The Death of the Information Superhighway
Actually, some enlightened regulation might be welcome. For instance, the National
Science Foundation erred in 1993 when it granted a five-year monopoly to Network
Solutions Inc. for management of Internet domain names. The Internet industry
response is the addle-brained International Ad-Hoc Committee plan, giving us host
names ending in .web, .firm, and .store -- a scheme that will confuse consumers
and satisfy no one. Yet it's probably not possible for any Federal agency, no
matter well intentioned, to fix that mess. A lot of smart people disagree as to
the right solution; more importantly, the Internet is truly global, and the rules
and pronouncements of one government are no longer sufficient to solve the
architectural and administrative problems of a global network of networks.
Indeed, the President's statement is entitled "The Framework for Global Electronic
Commerce." Old talk about a "National Information Infrastructure" has morphed into
discussion of a Global Information Infrastructure. Clearly about the only thing one
nation can do to promote a global industry is to declare support for free markets,
and get out of the way. The Framework calls for minimal intrusion by governments, and
for limited tailoring of existing laws where necessary.
What Happened to the Information Superhighway Project?
The biggest loser in all this may be Vice President Gore. Some folks credit the
former Senator with coining the term "information superhighway," as early as 1992.
In many ways today's Internet far exceeds the wildest dreams of five years ago.
Who would have predicted the World Wide Web, with millions of users each day
downloading everything from the St. Petersburg newspaper to NPR audio to
pictures from Pathfinder? Gore was one of the few politicians who
saw the potential; sadly, he'll probably never derive much benefit.
Still, his metaphor was always flawed. Think for a second about an
"Information Superhighway." The closest analogy is the Interstate Highway System,
known when proposed during the Eisenhower years as the "Defense Highway System."
Now, there was a proposal of grand proportions! It meant serious
engineering -- building something we hadn't seen before in this
country -- long stretches of limited access highways, connected into a
coherent national system. The Interstates contributed to this country in ways we
still don't fully appreciate -- with good effects on the economy, and with
deleterious effects on our great cities.
Or take President Kennedy's proposal to send a man to the moon. When announced
back in 1962, JFK's call for a moon shot was truly original and in fact stunning.
Many NASA scientists weren't sure it could be done in the allotted decade. It
was a daring challenge to an entire nation.
By contrast, when President Clinton called for the building of a national
information superhighway in his State of the Union address two years ago,
Congress applauded politely, and then forgot the whole thing. The truth is that
events had already far overtaken the President. A national information
superhighway project -- something as big as building the Interstate system or the
Apollo program -- would've been a serious Federal undertaking. Why didn't it come