Time to Ask the Question

The time has come to answer the question we’ve been dreading.

Who do you like for president?

In many ways, this should be an easy one. There seems no way an Internet executive can go wrong between Al Gore and George W. Bush. Both parties have pandered like mad on Internet issues, and both have reaped a ton of money as a result.

The fact also remains that most Internet issues haven’t yet reached the point of political debate. Most users don’t feel the government can do much to the Internet except screw things up. When government or businesses act against users’ perceived self-interest (as in the Napster case), users see it as something that can be circumvented.

All this has put government squarely on the side of the biggest Internet businesses. We now have a concept called “illegal software” whose creation, possession, or use can get you thrown in jail. Both parties have pushed through legislation increasing the number of “H-1B” visas. A new generation of hardworking, educated immigrants can now look forward to a generation gap with their slacker offspring 20 years from now.

I have insisted for the last year that this political season is the Internet’s 1948, not its 1952. The Internet is a curiosity and sideshow to a TV-driven campaign, just as TV was a curiosity and sideshow to a newspaper-driven campaign in 1948. (Not until 1952 did TV become politicking’s prime venue.)

All that is going to change. Within a few years, this time will seem quaint and naive. Big crimes are going to take place online as well as big crackdowns. Even if government doesn’t learn to enforce laws against online acts perfectly, people will still go to jail.

This means the assumptions we now share, that you can upload and download what you want and that the Internet breaks down government barriers, are going to be severely challenged, if not shattered. Whomever we elect will be standing with the big businesses against a rising tide of anger and for order against a rising demand for liberty.

The sad fact is that when the Internet does become a political actor, it won’t be in the way we assume. (TV wasn’t what Philo Farnsworth thought it would be, either.) Politicians won’t just use the Net as a broadcast medium, raising money and pushing propaganda. Individuals and conspiracies of all types will use it to organize on behalf of disorder or just disobedience. It’s going to be like nothing ever seen before, not even by William Gibson.

The question you must answer in the next month is who do you want to face this whirlwind? When prosperity no longer greases the comfortable alliance of big Internet businesses and government, would you prefer Bush’s ideology or Gore’s accommodation? Which is more important to you, the money you make from the Internet or the freedom it gives you?

You’ve got a month to decide, and, even then, your choice will be a guess. It will be a bet on one candidate or the other’s views and on that candidate’s ability to support and defend them in an uncertain world.

It’s almost enough to make me pity the winner of this election.

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