I'm a pretty Net-savvy guy. I read my
morning newspaper online. I buy discount airline tickets online.
I participate in animated sports banter online. I even manage
my finances online (if transferring money to cover checks qualifies
as "managing my finances"). Still, I have never been to the
magical land called cyberspace.
Cyberspace isn't on any map, but I know that it must exist,
because it is spoken of every day. People spend hours in chat
rooms. They visit Web sites. They travel through this electronic
domain on an information superhighway. The language we use implies
that cyberspace is a place as tangible as France or St. Louis
or the coffee shop on the corner. But why, exactly, should we
think of the Internet as a geographic location? I recently participated
in a telephone conference call with people in several other
states and countries. Were we all together in another "place"?
I doubt that any of us thought so.
Many would say that it isn't just the act of communicating
that makes cyberspace a place but the existence of a community
consisting of broadly dispersed people. But that characteristic
is not particularly distinctive. There are communities big and
small that do not exist within any physical jurisdiction. Professional
associations, alumni groups, and religious orders are among
them. Members of such groups feel a kinship with other members
with whom they have never interacted, in either the real or
the virtual sense.
Some would respond, "Those people all had something in common
before they forged connections across boundaries. But cyberspace
communities were created online. There were no prior affinities
to bring them together. That's unique." Is it? Ham radio operators
have a global network of friends and acquaintances who came
together solely through their use of that instrument. Do they
exist in "hamspace"? And why is the manner in which people make
first contact so significant? Do pen pals exist in "penpalspace"?
One reason that cyberspace is described as a place is to avoid
downgrading it to the status of a mere medium, and perhaps especially
to avoid comparisons with television. Those who would distinguish
the Internet from television point out that Web denizens are
not mere passive recipients of electronic signals. That may
be (partly) true. But telephones and the postal system are also
communications media that allow two-way communication. We don't
regard them as places.
Thinking of the Internet as a place certainly makes it seem
more intriguing. The idea of logging on and entering another
space is suggestive in all sorts of ways. It raises issues of
consciousness, allows us to think of ourselves as disembodied
cybernauts, and sets us apart not just from our primitive ancestors
but also from our recent ones. Not incidentally, representing
the home computer and AOL membership as a gateway to another
dimension helps to sell home computers and AOL memberships.
The various Web sites, IPOs, and dot-coms-of-the-day feed on
the fervor surrounding our exploration of this strange new land.
By morphing the Internet into a destination, cyberspace has
become the Klondike of our age. (Curiously, Seattle is reaping
the benefits this time around, too.)
* * *
Metaphors matter: they can help to shape our views
and actions. Consider the widespread acceptance of the term
"marketplace of ideas" as a metaphor for free speech. This representation
emphasizes one's freedom to enter the arena of discourse, rather
than one's ability to be heard. Thus, in the context of campaign-finance
regulation, protection of free speech means that unlimited campaign
expenditures are sacrosanct, but guaranteeing equal opportunities
to reach the electorate is not a consideration. If, in contrast,
we imagined not a marketplace but a classroom, enabling the
quietest voice to be heard would be more important than protecting
the rights of the loudest. Another example is the ill-fated
"war on drugs." By conceiving of drugs as an enemy to be defeated
in combat, we blind ourselves to many potential solutions. In
the context of war the legalization of drugs amounts to capitulation
to the enemy -- even if it might address many of the problems,
such as crime, disease, and chronic poverty, that were used
to justify the war in the first place.
For its part, the cyberspace-as-place metaphor
raises issues of logic and psychology that may ultimately impede
wise management of the Internet. Lawrence Lessig, of Harvard
Law School, argues in his book Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace
(1999) that the government should not sit by while private
code (software) writers define the nature of the Internet. Such
a seemingly neutral stance, Lessig says, is not neutral but
irresponsible. In the case of cyberspace, laissez-faire government
simply defers decision-making authority to profit-seeking companies.
Guided only by commercial interests, the development of the
Internet is skewed to favor the corporation rather than the
individual or society as a whole.
The problem, Lessig explains, is that legislatures
and courts are reluctant to regulate the Internet. He lays out
some compelling reasons why this is so, but he skips a crucial
one. Because we think of the Internet as a place, the prospect
of "going there" takes on an extra dimension. Legislatures are
wary of bringing government to cyberspace -- as if it somehow
existed in some pure state beyond ordinary society. Judges are
reluctant to bring law into this "new" arena, as if applying
existing laws to Internet transactions would be tantamount to
colonizing Antarctica or the moon. In the context of legal discussions,
cyberspace is seen not as a potentially anarchic realm but as
a virginal Eden; the introduction of law would not so much bring
order as corrupt utopia. Republicans in Congress have vowed
to "stand at the door to the Internet" to defend its sanctity.
Their "E-Contract 2000" would, for example, prohibit sales taxes
in cyberspace for at least five years -- as if such a moratorium
were needed to nurture the most dynamic sector of the economy.
Many Democrats, equally eager to win favor in the industry,
also support the concept of an online duty-free "zone."
As it happens, Lessig himself reinforces cyberspace-as-place
thinking. He argues that the Internet user exists simultaneously
in two "places," a physical location and cyberspace -- thus
making the application of law somewhat difficult. In reality,
the problems created by Internet transactions simply involve
making decisions about jurisdiction. Should a criminal computer
user, for example, be subject to the laws of the state in which
he resides, or to the laws of the state in which the victim
resides? This can be a knotty question, but it is not a new
problem -- not a "cyberspace problem." Such determinations are
made every day with respect to telephone and postal transactions.
Are these problems more common because of the Internet? Yes.
Do they involve more jurisdictions because of the Internet?
Yes. But they do not involve their own jurisdiction, any more
than matters initiated or conducted through the mails involve
That is not to say that the Internet will have
no consequences for governance. The growth of the Internet may
gradually shift the locus of authority upward, from local and
state governments to the federal government or even international
institutions, because as human interactions transcend political
boundaries, only governments with broad jurisdictions will be
able to monitor certain kinds of behavior and enforce certain
kinds of laws. Law and government will adapt accordingly.
The cyberspace-as-place metaphor is probably here
to stay. And it has its uses, as do the many other fanciful
metaphors we use in everyday speech. But let's not be misled.
The regulation of cyberspace -- in areas from copyright to taxation
to privacy -- hardly represents the spoliation of a pristine
and untamed land.