Canary In The Mineshaft

Internet commerce is hotter than hot. Here at the turn of the century, it’s the dominant fact of the culture.

But don’t confuse dominance with popularity. My Atlanta Braves were wildly popular in 1991, when they went from last to first and played a dramatic World Series with the Twins. As time went by, fans began resenting them the way people resent the Yankees. Just because the Braves are playing the Yankees this week doesn’t mean everyone’s happy.

Americans always prefer the underdog. The late (great) Wilt Chamberlain was often booed, and always misunderstood. He was a gentleman, a shy man, but his dominance gave off an ogre’s image, and we cheered his every failure.

When I wrote last week about Bill “Gigadollar” Gates giving away his fortune to spare his children and do some good, what resonated was my implied criticism of Silicon Valley, its wealth and its perceived obsession with that wealth. I saw the same thing 20 years ago in Houston. Everyone wanted the oil man to fall, and when he fell (hard) we cheered, even when people there were losing homes, jobs and families.

Despite the growing number of people online, this antipathy is reflected in a growing demand to control, even censor, what we do here.

The Freedom Forum, which surveys First Amendment attitudes every two years, found in its 1999 survey that just 24 percent expressed even mild agreement with the statement, “People should be allowed to place sexually explicit material on the Internet,” while 63 percent disagree strongly. You’ll need parents’ permission to collect any data from children starting in April, says the Federal Trade Commission, and even online veterans (like me) want an end to spam, regardless of First Amendment implications.

The initial reaction of online giants has been to act like giants, associate with giants, and use giantism to squash protests against what we want to do. (Pornography and spam can be filtered out. If filters are mandated on government-funded PCs and encouraged everywhere else, there’s no problem.)

Look closely at Gov. Bush’s “Information Technology Advisory Council” formed in July. There’s Jim Barksdale, who was an AT&T executive before heading Netscape. There’s Autodesk CEO Carol Bartz, Cisco Systems CEO John Chambers, Microsoft COO Bob Herbold, Oracle president Ray Lane, and Texas Instruments CEO Tom Engibous.

The point is no one really likes Goliath — they fear him. If you want to see today’s Goliath, look in the mirror.

In the short run this may be good politics, even good policy. I just can’t help thinking of a song sung by Lowell George of Little Feat over 20 years ago – “The same dudes you misuse on the way up, you might meet up, on the way down.” You say you can’t see a down? That’s what worries me.

The fact is that all Internet users share political interests. We need liberty, we need transparent markets, and we need political stability in order to do our business.

But there’s a growing divide between the big businesses that now exert so much influence over the Internet, and ordinary users. There’s also a growing gap between Internet users and non-users. You do the math – total the number of disillusioned users with fearful non-users, and you get the makings of a political counter-revolution, with you and I playing Louis XVI, once the inevitable economic slide occurs.

I may be just the canary in the mineshaft here, but I’m singing as loud as I can. Hear me, and deal more kindly with those who fear you, or in time they will deal unkindly with you.

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