Monday, 17 November, 2003

Barriers to entry

The cool thing about the Internet is that there's essentially no barrier to entry.  All one needs is a computer and a phone line, or access to a computer that has a connection.  With computers well under $500, and access at less than $10 per month, almost anybody can afford a connection.  And many who can't afford their own connections can get access through the public libraries or other community outlets.

The essentially free nature of the  Internet is also its greatest drawback.  There's no barrier to entry.  Anybody can log on, send mail, and post messages to Usenet groups and Web sites that allow user comments.  Everybody has equal opportunity to be heard in public forums.  Almost.  Unfortunately, not everybody is worth listening to, and many log on with the apparent sole purpose of causing trouble.  Since there's no regulatory body, these trouble makers can do their thing with relative impunity.  It's pretty tough to prevent  somebody causing trouble:  spamming email or Usenet groups, packet floods, hijacking machines, and generally being a nuisance.  Those of us who actually use the Internet are mostly powerless to prevent this behavior.

CB radio is almost as bad.  Anybody can buy a CB radio for under $50, and get on the air immediately.  It's a real free-for-all out there on those bands.  Most CB operators don't know the rules, and wouldn't know who to contact if they wanted to report violations.  The FCC will step in in extreme cases, but they usually have more important fish to fry when it comes to minor infractions.  I think the only thing that stops CB from being a complete zoo is that teenagers can't sit in the house and operate Dad's CB without Dad's knowledge.

Contrast the above with amateur ("ham") radio, which is largely self-policing.  Getting a ham license has never been easier.  Just take a 35-question test that covers FCC regulations and some basic electronic theory and you're licensed.  Inexpensive radios can be had for not much more than a CB radio, and you're on the air.  Passing the test is simple.  You can get a study guide from the American Radio Relay League (ARRL) for $20 that contains all of the test questions and very clear explanations of the rules and theory.  Any reasonably bright individual could study for and pass the exam within a week.  Still, it's that small barrier to entry—the licensing requirement—that keeps a lot of people away from the hobby.  And any troublemakers who survive the entry requirements are usually tracked down by other hams or the FCC and taken off the air pretty quickly.  The FCC has no sense of humor.  Hams report violations to the FCC so that we can keep our operating privileges.

Conclusions?  None, really.  I'm not advocating licensing Internet users and imposing penalties for infractions.  It's just disappointing that people have to be threatened with fines and imprisonment because they're not smart enough to be more considerate when using a shared resource.