I helped write the rules for the internet in the 1990s: This is what we missed


For most of the 90s, I managed global internet public policies for IBM, worked with a fairly small group of early-stage internet policy wonks and helped create many of the basic rules that still govern the internet today. We missed a lot — a lot that turns out to have been important.

Beginning in 1994, 25 years ago, most of the principles and basic rules that govern the internet today came together in Washington, and by the end of the 90s, they were mostly established. The world was a very different place than it is today: Around 25 million people used the internet (up from 14 million the year before); there were about 3,000 websites (up from a few hundred the year before); “Forest Gump” and “Pulp Fiction” were the top movies; computer bulletin boards were still mildly popular, and the big three online service providers were AOL, Prodigy and CompuServe. And, oh yeah, Mark Zuckerberg was in junior high school, Jeff Bezos was working for a New York City hedge fund, and Larry Page was an undergrad at the University of Michigan.

Against this background, a small number of Washington insiders began to formulate the ideas that soon led to major laws and regulations that have determined to this day that the internet is fundamentally different from broadcasting, publishing, cable TV, telephony and even private computer networks. IBM was a key player in this effort for two reasons: It was considered “the adult in the room” since most key policy-makers had barely — if ever — heard of AOL, UUNet, Netscape, Netcom, etc., and because the company had a global reach, so it uniquely was able to advance the internet policy principles developed in Washington to governments around the world.

Internet policy-making in those early days was not driven by scholars, law review articles, extensive hearings or international conferences. It was driven by the practical concerns of businesses and the input of a very few NGOs. The result was a patchwork of Federal preemptions of the states and several new legal concepts for the internet in such areas as civil liability, intellectual property, transmission regulations, privacy and others. By the end of the 1990s, due to the effort of players like IBM, these internet policies were pretty much accepted by all major countries and — within a decade — by nearly all countries. Most of the internet giants today assert that these 1990s policy principles were wise and are essential to the internet’s survival.

But we missed a lot, as you would expect for any group of Beltway policy wonks working to quickly solve problems as they became known for a new medium that was really quite different from almost everything in place at the time. Here are a few of the biggest things we missed:

The internet as a major domain for war — Although the internet had its origins as an American war-fighting tool, no one imagined that it would evolve into a principal theater for warfare among national militaries and violent non-governmental groups. The medium’s openness and global reach were anticipated, but not the obvious consequence that national intelligence and military organizations, much less extremist groups, would take advantage of these features in order to use the internet for espionage and war. By the end of the 90s, the U.S. Intelligence Community realized that they were sitting on a U.S. internet goose that was laying golden eggs, and after 9/11, all restraints on the internet as a domain of warfare disappeared.

The evolution of a small number of internet giants — Most of the Americans involved in early internet policy-making (there were no non-Americans) expected a huge growth of web-based services appealing to discreet market niches. To navigate this forest of small websites, one would need a guide, which would probably be keyword-based search engines (early Yahoo, Alta Vista, Northern Lights, etc.) or modern day versions of word of mouth. Few, if any, foresaw the emergence of enormous, internet-based businesses that would globally aggregate the common interests of billions of people… probably because we (mistakenly) saw more differences than commonalities among the then 5.7 billion people of Earth and failed to see how billions of people could join together.

The disappearance of Online Service Providers (OSPs) — It’s often forgotten that through the mid-90s, proprietary, normally subscription-based, OSPs dominated the field of publicly-accessible computer-based networks. Services like (IBM’s/Sear’s) Prodigy, France Telecom’s Minitel, America Online, CompuServe, as well as numerous computer bulletin boards and other dial-up services provided consumer computer services. Most experts believed that these private networks would continue to grow as computer technology matured and would exist alongside the open, internet. Sometimes called “walled gardens,” OSPs had the benefit of being tightly-controlled by their operators and thus able to offer security and content controls that were difficult or impossible on the open internet. Because OSPs were controlled by their operators, they offered an alternative policy environment, which today does not much exist.

The use of the internet to create billions of individual market profiles — The dream of creating a “market of one” in which a marketer knows enough about each individual to design a comprehensive marketing campaign customized for that person had been around for a long time (if you bought something by mail order, you could always expect to be solicited for similar things in the future) but no one could ever figure out how to make a personal profile truly comprehensive short of polling every single person. The ability to create comprehensive digital profiles of hundreds of millions of consumers needed the convergence of the internet and advanced computer processing, which emerged around the end of the 1990s and can be found everywhere today. This has changed everything.

We missed quite a bit more. 

No one foresaw the near disappearance of travel agents, bicycle messenger services, book stores, CDs, classified advertising, postal letters, and much more. But as much as we missed, through luck or prescience, we got a lot right.

Roger Cochetti provides consulting and advisory services in Washington, D.C.  He directed internet public policy for IBM from 1994 through 2000 and later served as Senior Vice-President & Chief Policy Officer for VeriSign and Group Policy Director for CompTIA. He served on the State Department’s Advisory Committee on International Communications and Information Policy during the Bush and Obama administrations, has testified on internet policy issues numerous times and served on advisory committees to the FTC and various UN agencies.

Tags AOL Big tech CompuServe Computing Information and communications technology Internet Jeff Bezos Mark Zuckerberg Netscape

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