation and, when a similar situation arose at a later date, no mail bombing occurred because all the discussion had nurtured a new respect for free expression. Finally, he discussed another web page, authored by an anti-torture group, which lists the names of police who have been on trial for brutality and torture. This is not private information per se, since it is available in the newspapers, but when a new privacy law was passed, action was taken against this web page as a "privacy-violating database." The page was taken down, mirrors of it were put up, and the argument continues.