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Internet & Society: The Technologies and Politics of Control - Fall 1999

Course Description: This course examines current legal, political, and technical struggles for control/ownership of the global Internet and its content. The course will draw upon a growing body of cyberlaw cases and commentary, class members' research, and participation by invited guests, including lobbyists, politicians, journalists, and scholars from the HLS faculty and elsewhere.

Course themes include the interaction between emerging Internet self-governance regimes and rule by traditional sovereigns; the expression of conflicting interests of commercial and individual Internet speakers/broadcasters; new modes of control over widely distributed intellectual property ("privication"); and the potential for market giants and other architects of Internet technologies to constrain behavior online in ways governments find difficult to assimilate. Classroom discussion of these topics will be augmented by online discussion software through which students will have one-on-one exchanges about issues in the course.

No specialized technical expertise required.

Anticipated topics include:

Internet governance. How should policy be made-if at all-about changes to the structure of the Internet? Can the development of Internet architecture (for example, the assignment of domain names) be legitimately overseen by non-governmental bodies comprising complete power bases of the technical elite, business professionals, and individuals representing a global user constituency?

Making room for the little guy. The Internet is sometimes championed as an inexpensive medium for the "little guy" speaker. Indeed, protection of small, non-commercial speakers was an important justification for the Supreme Court's 1997 invalidation of the Communications Decency Act. With or without 1998's reprise of the Act, the voice of "little" speakers is readily fenced out by filters and proprietary forums. Should government act to ensure that some hypothetical Madisonian promise of the Internet is realized? Special emphasis will be placed on a developing debate over the extent to which private speech restrictions--enforced by schemes as varied as collaborative junk email filtering and third-party content rating systems--can and should be scrutinized for their impact on free expression.

The sovereignty of technology. Intellectual property interests traditionally enforced through the courts are increasingly being guaranteed by technological means-computer programs that are impossible to duplicate and online books that can only be read once. Some claim that this new form of self-protection could distort the public policy balance between property and free expression represented within copyright law, while others see it as an uncontroversial (and in any event, justifiable) response to the increased threat to intellectual property protection posed by digital communications.