Part Three

Doing Business Online

Cyberspace is one revolution we can be confident of, since it has already happened. An earlier chapter discussed implications for privacy. This section deals with how to do business in a world in which physical location and physical identity are becoming increasingly irrelevant. The issues are connected, since tools for doing business in cyberspace may also provide ways of maintaining control over personal information while doing so.

We start, in Chapter VI, with the problem of how to pay for things. One possible answer is anonymous ecash–money that can be passed from one computer to another by sending messages, with no need to transmit anything physical. Such a system has the potential to provide, among other things, a simple solution to the irritation of spam email. It also makes some current law enforcement strategies, notably the attempt to enforce laws by monitoring and controlling the flow of money, unworkable. And it raises the interesting possibility of a future of private currencies competing with each other and with government moneys in both cyberspace and realspace.

Chapter VII considers a different problem–enforcing contracts online. Online interactions are, in a sense, entirely voluntary; you (or your computer) can be tricked into doing something you do not want to but you cannot be forced to do something you do not want to, since you are the one with physical control over your computer. In the worst case you can always pull the plug. In an entirely voluntary world, most legal issues can be reduced to contract law. As enforcement of online contracts through the court system becomes increasingly difficult it may be in large part replaced by private alternatives based on reputational sanctions.

We consider next property–intellectual property. A world of easy and inexpensive copying and communication is a world where enforcing copyright is extraordinarily difficult. Are there other, perhaps better, ways to give creators control over what they create? That brings us to the recent and increasingly controversial issue of technological protection of intellectual property–the online equivalent of the barbed wire fences whose invention revolutionized western agriculture. It also brings us back to the possibility of treating personal information as private property, protected not by law but by technology.

The final chapter of this section deals with ways in which the new technologies, by greatly reducing the cost of communication and information, can change how we organize our lives. One interesting and attractive possibility is a shift away from formal organizations such as corporations and universities towards more decentralized models, such as networks of amateur scholars and open source programmers.