November 2000

The need for open standards and open protocols was never greater than it is today. This is because the speed and the coverage area of standards of communication is approaching a single, global domain.

Hundreds of years ago, travel and communication were bound by limits of geography, cost, and time. This meant that a single manipulative enterprise could not dominate over all the people all the time. Governments were limited in their ability to enforce law at the level of the individual household, and over a restricted geographical area. Pilgrims and entrepreneurs alike could escape the hostile force of ruling authorities by venturing across the ocean to new lands. Companies were limited in the scope of their power, and refugees from oppressive monopolies and "company towns" could escape to different geographical locations or different career paths. The ratio of group power to individual freedom was relatively small.

However, the new millennium brings with it a single, globally-interconnected network which quickly propagates both ideas and the protocols needed to communicate those ideas. Information is both content and carrier (in the form of software). The same medium that can provide enlightenment can also spread darkness and confusion, deception and slander. When it comes to the protocols themselves, the same medium that offers the hope of freedom and mutual compatibility can also quickly spread chaos and corruption, mismatches and frustrations.

In an engineering sense, we are talking about an environment that does little to provide compensation for sudden shocks to the system -- a car with no shock absorbers, or an airplane with no stabilizers. In a biological sense, we are talking about a single ecosystem for information, with no alternative "genetic pool" to provide diversity and a shield from sudden catastrophe. In a sociopolitical sense, we are talking about a single global community which is subject to rapid changes in values, priorities, and goals, without a counterbalancing conservatism to question and moderate the changes.

In other words, the new era makes the world community a plum ripe for the picking.

While we dream on in a lazy, self-assured stupor about the gradual disappearance of tyrants and strongmen, we must keep in mind that these historical despots drew on a source of power that was essentially based on the narrow viewpoints of geographical and cultural isolation. What kind of tyrant would a global era bring? A global tyrant would necessarily appeal to the lowest common denominators of society, or at least to universal needs and wants. Devoid of religious or cultural considerations, the tyrant of the future is materialistic, tasteless, and socially inept. Instead of relying on personal charisma or the narrow biases of historical cultural rivalries, the new tyrant uses the more subtle appeals of technological and economic opportunism.

This is why the need for openness and accountability is so great. If an ordinary tyrant uses language to wage a culture war, those who fight back can use the same language, for nobody owns a language. Those who deceive can be overthrown with logic, for nobody owns logic. But the tyrant of technology uses government-guaranteed technological secrets to include or exclude people, companies, even churches and other social institutions. Nobody owns numbers, nobody owns letters, nobody owns the laws of physics or the rules of mathematics. But tyrants can own protocols, they can own file formats, they can own interfaces, they can own filters. The virtual tyrants both now and in the future can control by using the laws they create, even if they can no longer leverage their strength to control by means of natural law.

Which, of course, is what makes the virtual tyrants so dangerous. They become both author and enforcer of virtual law. They become not only judge, jury, and executioner (as in the case of the UCITA law permitting remote disablement of software), but they also become investigator, traffic cop, and arresting officer. Laws like UCITA, as well as global intellectual-property regimes such as WTO and GATT, provide the virtual tyrant with the means to both establish and enforce virtual regimes upon legions of individuals and companies. People become customers of those whom they do not want to do business with. People become indebted to those from whom they never borrowed. People become employees of those whom they have never met. They are taught by those whom they do not believe, and are trained by those whom they do not wish to obey.

And all of this is done invisibly, behind the scenes, in the virtual world of software, and using the unobserved power of protocols and commands and dataflows.

Virtual tyrants can be disempowered only in a world where protocols, commands, and dataflows are as publicly-owned as numbers, letters, and rules of logic. The inner workings of software programs need not be open, but their interfaces with the outside world must eventually be as open as the deep blue ocean.

Most recent revision: October 30, 2000
Copyright © 2000, Tom Nadeau
All Rights Reserved.