History is prelude

It has been an interesting few weeks for anyone who is a fan of freedom.

U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno was quoted as wanting to control the distribution of encryption software via the Internet. The FBI is blocking a licence that would let a small Canadian satellite telephone company sell phones to U.S. customers because the FBI cannot wiretap (if that’s a proper term in this context) conversations over satellite.

The New York Times reported that the Clinton administration is planning to install a vast computer communications monitoring system ostensibly aimed at protecting government computers. The same administration also defended the new International Public Information System as targeting only foreign audiences in its aim to influence people to support U.S. foreign-policy objectives.

I guess “interesting” understates all this recent news quite a bit. The administration claims it is concerned with the privacy and rights of individuals. But its actions continue to be indistinguishable from the actions a repressive government would take to violate those rights. Maybe when the Clinton administration says it is concerned, the administration means it worries that citizens have too many rights.

I was getting increasingly depressed by reading the headlines, so I decided to reread a neat little book on the history of the telegraph that was published last year. The Victorian Internet by Tom Standage starts by telling of an experiment performed in 1746 involving 200 monks, each connected to the next with a 25-foot-long piece of wire. Jean-Antoine Nollet, a French scientist, then gave the chain of monks a high-voltage shock and listened to the reaction of the monks to see how fast electricity flowed. The book ends in 1885 with the observation that “a great future is in store for the telephone.”

Unfortunately, I was unable to get as far from today’s headlines as I would have liked. A lot of the issues we are now faced with regarding the Internet first showed up with the introduction of the telegraph. Encryption was an issue with the early telegraph and was banned by many governments. The telegraph turned out to be so successful that serious congestion problems developed, some of which were relieved by the introduction of alternative transport technologies, such as pneumatic tubes. Large monopolies developed, as did new government-managed standards organizations. Criminals quickly learned how to commit long-distance fraud, and corrupted messages caused significant monetary losses. Security also became a major issue. Britain even built a private worldwide telegraph network to connect parts of the empire.

I recommend the book mentioned above, but caution that even though it is an enjoyable read, there is too much prologue in this history for the book to be a pure escape.

Scott Bradner is a contributing editor to Network World (US).