• The new sociability
  • The Internet: a new information economy?




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    The evolution of copyright


    When a demand for information products has been generated, it is necessary to secure the potential customers’ willingness to pay and to avoid the free rider problem, which duplication of information would represent. Copyright rules28 and technical solutions involving the marking of content would make it possible to sell and buy information on digital networks. However, the Internet is currently challenging the very idea of intellectual property rights: copyright rules go against what is common practice amongst Web surfers, who make free use of content and recompose it to create something new. As has been seen, copyright rules are inconsistent with Internet ideology. It is appropriate, therefore, to examine how copyright might evolve on the Internet.

    The exploitation of information products without copyright-type protection could be imagined:



    • either on the basis of secondary products, when these are not purely information based (i.e. products for which the costs of duplication and distribution are high). Admittedly, this strategy is already in use but is still based on copyright: an appreciable proportion of income from a movie now comes from the sale of merchandise linked in one way or another to this movie (for example books);

    • or, since the value of information lies in the means which publicize its existence and enable it to be found, the exploitation of information products could be achieved by charging for search engine services, by subscription or usage based tariff. An economically rational evolution of this type is, nevertheless, unlikely in the current context - search engines have always been provided free of charge because they are necessary to the Web’s growth, just like a directory is necessary for the use of a telephone network.

    Charging for information products can also be conceived upstream, at the very level of the community from which the demand originates. This would involve paying to take part in a structured group of potential consumers; thus the Web surfer would pay for the fact that it was by participating in this group that he became aware of the product in question, that he was lead to appreciate it and that he could enjoy talking about it. This type of payment may consist at least partially of work and shared expertise (such as the development of software in the case of freewares).

    In this way, the development of Web sites on the Internet would undoubtedly give rise to an evolution in the rules which protect content. It is possible, for example, to draw the following sketch of such an evolution:


    • an initial, chaotic phase, in which the unrefined application of existing copyright rules to services available on the Internet would demonstrate the unsuitability of this type of regulation for digital networks;

    • an intermediate phase, during which intellectual property rights will be adapted to the network or even suspended. The willingness to pay created on the Internet will be collected through secondary product - even if a book is available in extenso on the network, it may be advantageous to buy it in book shops (sale price is lower than the cost of printing locally and the item is easier to handle);

    • an advanced phase, characterized by a displacement of copyright rules from content towards the customers themselves. Property rights in information would then be replaced by fair-competition rules adapted to network communities. In particular, rights and constraints regarding links between sites should be analyzed from an economic and legal standpoint: the essential resource on the Internet lies in the displacement of web surfers over the hypertext graph offered to them.

    The new sociability


    Sociability and the regulation of social relationships are somewhat altered by the spread of the Internet: the way in which such relationships are initiated and evolve and the social rituals which keep them active or which possibly prohibit them have no counterparts on the network. It took several decades for the telephone to become socially accepted and, even today, rituals in France are very different from what they are in North America. A fairly long period might be necessary for laws and social regulations to take this new medium into account.

    The principal problems which will arise and which could potentially halt the development of Web sites are principally the following: (i) the protection of privacy, (ii) the convergence between public and private spheres, and (iii) the regulation of promiscuity.

    (i) Nowadays, private life is less protected by the law than by the difficulties and the cost involved in gathering name-specific information and by the little profit generated from their exploitation. Things are changing with the Internet. It is in everyone’s interest that the greatest number of variables should be collected concerning each web surfer, since this is a prerequisite for effective intermediation. However, this is true only if everyone can be certain that the variables collected about him or her will not be used for inappropriate purposes. This type of information could be collected on line at very low cost and the ways in which this type of data are processed have become very efficient (data mining). Although rules such as these, which are issued in France by the CNIL to protect privacy, are difficult to apply to the Internet because they would limit its development, possible improper use of personal data is currently a cause for concern to web surfers, who can only rely on the mere pledge of the site managers regarding the non-publication of their profile. It would be difficult, however, to find a legal solution to this problem, given the extraterritorial nature of Internet and the ease with which information can be exchanged. A more liberal response is possible, based on the reputation of certain major players. It takes time to build up such reputations and this type of solution further promotes the tendency for dominant situations or de facto monopolies to be set up.

    (ii) The difficulty involved in defining the public or private status of exchanges on the network has been highlighted by discussion on copyright rules and on the control over potentially offensive materials. Although it may appear perfectly obvious that e-mail comes under private correspondence and Web pages are similar to mass media, actual practice on the network shows that the mass sending-out of e-mail is more akin to the circulation of information than a personal homepage ultimately seen by a very small group of friends and acquaintances. Alongside the conventional mass media, Internet has invented a composite media, which is neither public nor private. This double nature of Internet is linked to the question of property rights on information - information belongs to the person who finds it and it is more or less public in nature depending on how difficult it is to find it. A situation of this type amounts to a kind of gap in the law (or, rather, to an overflow). The regulations which currently apply to the mass media are too stringent to be applied to Internet content, but strict observance of the confidentiality of private communications if applied to certain frequently visited sites could lead to dangerous demeanor (i.e. publication of questionable information).

    (iii) Finally, the spread of the Internet increases social promiscuity, i.e. it multiplies opportunities for contact and exchange and extends the potential field of such contacts. This is undoubtedly an evolution similar to that experienced, by those who, accustomed to the social regulations of the villages, settled in extended urban areas, which gives rise to both social and political problems.

    At a social level, fragile populations which are poorly informed or unfamiliar with the new media should be granted some degree of protection. Apart from the protection for children, a subject widely discussed, it would be appropriate to ensure that digital networks will not bring about new forms of fraud and robbery. Beyond the protection offered by the law and the police (with the restrictions coming from the extension of the network over a number of different countries), new rules concerning social interaction will have to be learnt and incorporated into the lifestyles.

    At a political level, States have always monitored associations and communities, they have supervised the creation and financing of such entities and have often even banned certain organizations with a view to maintaining political stability. Within the myriad consumer communities on the Web, more subversive organizations may prosper, concealed within the expanding whole. The Internet once again raises the issue of the balance to be struck between individual freedom (requiring, for example, that everyone should be able to use an unbreakable cipher code) and State control, which is rendered more difficult as the network goes beyond the borders of sovereign States.

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    The Internet: a new information economy?

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