Government regulation of the Internet is an exercise in futility, says US guru


Thursday, 3 June, 1999

The Federal Government's attempt to regulate Internet content was "futile" with centralised control of the Net unlikely to work, according to a visiting United States Internet guru.

Professor Hal Varian, who is the Dean of the School of Information Management Systems at the University of California (Berkley), told the National Press Club yesterday that it was hard to manage rapidly changing Internet technology.

"I think there is certainly a component of futility because information is very hard to manage and can slip through the smallest crack," Professor Varian said.

He said that there was a dual problem of either having too much or too little access to the Internet.

He cited content filtering technologies for schools, which filtered out discussions on breast cancer, as an example of how attempts to block content might result in restricting access to important information.

"The problem is always going to be how much of a judgment do you have to rely on and how much is it going to cost to work around the existing system," Professor Varian said.

The Federal Government's legislation to regulate Internet content was passed by the Senate last week, with the support of Independent Senator Brian Harradine, amid concern by the information technology industry that the rules would be ineffective and a burden on Internet service providers.

The Government's regulation system would involve a complaints-based mechanism to the Australian Broadcasting Authority and industry self-regulation.

Professor Varian said that the role of government should be to establish legal standards, such as legislation on digital signatures, to facilitate the take-up of information technology and not to try and control technology standards.

Centralised regulation, like standards for movies or television, would not work with the Internet.

"I think what you want to do is to avoid a one-size-fits-all model and look for a more flexible means of labelling that can allow people to choose the kind of copy management that fits their needs," Professor Varian said.

"It is quite possible to have a variety of labelling authorities that say we're in the business of rating content. And then you, the user, can choose whatever authority is useful for your interests."

Professor Varian, who recently co-wrote Information Rules: A Strategic Guide to the Network Economy, said that while the information age involved new technology, the economic models used to understand it were already established.

"Our view about the new economy is not new. Perhaps more accurately the economy is new, the technology is new, but the economics you need to understand it is something that we've known for some time," he said.

"We argue you should seek models, not trends, and develop concepts, not buzz words. And create analysis not analogies because it is the models, concepts and analysis you need to gain true insight."