One of the Internet’s pioneers says he was inspired by his research into the Homestead Act of 1862

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tags: Internet, Homestead Act, Yochai Bencher

Thumbnail Image - "First Web Server" by Coolcaesar at the English language Wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.

David Clark’s office on the MIT campus is at the top of a tower that looks like a twisted aluminum column. The name plate next to his office door reads “Albus Dumbledore.” And, like the leader of Harry Potter’s wizarding world, Clark knows the Internet’s secrets from the beginning.

“We clearly couldn’t anticipate how big it was going to be,” Clark said.  “Whenever I go back and read things that I wrote or others in the group wrote about planning for the future we consistently underestimated what was going to happen. “

Clark, and Harvard professor Yochai Benkler, one of the legal experts that shaped the Internet’s development, have issued a warning in joint papers published in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ magazine, Daedalus. More than three decades after the worldwide communications network was born, Clark and Benkler say they’re deeply concerned that the Internet is headed in a dangerous direction that its founders never intended.

Looking back, Clark wonders if he and other founders should have left behind guidance on how the Internet should grow up.

“Not constraints, not rules, but guidance, advice – like, ‘don’t be stupid,’” he said.

As it is, Clark thinks the Internet has fallen in with a bad crowd, to some extent. Most people now access the Internet through one of its corporate friends – like Google, Facebook, and Apple. As gatekeepers, those companies hold the power – information about our daily lives that helps them sell us things.

Clark said people need to remember he and others built the Internet so no one would need a gatekeeper. It was supposed to be an idealistic society of equals, where every user had the same amount of power.

“One of the most exhilarating observations of the first decade or two of the public Internet was that things that were impossible, became possible,” said Benkler, who  started studying the Internet in the early 1990s.

Back then, Benkler was thrilled by the way it overturned old power structures, like broadcast media. On the Internet, anyone could send an email or post a video without asking permission. At the time, Benkler was across town from Clark, studying property law as a student at Harvard.

“I was working on the homestead act of 1862,” he said. “Seriously!”

Benkler realized the Internet was like a new Louisiana Purchase – a huge amount of new property suddenly open for adventurous homesteaders to stake a claim.

So he switched tracks. Using the Homestead Act as a guide, Benkler helped create a legal framework that protected the Internet from being gobbled up and claimed by corporations. ...

Read entire article at WGBH

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