Wikileaks, Craigslist and turning the Web analog

What was stupid a decade ago makes more sense to policy makers today, even if it is just as stupid in practical terms as it always was.

The efforts to turn off Wikileaks, tone down Craigslist and generally enforce meat space norms in cyberspace appears, on the surface, to be a lost cause.

But is it? (Picture from RichardBlumenthal.com.)

Back when the Web was spun, in the mid-1990s, everyone who was online had some knowledge. They knew how to get online, they knew why that was a good thing. Whether or not they were techies, they had some technical knowledge and curiosity.

I well remember my first Internet-era editor when he left to go back to TV-land. It was 1996, and he said he felt like a caveman coming in with a burning stick, filled with secret knowledge. "I've got fire!" he said.

Efforts by China, Iran, Saudi Arabia or even Australia to censor the Web were seen in light of this secret knowledge. Anyone with technical knowledge can get past such restrictions. Any effort to ban a market process acts as a tax, one that is less onorous as your knowledge of how to get around the ban grows.

These same Internet values are reflected in the open source movement. Links need to be free, access needs to be unlimited, for open source to maximize its potential. Worrying about the politics of contributors or users is a waste of brain cells.

On the Web no one knows you're a dog, or Khalid Sheikh Mohammed for that matter.

Over time, as a mass market phenomenon matures, knowledge becomes asymmetrical. My kids grew up online. Neither has any curiosity about how it all works.

In this wider world, bans become easier to enforce on much of the market. If you don't care about Apple's control of your iPhone, if you're not interested in jailbreaking your Android, you probably won't try jumping over the Great Firewall of China, either. (Or contributing to Mozilla.)

Law enforcement at all levels depends on this. Most people are law-abiding. We like driving on the right side of the road (or the left, if that's your local thing). We color inside the lines. We listen to what our governments say and get misty-eyed when we hear our national anthems. (I liked Colbie Caillat at the Saints game last night -- did you?)

In this environment crime (of all types) becomes a more elite activity. Make it difficult and most won't do it, the thinking goes. Never mind that pushing things into shadows makes them harder to track, harder to stop. That difficulty becomes a feature come budget time.

The result is that, increasingly, the Web is becoming analog. You can still go to 4chan, but most users don't know what that means.

This is the math of the mass market, and the Web is now the heart of the mass market, worldwide. What was stupid a decade ago makes more sense to policy makers today, even if it is just as stupid in practical terms as it always was.

Thus ambitious pols of all types rush to ban what they know will win them votes, and whether it makes sense -- even from the point of view of the ban's aim -- means nothing next to that political calculation.

Unless, of course, Linda McMahon wins that Senate seat. And maybe not even then.