T H E N E T W O R K O B S E R V E R
VOLUME 1, NUMBER 2 FEBRUARY 1994
This month: Issues management and telecommunications
Getting help on the net
The illegal trade in information
Information infrastructure debate in Canada
Welcome to TNO 1(2).
This issue includes an article by Leslie Regan Shade on the slow
start of debate on information infrastructure issues in Canada.
As with most other issues, Canadians have the risk of getting
American solutions (and American rhetoric, info highways and all)
spilling over the border by default, as well as the opportunity
to look at the American example critically and choose alternatives
that fit their own conception of themselves as a decent liberal
democracy. We'll see which way it goes. The good news is that
Canada's civic networking movement has gotten started. Indeed,
the civic networking movement the world over is starting to do
its networking in earnest now, and that's terrific. Will it be
Home Shopping Channel the whole planet wide? You can make the
difference by getting involved right now.
This issue also includes two more articles. One of them, which
was motivated by some positive comments on TNO 1(1)'s article
on political action alerts, is a tutorial on getting help on the
Internet by sending messages to mailing lists and news groups and
the like. This is a big issue right now because lots of schools
are teaching students how to do research using the net, and by
all indications some of these schools could use a little more of
a textbook on the subject. Perhaps my own notes will be of use
The other article is a somewhat hostile meditation on the illegal
trade in information. I personally feel that the crusade for
freedom and privacy in the digital age needs much better theories
of the actual threats to freedom and privacy. Images like "Big
Brother Is Watching You" really are not adequate, and better
images of both the problems and the potential solutions will be
a crucial part of the increasingly global campaign for democracy.
But first, this editorial note...
Issues and openness.
The collapse of the proposed merger between Bell Atlantic and
TCI demonstrates what critics have been saying all along: that
the merger was predicated on a business model that presupposes a
perpetuation of the anti-competitive practices that have made TCI
what it is. Let us give credit where it is due: to the massive
numbers of American citizens who got upset at their cable bills
and kept complaining until the FCC finally exercised some kind of
control over the practices, however slight.
We should consider ourselves lucky to have had such an obvious
reminder of the monopolistic practices that arise in poorly
regulated telecommunications industries. Activists who are
pursuing democratic models of telecommunications regulation
in the era of digital convergence should build on this success
by making everyone -- not just in Washington, and not just on
the net -- aware of the deeper issues. The cause of democracy
requires diversity, openness, and widespread access to
telecommunications. At a minimum this means the avoidance of
monopolies. But more fundamentally, it means common carrier
regulation and the associated technical standards, so that
everyone can produce content in all media as well as consuming
it. Is the future going to look like the Internet? Now is the
time when we, the people, make this choice.
As a practical-political matter this process requires, among
other things, that somebody throw some more light on the practices
of the would-be monopolists, the companies whose business models
are predicated on poorly regulated control of both carrier and
content. This is not the free market in operation. Rather, it's
large-scale "issues management" aimed at institutionalizing a set
of anti-competitive regulatory structures. Issues management is
the high-powered synthesis of lobbying, legal advocacy, public
relations, and the quasi-intellectual work of "think tanks".
(One manifestation of issues management is the recent round of
vague promises that unregulated telecommunications monopolies will
connect large numbers of schools to the info highway, with little
if any guarantees about the technical nature, economic terms,
and equity of distribution of these connections.) This process
is furthest along in Brussels, where a truly scary anti-democratic
system is being shaped under the guidance of Europe's largest
trans-national companies. Issues management is being practiced
at a high level of refinement in Washington as well, but the game
is much more fluid at this point, due precisely to what little
democracy is still operating in this country.
The cause of democracy would be greatly enhanced world-wide if
the practices of issue management were thoroughly exposed and
if clear, powerful metaphors for the process became as widespread
as Big Brother and the Panopticon. For basic information about
issues management see the following:
Robert L. Heath and Richard Alan Nelson, Issues Management:
Corporate Public Policymaking in an Information Society, Beverly
Hills, CA: Sage, 1986. An academic book summarizing the methods
of issues management as they existed in the mid-1980's.
William Greider, Who Will Tell the People: The Betrayal of
American Democracy, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992. A
critical journalistic account of issues management in practice
and the democratic resistance to it. His examples are drawn
from environmental controversies, but you can easily substitute
Here's the bottom line: if you want the future of digital
community-building to look like the Internet, you want the future
of telecommunications regulation to be organized on common carrier
principles. Do yourself a big favor this month: say the phrase
"common carrier" over and over until you start to like the sound
of it. Then get yourself going: agitate, educate, and organize.
Without you it just won't happen.
The art of getting help.
In the Risks Digest 15.57, Dan Yurman <firstname.lastname@example.org>
complained about a worrisome new net phenomenon, "the practice by
college students of using subject matter listservs as sources of
first resort for information they should be looking up in their
university library". He tells the tale of a college course in
which students were directed to do research for term papers on
environmental issues using messages posted to Listserv groups.
The result was a flood of basic questions being directed to a
group of specialists in ecology. His note is valuable in its
The basic problem, in Dan's view, was that "neither the TA nor the
students had any idea who was at the other end of the line. All
they saw was a computer that should be giving them answers." That
may well be true, but I would like to suggest that his tale raises
an issue of much broader importance: teaching students how to get
help -- both off the Internet and on it. My own experience as a
college teacher is that most students have little understanding of
how to get help. Many cannot seek help, for example by showing up
for a professor's office hours, without feeling as though they are
subordinating themselves to someone. The reasons for this feeling
might well be found in the workings of educational institutions.
My own issue here is what to do about it, and how the Internet
might (or might not) help.
We should start by telling ourselves three obvious things: (1)
that needing and getting help are normal parts of any project
that isn't totally spoon-fed, (2) that getting help is a skill,
and (3) that nobody is born with this skill. What are the basic
principles of getting help? They might all sound obvious to you,
but they're definitely not obvious to beginners -- maybe you can
store them where beginners can find them.
* Be able to explain your project. If you can't explain the
basic ideas and goals of your project in language that any given
person can understand, then back up and figure out what you're
trying to do.
* Know what your question is. Just because you feel like you
need help, that doesn't mean you know what it is you want. If you
need help formulating your question, *get* help with that first.
* Try the obvious sources first. Never ask a person, or at least
a person you don't know well, any questions until you've tried
the obvious references -- encyclopedias, almanacs, card catalogs,
phone books, and so forth. Failing to doing so regularly causes
* Make friends with a librarian. Librarians have chosen
to be librarians because they are dedicated to helping people
find information. If you're feeling uncertain about how to find
information, go to a library and ask questions. You'll get much
better and more patient answers than you'll ever get on the net.
If you don't know what to say, say this: "Hi. I'm working on a
project about X and I'm trying to find information about Y. Who
can help me figure out how to do this?"
* Ask the right person. Figure out whether your question is
basic or advanced, and don't ask an expert unless it's advanced.
It's okay to ask librarians how to find basic information.
* Provide some context. Unless your question is quite
straightforwardly factual in nature, it probably won't make sense
to anyone unless you explain something about your project first.
* Don't get hung up on the Internet. Think of the Internet as
simply one part of a larger ecology of information sources and
communication media. Don't look for your answer on the Internet
just because the Internet is fashionable or easy. The Internet,
at least as it stands today, is very good at some things and very
bad at other things.
* Do some homework. Let's say you *do* wish to get information
by sending a message to a discussion group (Listserv group,
Usenet news group, etc) on the net. If at all possible, subscribe
to that group for a little while first in order to get a sense
for it. How heavy is the load? How polite is the general tone
of interaction? Does the list maintainer have a FAQ (Frequently
Asked Questions) file available? (Do you figure your question
might be frequently asked?)
* Take some care. Keep in mind that the people aren't obligated
to help you; they're busy and have lives just like you. So don't
just dash off a brief note. Write in complete sentences and
check your spelling. Avoid idioms that people in other countries
might not understand. Don't attempt any ironic humor; it doesn't
travel well in e-mail. Start out by introducing yourself in a
sentence or two. And wrap up with a polite formula such as "Any
suggestions would be much appreciated."
* Make yourself useful. If your question might be of general
interest, offer to assemble the answers you receive and pass them
along to whoever else is interested. You might even consider
maintaining a file of useful information on the subject and
advertising its availability to others in your situation.
* Ask who to ask. Consider including a statement such as, "If
nobody knows the answer, perhaps you can tell me who else might
know it." Indeed, it's often a good idea to formulate your
question this way in the first place. That is, instead of "Can
anybody tell me X?", try "Can anybody tell me how to find out X?"
* Use the Reply-To: field. Keep in mind that e-mail discussion
groups are often destroyed by too much random chatter. You can
help minimize the amount of random chatter that your request
generates by including a Reply-To: field in the header of your
message, indicating that replies should be directed to your own
e-mail address and not to the whole group.
* Sign the message. Include your name and e-mail address in the
message, in case it isn't obvious from the header.
* Say thank you. Send a brief message of thanks to each person
who replies constructively to your request. Do not simply include
a generic "Thank you in advance" in your request -- you risk
making the net more impersonal.
* Let it take time. You won't necessarily get an answer right
away. You won't necessarily get an answer at all. It might take
a while before you learn how to use the net. That's life.
The economics of information crimes.
Recently a hoax has been circulating the Internet, a fake ad for
a company called BlackNet that uses cryptography to anonymously
match buyers and sellers for illegal transfers of information.
It's not really that great a joke, but at least it should set us
thinking about how the illicit trade in information is actually
organized. This trade certainly exists. Although it is obviously
secretive, many instances of it have been documented by privacy
activists and others.
We might inquire into the nature of this trade in many ways, but
I propose to sketch an economic theory of illegal information
exchange. Why? In these free market times, if neoclassical
economics is going to be made to explain family life and campaign
contributions then surely it should be made to explain crime
as well. Fraud, extortion, violations of personal privacy and
intellectual property rights, extrajudicial executions, and other
criminal activities surely obey the laws of the market just as
To my knowledge, which is of course necessarily limited,
the market in illicit information is structured in a pretty
conventional way. There are roughly two market structures.
One of them is highly decentralized and depends on very specific
knowledge about what information is likely to be useful to
whom (that is, knowledge about the economic uses of specific
categories of knowledge); it thus depends heavily on particular
professional relationships. In particular, it has little use for
cryptography since all the hiding goes on in the specificity of
The other kind is more of a mass-market phenomenon, and more
closely resembles the conventional image of a market, with
well-defined commodities and sharp competition among suppliers.
This sector of the market trades primarily in highly standardized
personal information, and operates through a wide variety of
what marketing people call "grey channels", distribution channels
other than those the marketing organization intends.
(An example would be the widespread practice in packaged-goods
arbitrage; if Safeway holds a sale on toothpaste in San Francisco
and not in Los Angeles, or if Procter and Gamble discounts
wholesale toothpaste in San Francisco and not in Los Angeles for
competitive or promotional reasons, then someone will buy crates
of toothpaste in San Francisco and ship them to Los Angeles.)
Aside from these two market structures, and interacting to some
extent with them, are the very widespread and deeply rooted
informal networks of non-market information-sharing, for example
between the police and utility companies. Money usually does
not change hands, though no doubt it is worth understanding
these informal patterns of reciprocal assistance in economic
terms as well. As with most favor-sharing networks, the process
is thoroughly decentralized (although some organizations offer
specific training in how to participate in them).
One distinctive feature of the market in illicit information is
that the principal cost is not the stolen item, which after all
is not normally discovered to be missing, but rather the risk of
getting caught. Unfortunately that risk is usually pretty small,
although the cost associated with getting caught can be large if
civil liability is clearly defined or if professional reputations
are at stake -- not normally the case with mass-market personal
information, which is typically handled by low-paid clerical
But the really important thing about the illegal information
market is that it is so similar to the *legal* information
market. It has much the same structure, although advertising
and other market-making institutions don't work the same way.
The similarity is particular striking at the commodity end of the
market -- the market in personal information. In practice there
is one huge industry, all of which depends on the same basically
immoral device: taking information that you left behind somewhere,
for some specific purpose, and diverting it to an unlimited
variety of other purposes. The status of this diversion is,
unfortunately, not very well defined at all, either under common
law or the statutes of most countries -- particularly the United
States. The line between legal and illegal information selling
is thoroughly vague, enforcement is minimal, public awareness is
inchoate, obfuscation is rampant, and the economic incentives to
collect information and to deceive people about its intended uses
The next question is what can be done about this dire situation.
For some possible answers, look out for future issues of TNO.
What's happening up north, eh?
Leslie Regan Shade
Graduate Program in Communications
One of the difficulties and risks academics face in writing
about current developments in technology--particularly networking
technology-- is that by the time the articles go through the
typical blind referred mill, which averages somewhere between 6-12
months before actual publication, some of the information in the
articles might be painfully out of date.
For instance, in my recently published article, "Computer
Networking in Canada: from CA*net to CANARIE", (_Canadian Journal
of Communication_, vol. 19, 1994, p. 53-69), I wrote:
"So far, there has been little public discussion and debate
on CANARIE, aside from those in the academic, industrial, and
government sectors. For instance, the media might mention in
passing the need to create an 'electronic superhighway' but
CANARIE has not become a household name" [p.60].
(CANARIE--the Canadian Research Network for the Advancement of
Research, Industry, and Education--is essentially the Canadian
archetype of the NREN).
Well, since these words were written last April, the hyperbole
surrounding the "information super-highway" has certainly hit
Canada. No, CANARIE is not yet a household name, but it has
been mentioned in the media more in the last month than in the
whole of last year. And, our new Premier, Jean Chretien, in his
Throne Speech, mentioned briefly the need to upgrade the existing
An apropos-to-our-current-weather (coldest January in about 50
years) cartoon, reprinted from the Palm Beach Post by Don Wright
(_Globe and Mail_, February 3): snowy landscape, buried car,
voices in house say: "Another ferocious blizzard! No power!
No phone! No TV! No computer! We're totally cut off from
the information superhighway!" Another voice says: "Isn't it
Is this why Le Groupe Videotron Ltee. of Montreal thinks their
newest venture will be a hit here? They recently announced a
partnership with 6 companies, including Canada Post, Hydro Quebec,
Loto-Quebec, the National Bank of Canada, and Hearst Corp., to
build a $750-million interactive network in Quebec, whose purpose
will be to bring home shopping and banking, purchase of lottery
tickets, and payment of bills, to over 34,000 coach potatoes by
1995. It is true that Quebecers suffer from long, cold winters.
Just think: we can comfortably sit at home programming our TV to
feature a myriad of different camera angles of our favorite hockey
teams, while using up more hydro, whose bills we can pay directly
through tthe TV, and--we can hope to win millions playing the
lottery so that we can move to warmer and sunnier climes...
The ghosts of Telidon and Alex (Bell Canada's defunct videotext
system), loom largely as I ponder Videotron's strategy.
None of the editorials and articles I've read in the Canadian
media exude any real confidence that the 500-Channel Universe is
a Great Thing. Most are skeptical. And remember, many Canadians
are concerned about maintaining Canadian content. Jack Valenti
doesn't exactly inspire the Red Carpet Treatment in some circles
This week's 2-day conference in Toronto, "The Information
Superhighway: Powering Up North America", brought together all
the Big Names and Heavy Shakers (the "great minds") that will
purportedly fashion the highway. Like many others, I was not
able to attend the conference--yes, the $995.00 plus GST fee was
slightly steep for me this month. However, I got a good, free
sampling of what the conference was about--"Futurescape: Canada's
Information Highway", was a 12-page advertising supplement to the
_Globe and Mail_, January 26. It was put out by the Information
Technology Association of Canada (ITAC).
The Great Minds included the U.S. presidents of Bell Atlantic,
Oracle, Sprint, and Thinking Machines; the heads of Canadian
firms such as Unitel, Newbridge, Rogers Cable; some MIT
folks--Negroponte and Russell Neuman; Vint Cerf (typo'ed as
"President, Internet"), and various and sundry such as Bob Rae,
Premier of Ontario.
ITAC President and CEO Janice Moyer was quoted as saying that
the target audience for the conference "reflects the diversity
of interests that will be affected by the Information Highway:
enterprise leaders; corporate alliance and change planners;
competition catalysers; information managers; policy makers;
senior managers; telecommunications executives; and marketers."
Indeed, Geoffrey Rowan, reporting on the conference in the
February 2nd _Globe and Mail_, wrote: "[The conference] sounded
more like a sales pitch than the visionary big thinking it was
advertised to be".
Whither the public?
In my aforementioned article, I concluded by saying: "It
would appear that, to date, however, CANARIE has borrowed
only the technical spirit, and not the social or legal tone,
of its counterpart, the NREN. The lively debate in the U.S. now
regarding access and policy issues should galvanize Canadians
to consider how they will address such important and fundamental
issues. What are the implications of a predominantly privately
owned network? Will this increase the commercialization of
networking resources? Will Canada's heterogeneous networking
community, including K-12 schools, non-profit organizations,
freenets, local BBSs, and public libraries have access to CANARIE
resources, or will networking still remain within the prevailing
provenance of academic and industry?" [p.68]
On the second day of the "Powering Up" conference, Jon Gerrard,
Secretary of State for Science, Research, and Development,
announced that Ottawa will strive to implement policies to address
issues such as job creation; cultural sovereignty and cultural
identity; and universal access at a universal cost. He also
mentioned the success of efforts such as civic freenets and
educational networks such as SchoolNet.
But, the Canadian public is still not as organized as our Southern
neighbors. We don't have the equivalent to the EFF or CPSR here.
There are some small beginnings, though:
*The Coalition for Public Information, an initiative of the
Ontario Library Association, is a new group whose aims are to
"ensure that the developing information infrastructure in Canada
serves the public interest, focuses on human communication, and
provides universal access to information". The Coalition plans to
build a broad coalition of public interest groups.
*Prime Minister Jean Chretien isn't online yet, but the Premier
of New Brunswick, Frank McKenna, is. You can contact him at
email@example.com. Also, New Brunswick has appointed the first
provincial minister responsible for the Information Highway.
*The free-net movement in Canada is burgeoning. The National
Capital FreeNet (NCF) in Ottawa has been officially up for
just a year, yet already has more than 12,000 members and over
100 national, provincial, regional, and local organizations
participating. (Telnet to freenet.carleton.ca). Freenets
in Victoria and Trail, B.C. are up; and 16 other organizing
committees are in the works. The Toronto and Vancouver freenets
are hoping to open up this spring. A national organization (akin
to the NPTN) is in progress.
Future issues of TNO will feature more detailed examples of
Canadian initiatives in public networking.
Here's an excerpt from the CPSR publication CPSR Alert 3.04, sent
out by Dave Banisar <firstname.lastname@example.org>:
The Defense Department reportedly plans to employ the Clipper
technology in a device known as a "Tessera Card." We checked the
dictionary and found the results to be kind of frightening:
Terrerea n. Lat. (pl. tessereae). Literally, "four-cornered".
Used to refer to four-legged tables, chairs, stools, etc.
Also, a single piece of mosaic tile; a single piece of a mosaic.
_Pol._: An identity chit or marker. Tessereae were forced on
conquered peoples and domestic slaves by their Roman occupiers
or owners. Slaves or Gauls who refused to accept a tesserea
were branded or maimed as a form of identification.
From Starr's History of the Classical World and the Oxford
Unabridged. (thanks to Clark Matthews)
This month's recommendations.
John Walton, Western Times and Water Wars: State, Culture, and
Rebellion in California, Berkeley: University of California Press,
1992. A history of fights over water resources in Owens Valley in
eastern California. The city of Los Angeles took over the water
through dirty politics in the 1920's, and the citizens of Owens
Valley have been fighting back ever since -- particularly during
the 1980's, when they won a lot of the water back by appealing
to environmental laws. Walton's book makes two contributions:
first, a detailed and compelling picture of the early West that
has little or nothing to do with the classical John Wayne picture
of individualism; and second, a longitudinal study of collective
action and its cultural background. The people of Owens Valley
understood their situation in particular ways in each decade;
this cultural understanding can be explained historically, and it
in turn helps explain what the people did and why it succeeded or
Ralph H. Kilmann, Mary J. Saxton, and Roy Serpa, eds, Gaining
Control of the Corporate Culture, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass,
1986. This is a truly scary anthology of articles about how
managers can evaluate and intervene in the "corporate cultures"
underneath them. Nothing's wrong with a little harmless morale
boosting, of course, but these folks are particularly disturbed
when workers decide that something is down-deep wrong with the
system and start doing something about it. I most particularly
recommend Vijay Sathe's chilling article, "How to decipher and
change corporate culture". Stalin and his ilk have established
our stereotypes of the "engineers of human souls", but they can't
hold a candle to the forces of the market.
William A. Smalley, Chia Koua Vang, and Gnia Yee Yang, Mother of
Writing: The Origin and Development of a Hmong Messianic Script,
Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1990. A perfectly
wonderful work of linguistic anthropology about a fellow named
Shong Lue Yang, an uneducated Hmong who invented a linguistically
sophisticated alphabet in the late 1950s and led a messianic cult
in the midst of a massive civil war for about fifteen years before
he was killed by the Hmong military establishment. A couple
chapters of the book are the believers' stories about Shong Lue,
told by the second and third authors who are two of his main
followers. Smalley then retells some history and then dissects
the writing system. He concludes that the writing system was
not influenced in any significant way by other writing systems
and that Shong Lue really did come up with it himself. The most
interesting linguistic idea is that an alphabet reflects a folk
phonology; alphabets are arranged into a hierarchy depending on
the detail to which they embody a theory of the phonology of the
Dolores Hayden, Redesigning the American Dream: The Future
of Housing, Work, and Family Life, New York: Norton, 1984.
A fascinating and thoroughly original feminist history and
critique of the American postwar suburbs. The book starts with
a vignette of a WWII-era town built for women who were working in
a ship-building plant, where the entire town was designed around
the coordination of work and child-care. The suburb, of course,
is based on different gendered images of family life, based on
the premise of a man's "family wage". Many of the planned suburbs
were flagrantly racist, abetted by FHA policies. Hayden discusses
many largely forgotten alternative traditions and images of
housing, for example in the temperance movement. Many progressive
housing movements just addressed distributing the housing rather
than the basic assumptions underlying it. To rethink housing, she
argues, you have to rethink both private and public life.
Company of the month.
This month's company is
R R Donnelley Information Services
77 West Wacker Drive
Chicago, Illinois 60601-8000
+1 (312) 326-8000
R R Donnelley is the world's largest printing company. Many in
the United States might be familiar with RRD's phone book, "The
Donnelley Directory". Telephone books involve large amounts
of personal information and large amounts of printing. And R R
Donnelley's business is in the intersection of those two concerns.
What else requires large amounts of both personal information
and printing? Direct mail, of course. One of RRD's businesses
is Metromail, which offers targeted marketing services to a wide
range of business customers. RRD's literature presents a truly
amazing variety of scenarios for information-intensive targeted
marketing, including both customized analysis of customer data
and customized preparation and printing of direct mail items.
RRD is the going to play a big role in the future evolution
of computerized marketing, and I encourage you to find out more
about them. I am NOT, however, recommending that you harass them.
Don't request the brochures on Metromail and RRD's other services
unless you are genuinely interested in reading them. Thanks.
Jonathan Hardwick <email@example.com> tells me that David Chapman's
"How to Do Research at the MIT AI Lab", mentioned in TNO 1(1), is
available on the WWW. He says, "Just feed the URL
to your favorite WWW client (e.g. Mosaic)." Check it out.
Phil Agre, editor firstname.lastname@example.org
Department of Information Studies
University of California, Los Angeles +1 (310) 825-7154
Los Angeles, California 90095-1520 FAX 206-4460
Copyright 1994 by the editor. You may forward this issue of The
Network Observer electronically to anyone for any non-commercial
purpose. Comments and suggestions are always appreciated.
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