Compose a letter to Lawrence Lessig in which you explain how you agree, disagree, or are otherwise engaged by his argument in “The Internet Under Siege.” Don't justify your beliefs by making a “and that's just my opinion” statement. Instead, be sure to provide solid evidence that supports your claims (including showing how one of the other essays we've read together has contributed, even in a small way, to your thoughts).

Dear Larry,

Please read this email at your leisure. There's no rush. The sky is not falling.

Your contention in “The Internet Under Siege” that the Internet is becoming less open, thereby severely limiting its potential, sounds plausible enough. I follow the logic. But as presented, the premise doesn't hold, because the Internet was never a commons.

In the early days, hardly anyone had Net access. The few who did were scientists or engineers at major defense or government institutions. Later there were the dialup online services, to which anyone could subscribe, presuming one had all of: a suitable personal computer, a suitable modem, the latitude to tie up a phone line, and the ability to pay by the hour for online time. (Let me tell you, after I ran up quite the bill in high school, that was the end of that.) Even those who met these steep entrance requirements and overcame the inevitable technical difficulties found that the connectivity provided by the major services (AOL, Prodigy, CompuServe, and the like) was delivered in the form of Internet Lite. These services primarily provided their own environment and content, and offered only perfunctory access to the Wild West of the nascent World Wide Web. And nowadays, as you note, the modern-day ISP ”has asserted the right to discriminate in the Internet service it provides” (Lessig, 62).

A dangling premise doesn't necessarily render your conclusion false; it's still possible that the Internet of yesteryear was freer than today's. The catch is, there's plenty of empirical evidence to the contrary. In keeping with John Gilmore's maxim that “The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it,” independent software developers have created technologies to route around modern varieties. In response to filtering and snooping of network traffic, IPSEC creates trustworthy tunnels through which to send data over untrusted networks. In response to filtering and snooping of email, PGP performs analogous functions for individual mail messages. In response to network limitations both physical and political, BitTorrent self-organizes many hands to make light work of transferring large amounts of data. Never mind the lawmakers, the codemakers will ever outwit them. Ralph Waldo Emerson could as well have been describing a stereotypical gaggle of programmers when he wrote, in “Self-Reliance,” that “the nonchalance of boys who are sure of a dinner, and would disdain as much as a lord to do or say aught to conciliate one, is the healthy attitude of human nature” (Emerson, 2).

These are just a few ways in which we developer types have kept network restrictiveness at bay. What of novel applications of the Internet? There's been plenty of that lately, too. RSS distills the content of web sites into easily manipulated form, and people keep finding new ways to manipulate it. Wikipedia, a fascinating social experiment, places a thin layer atop the Web that enables anyone to publish anything where everyone can see it. There isn't a great deal of new technology in either, because there doesn't need to be: they're both layers atop layers “on top of the initial protocols of the Internet” (Lessig, 59). But let us not lament, for RSS and Wikipedia signify that it's easier than ever to turn original thinking into Internet “killer apps.”

How is this possible? It's due to the presence of a critical mass of “open source and free software,” to which you allude (Lessig, 60). There's a little computer in my room serving up my web site, email, and databases. All the software it runs is free and open source; the sole expense and inscrutability lies in the humming machine itself. I simply decided what I would have the thing do, sifted through dozens of free ways in which to do it, and glued my favorite pieces together.

If you want to rue this day, lament that there aren't as many obvious Net improvements to be made. RSS and Wikipedia seem natural outgrowths of existing technologies in retrospect, but they weren't when they were created (which could have happened much earlier, had the creative burst struck). Protocols heaped atop protocols lead to mountains of abstractions which a programmer must climb in order to build. It ain't the Wild West no more.

In this sense, the Net has indeed become less free. But for those who can still wrap their heads around it, and for those who can now more comfortably dip their feet, it's as much fun today as it ever was.